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Jordan’s ‘marriage crisis’ focalises country’s deeper problems — anthropologist

Researcher Geoffrey Hughes studies ‘Chasity Society’, its addressing of social phenomenon

By Saeb Rawashdeh - Jun 27,2018 - Last updated at Jun 27,2018

Al Afaf charitable organisation organises a collective wedding party (Photo courtesy of Al Afaf)

AMMAN — Researching marriage in Jordan, an American scholar learned more about the “Chastity Society” when he heard young people complaining how it is difficult to marry in Jordan.

“I would assume most people who have talked to a young Jordanian man [or even his father, mother, or sister] will have heard a version of this problem: at the very least, a Jordanian man who wants to marry needs money for a flat, a bridewealth [mahr] payment and a wedding,” said Geoffrey Hughes from the Anthropology Department, London School of Economics.


‘Crisis of marriage’


However, the problems that average Jordanians face in providing their children with decent marriages, nonetheless, do focalise a lot of the country’s problems stemming from unemployment, underemployment and poverty, the anthropologist stated, noting that at the same time, marriage also focalises a lot of concerns that people have about values and especially changing values around gender roles, faith and religion. 

“This is all mutually reinforcing: the more people invest in marriage, the more problematic it is if the values of the families and the bride and the groom don’t match,” Hughes explained.

At the same time, Hughes continued, there is some evidence that more people are breaking off engagements or divorcing soon after the wedding, which only adds to the desire on the part of families to invest time, money and emotional energy into the marriage “to make it work better”. 

“So the difficulty of getting married becomes magnified with time in both its economic and social dimensions,” he added.

A lot of people Hughes talked to went so far as to say that the problems that young people were having regarding getting married represented a “crisis”: a “crisis of marriage”.

“As I started to research this ‘crisis of marriage’ in Jordan, people kept mentioning the Chastity Society ‘Jama’iyyat Al Afaf Al khayriyya’. The reason for this was simple: the Chastity Society was an organisation that had already thought through most of this ‘crisis of marriage’ that I was seeing, linking up the phenomenon’s broad socioeconomic causes to its political potential.”

The research and activism of the Chastity Society promoted the idea of a “crisis of marriage” with enthusiasm and offered a number of possible solutions, the scholar elaborated, noting it was inevitable that his study of this “crisis of marriage” ,which they were spending so much time talking about and combating, would lead him eventually back to them.

“For the most part, the Chastity Society promotes a pious, Islamic, community-based response to what they see as problematic gaps in the social provisioning of the relatively secular Jordanian state and an overly clannish society,” Hughes highlighted.


Loans and mass weddings


They offer interest-free loans to people hoping to marry; they organise a lot of training sessions; they publish research on Jordan’s “marriage crisis”; and they are most famous for their annual mass weddings, where about 50 to 80 people get married at once.

Through loans and mass weddings they addressed the material causes of the crisis they have diagnosed, and through the publishing and training they addressed its social and spiritual causes, the researcher said, adding that mass weddings also have a clear ideological message — they eclipse the traditional role in the wedding of the father and the patriline (the “tribe”) with Islam by bringing together couples from across Jordan (including Syrian refugees now) to celebrate their marriages as Muslims rather than “the sons of so-and-so”.

“The Chastity Society seeks to engage a relatively broad and diverse spectrum of Islamic organisations in Jordan. When appropriate, the Chastity Society brings in religious experts from the Sharia courts and the Awqaf Ministry, along with a range of experts from non-religious state institutions like the Health Ministry, he elaborated. 

What surprised Hughes the most in the training was the transformation of the men: “I expected everyone to be ideologically committed to the programme of the Chastity Society and broadly in sympathy with the goals of the Islamic movement. Instead, I found that the men were actually quite resistant at first — especially when they felt like their privileges as future husbands and fathers were being challenged.”

By the end of the day, the mostly working-class, high-school-educated youths were showing deep admiration for the more middle class, college-educated presenters and the information that they were imparting, Hughes summarised.

“The subtle message was ‘if you can first discipline yourself, then you can discipline others — just like we are disciplining you now’. This emphasis on male self-control seemed to slowly soften some of Jordan’s social antagonisms in regards to class — although potentially by actually exacerbating contradictions between the genders in a somewhat counterintuitive way,” he emphasised.

Furthermore, the urbane, well-educated, middle-class Muslim man was still the dominant image of self-control, the anthropologist underlined, concluding: “It was the ability of the training to reproduce gender and class hierarchies in ways that even those being subordinated enthusiastically embraced it.”

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