Geoffrey F. Hughes, Kinship, Islam and the Politics of Marriage in Jordan: Affection and Mercy (Indiana University Press, 2021). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Geoffrey Hughes (GH): I was inspired to write this book by my experiences serving for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small rural Muslim community in southern Jordan at the height of the so-called “War on Terror.” Of course, the people I came to know were nothing like the caricatures of abjection, violence, and resentment that were so widespread at the time—and unfortunately remain widespread today. I felt like the insider-outsider positionality I developed through that experience gave me a privileged vantage point from which to critique these cynical and manipulative misrepresentations of Muslims and so it seemed incumbent upon me to use that privilege to do so. I did not set out to write an ethnography of marriage in Jordan, but I came to embrace the topic because it was one of the things I found Jordanians were most excited to talk about (which seemed significant in itself). I was especially captivated by the struggles of the many young men I worked with and befriended to love and provide for their families and wanted to tell their stories.

That being said, the book is also about how the people who welcomed me were responding to world-historical events like colonialism, war, occupation, and forced displacement through new institutional forms. The book takes Jordan as a case study of a much-discussed “crisis of marriage” that has touched lives throughout the contemporary Muslim “world” and, arguably, far beyond it. The crisis is about rapidly growing populations coming to adulthood amidst high rates of unemployment, poverty, and acute housing shortages (often exacerbated by colonialism, uneven development and war), but also contentious debates about changing gender roles and class relations. Of course, the marriage crisis is also a mass-mediated phenomenon as well, part and parcel of an emerging global “knowledge economy” in which the lines between activism, scholarship, and policymaking are increasingly blurred. Unsurprisingly, in Muslim countries like Jordan this often takes on an Islamic twist. I was particularly intrigued by how these Islamic activists and institutions often pitched themselves as defenders of women, young people, and the marginalized—and in opposition to “tradition.”

So when it came time to do the fieldwork for the book, I arranged to live with some friends in a village on the suburbanizing fringe of Jordan’s capital of Amman. I divided my time between building houses and learning about the history of the housing market, between attending dozens of proposal delegations and weddings and conducting fieldwork with the Sharia courts and an Islamic NGO that organizes mass weddings and training courses for newlyweds. I take up the Quranic phrase “affection and mercy” that I heard so often across these otherwise distinct “sites” to reflect an emergent ideal of companionate marriage that remains in tension with economic constraints and older ideals of marriage that privilege the prerogatives of the extended kin group.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

GH: The book runs along two axes: 1) through the process of getting married with an emphasis on some of the biggest financial obstacles to marriage (the house, the bridewealth or mahr payment to the bride, and the wedding) and 2) through a historical account of how each of these aspects of the marriage process have shifted over time, with an emphasis on institutions that have stepped in and attempted to change or even supplant the role of the family (the Housing and Urban Development Corporation, the Sharia courts, and an Islamic charity called the Chastity Society). As a result, the first part of the book is about the house and focuses on changing notions of land rights, gendered labor, and domestic space with the collapse of traditional peasant and pastoralist economies and the rapid expansion of the state in the mid-twentieth century.

The second part of the book is about the marriage proposal. It looks at how the Sharia courts have increasingly supplanted the tribal jaha or delegation as the key information infrastructure for the production and legitimation of marriage contracts, and how this shift has led to the production of new statistical categories that have made new political actors and political demands thinkable.

The third part of the book is about the wedding. It explores how forms of class distinction around weddings have shifted, with a growing emphasis on demonstrating not just one’s status but also fealty to “tradition,” “Islam,” and/or “modernity” through the choice of either an indoor wedding in a hotel or wedding hall, or an outdoor wedding (amongst a myriad of more subtle aesthetic distinctions). As a result, the book engages with a wide range of literatures: gender and kinship, but also science and technology studies, the development of statistics and survey techniques, and the ethics and aesthetics of the Islamic revival. 

J: What was the research for this book like?

GH: I started doing fieldwork in 2010 and then spent most of 2011 and 2012 in Jordan. I subsequently visited to share my findings with my interlocutors and to begin new projects in 2013, 2016, 2017, and 2019. As I said, I based myself in a village on the suburbanizing fringe of the capital so I could commute into the city to work with major urban institutions during the day while still being based in a village where people self-consciously carried on with more “traditional” practices of house construction, marriage arrangements, and weddings.

