What Cat-Calling in Amman Taught Me About American Privilege

By Ella Fanger


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here’s a saying that goes, “You wear the flag on your back when you’re abroad.” In Amman, I seem to wear the flag tattooed on my forehead, emblazoned across my t-shirt, maybe written in the sky above me as I walk down the street. I’m constantly aware of both how much I stand out and how my country’s history and culture influences how people here see me, and how they treat me.

On my first day in Amman, a man whistled and yelled “welcome to Jordan” from his car window as he drove by. I had been warned about this kind of thing before I arrived. When I told friends and family I was coming here, the most common responses were a furrowed brow and wide eyes followed by, “Is it safe?” and “I’ve heard it’s very difficult to be a woman there.” I expected street harassment would be a fact of life in Jordan, a grating element of an otherwise rich cultural and academic experience.

Alexandra Bauman ‘21, another female-identifying student studying in Amman this summer, said her father, who has spent several months in Jordan for work, warned her that “no matter how you dress, you’re going to face street harassment there more than in places you’ve been before.”

True, the harassment here is much more frequent than in any place I’ve lived or travelled to before. I’ve yet to have a morning where my 8 a.m. walk to class isn’t interrupted by an objectifying comment, and harassment becomes even more frequent at night when cafes and restaurants are filled mostly with men. The constant commentary is taxing and makes it more difficult for me to feel at home in a place I deeply want to understand.

Alexandra added that, “I’m going to be a foreigner no matter how many years I live here just because I don’t look like the people here and I don’t dress like them and I don’t wear a hijab.”

And yet, many of the women in my program agree that we feel safer walking the streets of Amman than we do in many cities in the US. Alexandra told me, “I’m never worried that anybody’s gonna reach out and touch me or harass me in any way.”

While my American identity draws attention that leads to street harassment, it also protects me from the most extreme forms of that harassment. I have never felt physically threatened in Amman, largely because I feel more comfortable responding to comments in Amman than I do in the United States. A quick response in Arabic will embarrass the offender and walk away. I do not feel this comfort in the United States, where I know that it is more likely that my response will escalate the situation and could even lead to physical harm. If my Arabic skills aren’t up to par, threatening to call the police is a surefire way to end the interaction.

It should be noted that this privilege is also partially due to my identity as a white American. Saman Haider, a Pakistani-American student studying in Amman this summer, told me, “As soon as I get into a taxi and I’m with a bunch of friends who are white, [the driver] will be like, ‘Where are you all from?’ and someone will say ‘America,’ but then he’ll look at me specifically and be like, ‘No, where are you from?’” The idea that non-white Americans must not “really” be from America makes it more difficult for these individuals to exercise American privilege.

This feeling of protection isn’t by chance—there are structural and historical phenomena that contribute to my sense of safety here. Jordan is heavily reliant on tourism, and officials seek to avoid issues with American travelers that could deter others in the future. In addition, the United States is an important partner to Jordan economically and diplomatically. Jordan’s dearth of natural resources make it dependent on aid from countries like the United States. These political and economic factors trickle down to my everyday experience in Amman, making it more likely authorities will be on my side in Jordan.

Historical power dynamics also contribute to my American privilege. The majority of Jordanians are Palestinian, and I feel like I carry the weight of US foreign policy with me in every interaction, especially given Trump’s recent strong pivot to Israel. I may be a guest of this country and required to adapt to local culture for the duration of my stay, but Jordan exists in a world order largely defined by United States policy.

I have also become aware of how my Americanness privileges me to deal with harassment in a way that Jordanian women cannot. From my personal experience, it seems that street harassment happens more frequently to American women than Jordanian women, perhaps because of stereotypes about American women being more sexually active. However, Jordanian women also face consistent harassment in public spaces, though there is no official research on rates of harassment in Jordan and the Jordanian Department of Statistics does not have any official data on sexual harassment because the subject is taboo even in academia. The lack of data itself could contribute to a culture of silence around sexual harassment in which women are less likely to be believed.

Unlike me and my fellow American students, Jordanian women are subject to cultural expectations for women to be more submissive, making it less acceptable for them to respond to actions or words that make them uncomfortable. Jordanian women reporting harassment are less likely to be believed and reporting harassment can even be seen as a negative reflection on the woman herself. How was she dressed? What did she say or do to provoke the man? (Incidentally, these questions ring all too familiar to discussions of sexual harassment and assault in the US).

There are domestic movements to address street harassment in Jordan. Rula Quawas, a professor at the University of Jordan, helped students create a viral video about street harassment. However, the public reception of the video was largely negative, and some of girls who made the video faced retribution from their families.

In the United States, my identity is largely defined by my gender. I’m often aware of how being female influences my experiences in social situations, school, and professional settings. During my time studying in Jordan, my life as a woman is complicated by my identity as an American. How people treat me, the things they yell at me from car windows, and how I can respond to them, are inevitably a result of my Americanness. Being a woman puts me at a disadvantage in Amman, yet being an American is an immense privilege. Talking about the drawbacks of life as an American woman in Amman should not obfuscate the “American” part, which is arguably a larger influence on how I’m treated here.

Communicating the complexity of this experience often gets lost in translation in dinner-party tidbits or spotty Skype calls. Alexandra said, “It’s complicated because not enough people come here to get their own picture of it and fully understand it. I’m hesitant to say many things about this place just because I’m worried about oversimplifying it because I might not even understand why this is happening.”

In addition, stories about street harassment are likely to confirm existing biases because they fit in with stereotypes about Jordan and the Middle East more generally—that women are oppressed because they wear a hijab or that Middle Eastern culture is uncivilized (notably, both of which have been used as justifications for devastating military involvement in the Middle East). While this is a part of my experience, I don’t want it to be the part that is remembered over the rich cultural exchange and intense academics.

In Jordan, my Americanness puts me in stark contrast to my surroundings. In this context, I have seen how my identities lead to cat-calling and yet afford me privileges in Amman. And while these experiences are confined to my time abroad, the effects of American policy in the region endure.


Ella Fanger is a sophomore in Saybrook College. You can contact her at ella.fanger@yale.edu.