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In the Newsroom

January 21, 2009
Divorce outcasts women from Jordan’s social structure

Samia. Photo: Kristen Gillespie

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

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I lived in Amman, Jordan for a period of three years, during which I divorced my American Palestinian husband, who was constantly angry and abusive towards me during the 21 years we were together. I decided, due to mental health reasons, to divorce there. My neighbors became very watchful and unfriendly. It was quite intimidating. I since returned to the U.S. and feel very shamed by the behavior I experienced by my Muslim brothers and sisters there. The religious experience I had there was miserable. I would very much like to get reinvolved with the Islamic community but I am terribly disillusioned by the experience of the treatment of Muslim Brothers and Sisters toward me. I wish I could return to the days when I saw islam as a shining light but I am thinking that I will have to be surrounded by some wonderfully special people for that to happen again. It is a shame how they think of women in the Middle-East. We have rights in Islam that they don’t honor.


hi kristen,
i married a muslim guy from jordan also.So far he’s been a good person.Honestly speaking i have doubtful of their cultured or traditions or Islam laws.Its really so unfair for the womens right n children.And mostly children grew up here they dont have much respect to their mothers as what i’ve seen here.I think the world should see the arab world is having unfair to their womens right.I felt pitty to those arab women cant do anything for themselves.I hope you can help those womens.thanks and more powers.


Kristen, your Dad forwarded your piece to me – very interesting and very well done.
Have you seen Mehta’s movie “Water”, very beautiful and disturbing story about child brides/widdows in India?
conradulations and keep up the good work!
Jon Nash


How sad, not only for this woman, but for the other women that they could not see any other choice for her but to stay with an abusive husband. In a secular society such as the U.S., the law tries to step in and there are also shelters and organizations to help, although it is still extremely difficult to do. An example is the Morman sect that marries children to older men, and the women are expected to be docile and obedient. Some of the women have escaped, but most don’t know any other way of life.


A nice story… true sometimes… Especially in small towns, but there are a lot of women who are divorced and have the support of their parents and families… The problem in the Arab world in general and Jordan particularly is the narrow minded and untrue understanding of Islam and its appreciation of women, the system doesn’t follow the Islamic rules, they tend to use the common ways and tradition (although they are against Islam), and the civil laws are written according to tradition and not Islam.
We need to rebuild the society in a way that women are respected as humans before anything else, then as their roles… it’s easier to move a mountain than making one man change the way he sees women.


The month I spent in Amman, Jordan, led me to view similar instances of women being ousted from the family for divorce. I stayed with a woman who divorced and had two children that the father nor any of his family will talk to anymore. It is disheartening and yet so widespread in many areas of the world. This woman in particular took the risk…. hopefully more will follow… one by one…to create the change from within despite the consequences.


A major change is needed with a religious culture that encourages such perverse behaviour towards even little girls for the enjoyment of older men.
Change will not come from the decadent West as they have lost their way and now only appease and surrender to this growing darkness.
The sheikh speaks ;
It is incorrect to say that it’s not permitted to marry off girls who are 15 and younger,” Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, the kingdom’s grand mufti, said in remarks quoted Wednesday in the regional Al-Hayat newspaper. “A girl aged 10 or 12 can be married. Those who think she’s too young are wrong and they are being unfair to her.”
The issue of child marriage has been a hot-button topic in the deeply conservative kingdom in recent weeks.
In December, Saudi judge Sheikh Habib Abdallah al-Habib refused to annul the marriage of an 8-year-old girl to a 47-year-old man.

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