Change the Subject!!

Amman, Jordan

If we never have another class discussion about marriage again, it will be too soon!

For the past two days, our literature teacher, Manal, has been asking our opinions on the roles of the partners in a marriage. She agrees to a large to degree with the text on marriage we’ve read by 19th century Egyptian Sheikh Tahtawi, which says that the husband is the Prime Minister of the family, and the wife is the Interior Minister. This was controversial enough, inasmuch as it seemed to suggest that the wife’s influence was restricted by the walls of the home, though Manal tried her best to point out that the Interior Minister is engaged with plenty of international issues.

My classmate Ann got really inflamed when Manal said she believed that, while the wife’s opinion was important and should be discussed, the husband should have the first and last word in the family. It has been the subject of intense debate for two days, abetted by opinions by other students, ranging from liberal Muslim to conservative Christian to Muslim convert and in between, with everyone determined to convince the rest.

Though I have been doing my best to stay out of the conversation, Manal keeps saying, “Maryah will agree with me! She knows how the Eastern woman thinks!” but not (thankfully!) giving me any opportunity to affirm or deny. Then, today, Galaal kept saying, “Let Maryah speak! I want to hear Maryah’s opinion!” even though I was very carefully keeping my hands in my lap and my head down.

I hate this conversation, and I avoid this topic whenever I can. There’s a good bit of the Western feminist in me, though not as much as Ann, and sometimes it bothers me how deferential wives I’ve known here can be to their husbands. When my Arabic teacher Wijdan used to say, “We’ll walk over to the neighbor’s house, if Nusri gives us permission,” it would just grate on my nerves. On the other hand, Nusri almost always said yes, and always had a good reason to say no, and eventually I learned to hear Wijdan’s qualification as my mother’s “I’ll just let your father know where we’ll be.”

In any case, it’s clear to me that opinions on the roles of husbands and wives is not anything that I can change with logic. At best, I can give examples of how, in my family, it tends to be my mother who’s the President, and my father who’s the Secretary of Labor and/or Secretary of State. Or of my Girl Scout leader’s husband, a career Marine who, when invited somewhere or asked to help with a project, always replied, “I’ll have to check with the Boss,” meaning his wife.

I learned a long time ago, probably sometime in middle or high school when my evangelical classmates were preaching at me at every opportunity, that there are some topics better left alone. In Jordan, and probably in most of the Middle East, this is probably one of them. Certainly, Queen Noor and Queen Rania have managed to ruffle plenty of feathers in Jordan by calling for reforms to women’s status in law and practice.

Eventually, I couldn’t help but step in, though, with my favorite quote from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, in which the mother says to her daughter, “Don’t worry. Your father is the head of the family, but I’m the neck, and I tell him where to go!”

Unfortunately, it did not quite end the conversation as I had hoped.


  1. Oh, I can see why you’d want to avoid this question. I’ve never understood, particularly in things as private as the arrangements of family life, why we need so many “should” statements in the first place. In nearly all the families I know, it seems like it’s the less career-oriented person who direct family matters. Most often – though not always – that’s also the woman and it made sense to me in those contexts: if she’s the one who cares about it the most and deals with the consequences most directly, why not?I have a friend (Christian but not evangelical) who often hints that Leopold and I should be married. She won’t “order” it per se, because she “doesn’t want to be the sort of Christian who universalizes her experience to the world”, but it’s also sort of impossible to escape that. I just feel that it’s not for me. It’s a good things for her, but not for me. Just as polyamory is good for my poly friends, but not for me. I figure the best thing we can do is really recognize what does and doesn’t work for us.


  2. Lol! Loved your Big Fat Greek Wedding quote. Very appropriate. And, I have to say, I agree with Kuri – one must figure out in a marriage what works for you and your partner. And re-assess as necessary (which may be frequently!) because life is complicated and everyone has different strengths and different needs at different times.


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