Time and time again, media outlets conjure images of Arab women who need saving and empowering via the education and development initiatives of the Western world and international organisations such as the World Bank and the United Nations. Fida Adely’s close-focus examination of the education of young women in the Middle East moves away from such generalisations and stereotypes, and instead thoughtfully analyses the nuances and complexities of the everyday lives of a group of young women at al-Khatwa Secondary School for Girls in Bawadi al-Naseem, Jordan. This result is a breath of fresh air in an area dominated by sweeping terminology and homogeneity in descriptions of women in the Arab world. I found Gendered Paradoxes an exciting addition to a limited body of literature and one that is sure to shift perceptions of women’s schooling in the region.
Adely opens the book with a consideration of a 2005 World Bank report on Jordan that called the state a “gender paradox” because education levels for women are high but their participation in the labour force is low, and concludes by showing the stark difference between the findings of the UN Development Programme’s Arab Human Development Report 2005 and her experiences during her time researching at al-Khatwa. By focusing on the lives of these students, Adely questions common definitions of progress, development and empowerment. Through an examination of four themes - nationalism, religion, morality and employment - she transports the reader to an educational establishment in which the lives of young women unfold in distinct and different manners as they interact with each of these issues.
Beginning with an illustration of how the school’s rituals, such as the daily morning assembly and celebration of national holidays, play into issues of identity (Trans-Jordanian versus Palestinian) and modernity (the acceptability of girls singing and dancing in patriotic performances), she casts a critical eye over Jordan’s nation-building efforts and considers how these young women make sense of such matters. On faith, Adely articulates the complexity of religiosity and the ways in which religious knowledge is transmitted both formally and informally at al-Khatwa. She describes two teachers who use the same curriculum and textbook, yet have divergent approaches to teaching religion, in a bid to shatter assumptions “that religion classes by default stifle thought”. Instead, she shows, critical thoughts and discussions take place inside and outside the classroom as the young women grapple with what it means to be Muslim.
In looking at morality, Adely highlights the varying degrees to which family (both immediate and extended) and school are involved in the young women’s exploration of respectable and appropriate ideas of love, relationships and marriage. The reader realises that what appears to be a straightforwardly simple situation (in which boys and girls are kept separate and there is no dating before marriage) is actually quite complicated - and not so different, perhaps, from Western experiences. And finally, the author scrutinises accepted constructions of employment and progress, and illustrates how for the girls at al-Khatwa, the pursuit of education, however highly valued it is, is not always focused on joining the formal labour market.
Drawing on rich data from her own ethnographic research, Adely’s erudite analysis is timely as the youth of the Arab world come under greater scrutiny in the wake of recent uprisings in the Middle East. In so doing, she challenges common conventions of women and education, and exposes deficiencies in the way the development of women in the Arab world is studied, conceived and portrayed. This is an important book that pushes readers to question conventional notions of education and development.
Gendered Paradoxes: Educating Jordanian Women in Nation, Faith, and Progress
By Fida Adely
University of Chicago Press
240pp, £48.50 and £16.00
ISBN 9780226006901 and 6918
Published 8 October 2012