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Morgan McDaniel

Morgan McDaniel is a junior in the School of Foreign Service originally from Pelham, New York. She is majoring in Culture and Politics with a focus on gender violence issues, and is pursuing an SFS certificate in Arab Studies. In the fall of 2011 she is studying abroad in Jordan at the University of Jordan in Amman, where she is taking classes on the Arabic language, Arabic literature, and Islam. At Georgetown, Morgan works as a Diversity Fellow in the Women's Center, LGBTQ Center, and CMEA, and has served on the CSJ Advisory Board for Student Organizations. Living in a homestay with a wonderful Jordanian family, she hopes to become proficient in the Jordanian dialect and learn more about social and cultural issues affecting Jordan, especially considering its location between three major conflict areas.

The Concept of Honor Unites Religions in Jordan

October 28, 2011 | 2 COMMENTS

In Jordan, religion is the keystone that supports all aspects of society, and a common religious heritage unites Muslims and Christians. Unlike other Arab countries such as Iraq and Egypt, tension between Christians and Muslims is almost nonexistent. Though Muslims far outnumber Christians, they live and work together and are proud of their peaceful coexistence.

The most essential value both groups share is the essential nature of religion to one’s identity. The second night in my homestay, my Christian host family asked me directly what religion I was, and whether I believed in God. I was taken aback by what would in the US be an extremely personal question, but in Jordan it’s simply a foundation for relating to other people.

Everyone from new friends to taxi drivers ask me if I’m Christian, and seem pleased when I tell them yes. In the Jordanian mindset, everyone has a religion. Even though Judaism is problematic because of Jordan’s ties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it still is more acceptable than atheism. To a Jordanian, an atheist once had a religion but forsook it, and Jordanians find it hard to relate to someone who does not recognize the importance of God in his or her life.

The very expressions that organize social interactions are subtle reminders of the presence of God in every part of Jordanian life. Greetings, leave takings, and accepting gifts all involve long strings of phrases wishing the blessings of God on all involved. The phrase “Inshallah,” meaning if God wills it, follows every statement about the future, from the happiness of a marriage to whether the bus will come on time. When talking about good things in life, from the ages of someone’s children to winning a soccer game, it’s necessary to say “Ma sha allah,” or what God wills. And even the basic response to the question “How are you” is “Alhamdulillah:” thanks be to God.

These phrases are used by and among Christians and Muslims, indicative of a common cultural mindset regardless of religious differences. Unlike greeting rituals in the United States, where we usually say hello and ask after each other just to be polite, these rituals and phrases are far from empty pleasantries. It is imperative to thank God for what he has provided, to recognize that all things that happen depend on his will.

Likewise, wishing someone blessings or health or peace from God is a much more sincere expression of gratitude or affection. In Arab culture, words have more power, and saying the correct phrases carries far more meaning that just politeness.

When it comes to the greater social fabric of society, the delineation between culture and religion is complex. Jordan is an officially Muslim nation, so that Islamic values form the basis of the Jordanian legal system, and set standards for decency and ordering of public space. For example, Islamic inheritance law states that a woman inherits half the amount a man inherits, so this law applies to all Jordanians, regardless of religion. But more visible and palpable is Islam’s emphasis on the separation of the sexes that affects everything from where people sit on the bus to how people meet their future spouses.

Jordan is far from the most conservative Muslim country, but Jordanians’ social patterns reflect the principle that women must be protected from contact with men who might harass them, and men must be prevented from having contact with women that might compromise their honor. For example, if a woman boards a public bus and the only open seat is next to a man, the driver will tell a man sitting by himself to move so she can sit alone. In a Muslim house, it’s very rare for unmarried women to have male guests, and if a brother has his make friends over, the women will stay in a different part of the house to avoid contact. Christian women don’t cover their heads and don’t dress as conservatively as Muslim women do, but it would be a mistake to assume that their worldviews are entirely different. Chastity until marriage is still important to Christian families, children live in the house with their parents until marriage, and I doubt that my host sisters would be allowed to bring male friends to the house. The conception of honor that Jordanians hold is one that predates Islam.

At the same time, in contemporary society, it is difficult to extricate honor from religion or from conventional gender roles. The specifics of what honor entails vary for Christians and Muslims, but the basic concept is the same for both groups. An honorable Jordanian man supports his family, observes his religion, and protects the honor of the women in his family. An honorable Jordanian woman gets married, has many children, and remains chaste and modest.

