My second day in Jordan’s capital city, Amman, I sat with other students on white plastic chairs in the courtyard of the Columbia University Middle East Research Center, surveying the slow trickle of potential mentors who were all late to arrive. My eyes rested on one: dark hair past the shoulders, a short-sleeved red blazer, and a quilted bag clasped with Chanel C’s. Exactly how I would like to look at 50 (I estimate). I stopped staring and cast my gaze into the azure-tiled fountain at the courtyard’s center. Was it rude to stare in all cultures?
The woman pulled out the chair across from me. “I’m Suzanne.” My wish to have her as my summer mentor granted, Suzanne began to tell me about her career(s): journalist, CNN correspondent, director of Jordan’s Satellite Channel, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, and most recently, communications consultant. “Didn’t you ever feel like there was a glass ceiling, being an ambitious woman in the Arab world?” I asked. She laughed, “Not really,” recalling that when she was pregnant on assignment in a war helicopter, the men let her sit in the cockpit. “It was actually kind of nice—they looked out for me.”
I was surprised. Maybe my perception of gender inequality in this part of the world was skewed. Maybe things weren’t so bad. But soon after, Suzanne introduced me to the issue I would explore for the rest of the summer: According to federal law, a Jordanian woman married to a foreign man cannot transfer her nationality, or even her civil rights, to her husband or to the children to whom she gives birth. Jordanian men can, on both accounts. This has resulted in a large population of children who are best described as nationless.
The first time this inequality was highlighted to lawmakers was in 1984, by a woman I met for an interview on the second day of Ramadan. Her receptionist entreated me to sit down on a green leather couch. I did, taking in the law office’s calligraphic paintings and checking my watch. It was a few minutes before 4 p.m. —the rest of the city was taking a nap. I knew Asma Khader, like Suzanne, had successfully shattered the gender stereotypes in her region, but her story began with an experience of disenfranchisement. Khader is her parents’ eldest child, and she recalled the birth of her brother: “As our tradition is to call the father and mother by the name of the son, they shifted from being Abu[father of]-Asma and Um[mother of]-Asma to Um-Samir and Abu-Samir in one moment, and everybody was celebrating this.” Her culture’s prioritization of boys over girls felt personal, and, at a young age, inspired her to become Jordan’s first women’s-rights activist—and a fairly successful one at that. Among other things, she effectively lobbied for custody for mothers and a ban on sexual harassment in Jordan. Her input, though, has not yet convinced lawmakers to make a change in the law regarding Jordanian women married to foreign men.
The organization putting the most pressure on these lawmakers right now is the King Hussein Foundation’s Information and Research Center (IRC), where two fellow CEO (Coluhmbia Experience Overseas) interns happened to be placed for the summer. On a sweaty August afternoon, I walked into the IRC to interview their boss, who had spent the past two years getting to know a cross section of the 70,000-some families the gender-biased law affects. Turning to her desktop computer, she began to read me quotes from a children’s focus group. A boy who had never left Jordan—who had probably never even left the town in which he was born—recalled what his neighbors and peers would tell him as they spit in his face: “Go, don’t play with us, you are Egyptian.”
Technically, Jordanian-born children in these situations are supposed to inherit their father’s nationality, but many husbands are illegal immigrants. This is why some children living in Jordan do not, on paper, belong anywhere.
The IRC researcher read on. The same children were also recorded saying, “I love Jordan. I am proud to be Jordanian.”
Hearing these quotes, my mind flashed to an unexpected image—the gray wall outside my eighth-grade classroom, with ordered rows of printed poems titled “I Am Proud To Be Canadian” taped across it and my one exception off to the left-hand side, titled “I Am Proud To Be American.” I had the same unquestioning pride for my birthplace as these kids have in Jordan—a pride somehow strengthened by being called an outsider. But I also took for granted that my passport supported my declaration.
Having realized that a nationality is still a privilege to have, I will spend a little extra time filling in the absentee forms that will—eventually, I hope—arrive at my Lerner mailbox. Half a world away, there is a group of people who will never have the same say in the future of a nation they’d like to call their own.