I learned a lot hanging out at construction sites, weddings, and engagement parties, but working with the institutions (and especially their archives) helped give the project more historical depth. For instance, I constructed a database of over eight hundred marriage contracts in an attempt to detect more subtle shifts in the Sharia courts’ knowledge practices over time—especially the increasing individuation of participants, changing gendered property rights, and the delegitimation of older forms of collective “voice.” I also dug into the archives of the Housing Corporation to understand how the World Bank and its development experts helped engineer the emergence of a housing market in Jordan. Finally, I benefited greatly from the research of the Chastity Society (much of it produced in conjunction with the Sharia courts, or at least relying on its data). I also attended its mass weddings, fundraisers, and training courses for newlyweds. These institutions were incredibly welcoming, so I was able to spend a lot of time with their employees and learn a lot from them.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

GH: I have always been interested in politics, the state, and the consequences of large-scale social engineering initiatives, but I think this project and especially the Jordanians who shared their lives with me have had a big impact on how I think about all of these topics. They definitely taught me to think more critically about the politics of gender and kinship. All of the talk of “love” and “affection and mercy” has also inspired a growing interest in the anthropology of emotions. At the same time, I remain pretty committed to doing ethnographic work grounded in concrete human institutions that give meaning and coherence to what are often treated as primarily individualistic and “interior” phenomena. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

GH: I think this book will be most interesting to people who want to learn more about marriage and especially those interested in Jordan. Today, Jordan has the distinction of having the lowest rate of women’s workforce participation in a country not at war, and so there is a big temptation to see Jordan as ripe for a “salvage ethnography” of “traditional” gender roles. Of course, as the book shows, Jordan’s current gendered social settlement is very much an artifact of previous waves of modernization initiatives (and Jordanians’ creative responses to them) and is already in the process of changing into something else, as economic exigencies and social mores shift yet again. So the book is a significant case study in the marriage literature. But I also wrote it to be an introduction to Jordan, which invites readers to enter into a very specific sort of semi-public discourse that Jordanians enjoy exploring with new acquaintances.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

GH: While I was in Jordan writing this book, the Arab Spring was in full swing so there were a lot of things going on I could not fit in. There were frequent “tribal clashes” in the area that were usually organized on social media to challenge the local gerontocratic power structure (though, of course, elders quickly learned to adapt). I have published a few articles on this so far and aim to publish a book-length treatment.

This also led to an interest in what I have called “ugly emotions” and especially the phenomenon of hasad or “envy.” Here, I was especially intrigued by how accusations of envy were deployed in talk about weddings and marriage—especially by the powerful. This led me to take up the “politics of accusation” as a methodological and theoretical challenge. For instance, what to make of the long-running orientalist obsession with resentment? Who really envies whom? Coinciding with this has been the marked rise of the discourse of “moderation” and “extremism” in Jordan in response to the so-called “Islamic State,” as the language of “terrorism” became increasingly incoherent. This has led me to begin work on a project looking at the history of ‘itidal and wasatiyya (moderation) in the Islamic tradition—and especially how these concepts are being creatively deployed to promote and contest various projects of moral policing and social transformation.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 1, pp. 45-55)

“The Seed”

I used to make a point of asking elderly Bedouin men in Jordan about the names for the constituent parts of the Bedouin goat hair tent—not the least because everyone seemed to enjoy teaching the foreign anthropologist the obscure minutiae of a bygone era. A number of elderly men were even kind enough to draw diagrams for me. At first, I thought it would be useful as a conversation starter that might lead comfortably into stories, jokes, and ad hoc social theorizing. Indeed it did. It soon became clear that there was also great diversity of experiences and terminologies that people would express through their narrations of the tent. Some aspects were ubiquitous: The tent was always conceived as divided into two parts—the masculine shiq and the feminine muharam. But was the shiq on the right or the left? A man once told me it varied by tribe: his tribe put the shiq on the left. Seeming to contradict his thesis, he then added, “but the path here is on the right so I put the shiq on the right so [male] guests wouldn’t walk by the muharam.”

Nevertheless, there was a certain spatiotemporal ordering of this gendered polarity that seemed to transcend the countless individual experiences of the tent. For my part, I was taught and later experienced the tent as a man. The long sides of the tent would usually be raised up to some degree. The front flap (usually known as the star) would be parallel to the ground, whereas the back flap (usually known as the ruwaq) would be raised only enough to allow the wind to enter. I was told in no uncertain terms that only dogs and children enter through the ruwaq. Men must enter through the front. Ideally, a man should approach from the back of the tent, which allows the family to be shielded from his gaze by the lowered ruwaq. When he is within earshot, he should call out, “Peace be upon you” (salam ‘alaykum), “O protector, O family of the house!” (ya satir, ya ahl-al-bayt!), or some other greeting. With permission granted, the visitor should approach one of the rear corner poles known as the “foot” (shadih ar-rijl) or al-fahiq while making sure to give the various ropes, which are staked in the ground around the sides, a wide berth. Passing the stake jutting out from the front pole (known as the “hand,” shadih al-iyd), the male guest could expect to find his hosts waiting to greet him.