The concept of honor is a perfect example of the links between Muslims and Christians in Jordan: both come from the same cultural heritage and carry the same basic cultural values, but the specific, personal meanings of those values differ for each group when connected to their different religions.

COMMENT FROM ALEX VILLEC - NOVEMBER 9, 2011

Morgan's piece brought to light some notable similarities between the religious climates of Jordan and Senegal. The assumption that religion is an integral part of one's identity pervades casual conversation and is further manifested in the language of simple salutations. Senegal's healthy Islamo-Christian dialogue is the centerpiece of most discussions on religion. The fact that this equilibrium is not confined to West Africa begs important questions about the requisite circumstances for this peaceful coexistence, one that isn't exactly universal.

In Senegal, respect seems to be a key ingredient. Demonstrating one's faith in a single deity equates to humility and self-discipline, traits that were mutually respected before the arrival of monotheistic faiths. As a formally secular state, Senegal counts on long-cherished perennial values to perpetuate religious harmony.

In the Jordanian case, what strikes me most is that Muslims and Christians practice side-by-side in a state that has codified major tenets of the Muslim faith. Given that Christians choose to remain Christians in this environment, it's as if the law has forced a convergence of values that are collectively viewed as beneficial to society, namely living honorably: What's good for Muslims is good for Christians and for the entire community.

All the same, I wonder to what extent, if any, Christians feel as though their faith is compromised under an Islamic legal system. Whatever the case may be, Morgan's analysis of honor demonstrates that adherents to discordant traditions can rally around shared "ends" that have the power to transcend salient points of contention.

COMMENT FROM NADIA IBRAHIM - NOVEMBER 23, 2011

Reading your essay was very inspiring Morgan. It’s wonderful to hear how Jordanians are able to focus on their religious similarities rather than their differences. I think that far too often, humans fail to recognize that though two people may be of different religions, they can still hold the same core values, even though those values may be expressed in divergent ways.

It sounds as if the centrality of religion to both Muslims and Christians and the openness of religious dialogue in Jordanian society contribute to a peaceful existence between the two groups. By contrast, in the U.S., religion is often regarded as a personal topic (you mentioned Morgan how you were taken aback when your host family asked what religion you were on your second night) and is subdued in society (e.g., the separation of church and state). If religion is not as openly spoken about and not as pervasive in society, do you feel it fosters religious intolerance and animosity?

No Honor in Crime: Jordanian Women Change the Conversation about Honor Killings

December 3, 2011 | 1 COMMENT

In Jordan each year, between 15 and 20 women are murdered for the sake of honor. The reasons for honor killings in Jordan vary: sometimes the woman committed adultery, or married the wrong man, or had sex before marriage. Sometimes, she is killed because she was raped.

But activist women in Jordan who are involved in the “No Honor in Crime” movement are speaking out against honor killings. They are calling for not just reforms in legal punishments, but changes in the culture that makes these honor crimes possible. In an interesting article on the Jordanian site 7iber, the author argues that focusing just on the statistics of honor killings is misleading; instead, Jordanians need to focus on the context in which these crimes occur.

“The archives of No Honor in Crime indicate seventeen cases of honor killings this year so far. But our archives are unable to give you statistics on the number of women beaten every night who wake up in the morning and make coffee for their ‘honorable’ husbands. . . . And statistics are unable to count the women in prison because they are threatened with murder. If you want to know the real statistics, then don’t count the number of victims but count the number of women who are frightened, and don’t research the number of offenders who kill on the pretext of honor, but research the number of men prepared to spill the blood of their female relatives who dare to take off their jilbabs.”*

Honor killings are generally considered to be a Muslim phenomenon, but although Muslims commit the majority of honor crimes in Jordan, Christians commit them as well. The concept of honor was an integral part of Arab society before the spread of Islam, and today seems to permeate the culture to such a degree that it regulates interactions between men and women, and draws the line between what is appropriate and what is forbidden.

Any behavior that might suggest a woman is not chaste threatens her honor, and this necessitates the separation between men and women. A woman’s honor is also her family’s honor, and if she is thought to have transgressed sexual mores, the problem is so serious her family might feel justified in killing her.

