There are several sets of eyes on my back.
It is a Thursday afternoon and I am lying on a sunlounge in a red bikini next to a pool. It is at least forty degrees. I am on the bank of the Jordan side of the Dead Sea in a private day-only beach resort.
I know that I probably shouldn’t be wearing a bikini. I should be wearing at least a loose shirt over the top. Probably shorts as well.
An unspoken condition of travelling to conservative states, as a woman, is to abide by their customs of female modesty. It’s polite. Safer. As a traveller you want to observe, not offend.
However, today it is forty degrees, I am in a private space, and other foreign women are also in bikinis. I am also just a little bit angry.
And it is mostly the anger that makes me wear only the bikini. Not the heat.
This is an anger that I know is somewhat politically incorrect, uncalled for, misinformed. An anger that is probably also a subtle form of cultural imperialism. Of ignorance.
But fuck it. I am angry.
I am angry because two metres away a woman sits anonymously behind layers of black fabric that cover everything but her eyes, in the sweltering heat, while her husband and sons play wearing only board shorts in the pool. I am angry because her daughter, who looks younger than five, is wearing a swimming costume that covers her knees. I am angry because there are dozens of other women like her, sitting benignly by the pool while their men-folk enjoy the water and sun.
I am angry because men are unashamedly staring at my bare skin, in front of their wives. In Australia men are at least subtle about these things. I am angry because when I meet their gaze, challenge it, they still do not look away.
There’s more. I am angry because when we visited a famous Mosque in Amman, the capital, I had to put on a horrible, shapeless gown over my figure and cover my hair and my brother did not. I am angry because inside this mosque there were no women praying. When I asked why I discovered it was because women were not allowed to pray there, with men. I then visited the smaller, shabbier, darker room next door that was where women prayed.
I am angry because when I tried to watch my brother play soccer with a group of local boys a couple of these boys somehow found rationale and reason to endeavour to grope me. I am angry because, by virtue of my hair colour, I am catcalled, propositioned and honked on the streets.
I am angry because to me this is such blatant sexism. Patriarchy. I am angry because to me these are archaic, unacceptable behaviours and practices.
Mostly, I am angry because sometimes I let these few, isolated experiences overshadow the beautiful, incredible experiences I am having in this country. Because these few people do the rest of their countrymen who are gentle, friendly, funny, intelligent and articulate, generous and incredibly, incredibly kind, a massive disservice.
I know my anger is also representative of my ignorance. Jordan is a progressive state in many ways. In terms of aid it makes Australia look incredibly bad. More than 40 percent of the population of Jordan are refugees, principally from Palestine and Syria at the moment. As a state Jordan manages to provide these refugees, better than most other states in the world, though with some UN assistance, with high rates of sanitation, education, health care and shelter.
In terms of women’s rights Jordan’s rates of female literacy and average female life expectancy are amongst the highest in the world. It also has one of the lowest maternal mortality rates.
I have met many Jordanian girls my age who wear similar outfits to my own and choose not to cover their hair at all. I have also met women who find autonomy in the choice to cover their hair or faces. Freedom from superficial judgments. Freedom from a male gaze that can sometimes be intimidating or threatening. A choice they made on their own, with no pressures or prejudices involved.
I have also found an easy sense of sisterhood with Jordanian women as I wander the streets and sights. The Jordanian women I have met have been friendly, funny and intelligent and we quickly engage in conversation.
I realise, through both research and these conversations that the burka, chador, hijab, abaya and niqab are not, by any means, symbolic of female oppression. Furthermore, that constructing them as such is incredibly offensive to those women who chose to wear them.
Travelling is sometimes a funny thing. When forming opinions about the places you visit it is easy to toe the dangerous line that is cultural imperialism.
So, I put on my sunglasses and ignore the stares. I do not however cover my bare skin. I do respect every woman’s right to dress as modestly as she pleases. However, this also includes my right to wear a red bikini when I am at the beach. Because, well, I fucking want to.