Similar accounts of gendered space could be provided for other types of homes in Jordan and in other times and places. When I have gone for strolls among the ruins of the stone houses of the peasantry from the early twentieth century, my Jordanian friends have always described them in terms of the same gendering of space. The examples could be multiplied across the Mediterranean and across the Arab world. Domestic space is treated as though it were polarized into male and female aspects (shiq and muharam), whereas the home forms a feminine pole (am-mharam) in relationship to the masculine exterior.

* * *

After weeks of hearing some friends of mine talking about their neighbor, ‘Authba, an elderly woman with a reputation for being a character, they insisted on taking me to visit her. We hailed the men from the road as we walked by their land, and they demanded we come and drink tea. Inside the tent, the dirt floor was covered with a brightly colored plastic mat and a number of upholstered foam mattresses. I explained that I was doing research on customs and traditions around marriage and made small talk. Soon enough, ‘Authba burst into the room with her scarf over her face and declared, “I hear there’s a foreigner here!” I made a slow gesture to stand up while putting my hand over my heart to greet her. She let forth a volley of effusive praise, and we all laughed at the mock sycophancy. I repeated my introduction and explained my research focus on marriage.

‘Authba immediately launched into a story: “In the old days, the man and the woman never saw each other until their wedding night.” She paused for dramatic effect. “So on my wedding night, I was alone in the tent and this man walks up and I covered my whole face except for one eye.” As she did this, she revealed one of her eyes. She continued, raising her pitch by a few octaves, “I said, ‘Who are you?’” She dramatically lowered her voice as she let her scarf down, “I am your husband, girl!” Everyone burst out laughing again. She asked me what I wanted to know and repeatedly proclaimed her “expertise” while gesturing with her scarf. In this manner, she held court as she bantered with my friends and her sons. She seemed to take great pleasure in her ability to simultaneously challenge local norms around female modesty (even for an older woman) and my ethnographic gaze and presumably cosmopolitan gender norms, embracing (and mocking) a perception of herself as a helpless victim of rural backwardness.

Eventually, I asked her about the names of the various parts of the tent. To this day, I am not sure what she said when she responded by asking whether I had heard of one particular part of the tent, but everyone burst out laughing. The men were too bashful to repeat the precise word she had used, but they explained to me that it was a word for the gap between the saha (the piece of fabric separating the putatively masculine shiq from the muharam) and the ruwaq (the back of the tent). It was clear that she had likened the gap to the human pudendum—a clever play on the anthropomorphization of the tent and an extension of what one would expect to find behind the tent’s “hands” and between its “legs.” My friends would later refer to it as simply al-bizr (the seed). As I pondered its possible significance, a teenage girl’s voice rang out from the other side of the divide: “Mom! Your TV show is on!” ‘Authba yelled back, “What do I want with my TV when I have a foreigner right here!” That was the first time I realized the laughter was coming from both sides of the tent.

This story highlights the inherent difficulties and hazards of rendering the interior exterior and the invisible visible. ‘Authba, a gifted performer, handled it expertly. She could turn it into a joke. However, as we will see, this is not always the case. Such renderings can be fraught with misunderstandings, arguments, and violence. And as I have intimated, this problem is not merely a Jordanian one. In “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel,” Mikhail Bakhtin goes so far as to argue the drive to exteriorize and render visible the interior and the invisible is central to the development of literature in general and the novel in particular. I suggest that ethnography itself is ancillary to this preoccupation. Bakhtin argues that “the public and rhetorical unity of the human image is to be found in the contradiction between it and its purely private content. . . . Although personal life had already become private and persons individualized, although this sense of the private had begun to infiltrate literature in ancient times, still, it was only able to develop forms adequate to itself in the small everyday genres, the comedy and novella of common life.” In the essay, Bakhtin attempts to illustrate the “historico-literary process” through which various forms of time-space have developed in literature and the arts from the Greek Romance to the Rabelasian novel. It is important to note, however, that we have not yet arrived at the liberal notion of public and private. This shift markedly divides market from state and associates the former with the private and the latter with the public. Here, the dialectics of interiority and exteriority, visibility and invisibility, still predominate.

As an ethnographer, and even more so as a male ethnographer, I was always acutely aware of this literary conundrum hit upon by Bakhtin. When the action was masculine, visible, exterior, and collective, I was well equipped to narrate it, but such action failed to exhaust the ethnographically relevant data. Much like generations of World Bank consultants, colonial administrators, and Jordanian bureaucrats, I found myself compelled to consider (if not necessarily understand) that which was feminine, invisible, interior, and individual—what Bakhtin would call “private.” As he observes, “By its very nature this private life does not create a place for the contemplative man, for that ‘third person’ who might be in a position to meditate on this life, to judge and evaluate it. This life takes place between four walls and for only two pairs of eyes.”