Kristen Gillespie produced the signature video: Women in Jordan head to work as economy sours. She is a freelance multimedia journalist whose work has been featured on NPR, The Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation Magazine. Kristen lives in Jordan and speaks Arabic.
As the lunch break at the silver factory came to a close, we sipped the sweet tea served after meals from mismatched cups. Samia began describing the beatings she and her three small children regularly receive from her husband.
The other young women — some perched on the windowsill of the factory’s hallway, some seated cross-legged on the floor — seemed to be already apprised of Samia’s situation. They shook their heads sadly as Samia recounted how her 5-year-old son tried to protect her from the rage of his father.
Samia wants to leave her husband. In rural southern Jordan, it’s not easy. The individual is a piece of a greater collective: The tribe. It is the tribal leaders, all men, who make such decisions before legal proceedings begin.
But while Samia may have a good case -– her husband refuses to work and his abuse is widely known -– it is her mother who won’t allow it. A steely woman with small green tribal tattoos on her face, she had the first of her ten children at the age of twelve. Samia’s mother will make sure Samia never sees her children again if the divorce issue is raised. It would bring shame on the family.
From the time when she was little and her brothers held her down and tattooed two small green circles on her face, Samia has lived a life with little happiness. Spending time with her, as I did for five days in the southern village of Dana, one wonders how much control some people actually have over their lives. She was married without her consent to a man she loathed, she was sent to work to support the family, and at 33, she looks and feels years older.
Creating silver jewelry is surprisingly labor-intensive work, but Samia sings and cracks jokes throughout the day. This is in contrast to the interview we did in her home, where her mother and other family members had stayed during the work day to watch the children.
When I asked Samia a question, her mother would bark out an answer from across the room. Samia sat frozen and uncomfortable, and Cari Machet, the camerawoman for this story, decided we should immediately get her away from her mother.
We tried to interview Samia on the steps outside, but the neighborhood children came and made such a racket, throwing things and climbing on the car, that we had to go inside. The only other place was on the small balcony in the back of her apartment, but by that point, already shy in front of the camera, Samia was so rattled she could barely answer.
During the days in Dana, Samia’s personal story got me to thinking of ways she could possibly leave her husband. During a tea break, I asked the 12 girls at the factory what they thought Samia should do. They all agreed: She should make the best of it and stay with him. Fate determined they should marry, and divorce could threaten their close-knit society, one founded on the importance of family.
These 12 young women, ranging in age from 20 to 33, were all bright, funny and sometimes bawdy. I had assumed they would want to change a social structure so restrictive that women don’t even go out to buy vegetables at the market. But in their answer to Samia, I realized that my idea of freedom is not theirs, and that if further change comes to their society, it can only come from within.
– Kristen Gillespie