Although historically punishments for these murders have been lenient, there has been some legal reform. In the past, men who committed honor killings sought protection under a clause for crimes committed in “a fit of fury.” Where in the past these men would serve two years, now they might serve seven.

In any case, research shows that these killings are far from the uncontrollable fits of fury, but calculated attacks in which multiple family members are involved, including mothers. Because the law is more lenient for minors, often the family will have a younger brother commit the murder – his sentence will only be about three to six months. Sometimes, women will commit themselves to prison to escape murder because they have nowhere else to go. About thirteen women are currently imprisoned in Jordan out of fear of their families.

Like every taboo, the problem continues because of fear to challenge it. Women don’t speak out against these crimes because they’re afraid of their names appearing in media and shaming their families. But the “No Honor in Crime” movement challenges the “honor” culture by creating a space where the very concept of honor can be critiqued. The mainstream discourse on honor killing, as far as I can tell, considers honor killings to be a legitimate category separate from other murders, and when these crimes are condemned, they are condemned because the murdered woman was innocent, not because there is something inherent wrong with an honor killing itself.

But No Honor in Crime seeks to shift this discourse away from whether the woman was guilty of any shame, and conceives of the murder itself as a crime that cannot be justified. “No Honor in Crime is a movement for the elicitation of justice,” says the main page on their website. “We believe that the deeds must be called by their names: a crime is a crime and a murder is a murder of a human being. We believe that these actions need to be held accountable for what they are: crime must be punished as crime and murder as murder. No Honor in Crime is a movement that seeks the truth: because the truth is the most honorable human demand.”*

From where I stand, the social system in Jordan is meant to protect women and protect their honor, where men and women avoid interaction, and don’t sit next to each other on the bus, and can’t be trusted to be out together without a chaperone, might be meant to eliminate the subject of sex from everyone’s minds, but instead it forces everyone to focus on it. Instead of making a woman’s body invisible, it makes a woman’s body, and what she does or does not do with it, the most important thing about her. Rather than protecting her, this makes her vulnerable, because when you take the system’s logic to its ultimate conclusion, it enables violence in the name of “honor.” And that isn’t to say that America is any better – we have our own cultural norms that enable and engender violence against women. But I applaud these women for breaking taboos and challenging the society around them to examine critically the ideas that allow these horrible crimes.

*Translated from Arabic; all mistakes in translation are my own.

COMMENT FROM PROF. PAUL HECK - February 13, 2012

Morgan, you've hit upon one of the more fascinating sides of the Arab world, one that touches upon all religious communities. I'm glad you had such a fruitful experience. It sounds like the Arabs of Jordan, both Christians and Muslims, had something to teach you. I too have learned a lot from my time in the Arab world, including the experience of being more public about one's beliefs.

I have just a couple remarks in response to your reflections:

First, there is a rich array of terms around the concept of honor. It's not a single word in Arabic. Were you able to notice that? For example, there's karāma, which speaks to the honor of an individual male before his family, community, etc. Then there's sharaf, which speaks to one's social standing. Finally, there's 'irḍ, which is often equated with female virginity (and thus the honor of the family). So you may enjoy delving even further into the concept of honor in your research and reflections. There's a lot there!

Question: Why do you think honor persists as such a powerful concept even when Jordanians (especially the rising generations) are exposed to all kinds of modernist thinking? Or, to put it another way, why do you think we in the US don't make so much about honor in the way Jordanians do? Do you think it might have anything to do with the respective understandings that the two cultures have of the role of the state in our lives and in society in general? Or something else? On another note, would you put "crimes of passion" that exist in our society in the same category as "honor crimes" in Jordanian society?

Second, your reflections speak to the question of religious inculturation. What in the world does that mean? In a sense, it means that religion is not so much a meta-cultural phenomenon. That is, religion is something that emerges out of a particular cultural context, as opposed to something inserted into it. There are certainly many things that believers from a single religion share across cultures, but religious inculturation means that believers from different religions who share a single culture have many things in common that they both view as part of "religion."

Question: Do you have a chance to attend Arab Christian services in Jordan? Did you notice anything there that differs from the services you attend in the US? Would you attribute it to inculturation? Or something else?

Good luck as you continue to pursue these questions!

BLOG POSTS

September 30, 2011
Morgan McDaniel on Starting JYAN in Jordan