Dating in a Sexually Segregated Society: Embodied Practices of Online Romance in Irbid, Jordan
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Dating in a Sexually Segregated Society:
Embodied Practices of Online Romance in Irbid, Jordan

Mona, a sophomore at Yarmouk University in Jordan, spends about 15 hours per week chatting online at the internet cafés that surround the university campus.1 She has many male friends online. At the same time, she is known among her classmates as a religious Muslim; she wears "modern Islamic dress," combining a fashionable, patterned headscarf with a matching modest smock, and never talks unnecessarily with her male classmates. One day, she logged in at a popular café called Rishrush, and signed onto her favorite channel, " Jordan."2 Since she hadn't previously planned to visit the internet café at this time, she hadn't arranged to "meet" anyone in the chatroom. There were over 100 people on the channel on that day; Mona scanned their screen names, looking for friends. Many of the names were in English. Some amusing ones, such as "I_need_a_wife," caught her eye, but none of her friends were there. Mona didn't pick anyone to chat with right away, but soon several users [End Page 251] were hailing her. On " Jordan," as on all of the channels which are popular in Irbid, conversation doesn't take place in the main chatroom. Rather, users communicate with each other one-on-one—though they often carry on five or more private conversations simultaneously. Mona responded first to a user named "Romeo," because she liked the sound of his "nick." They wrote to each other in the standardized Romanization of colloquial Arabic that has grown up in chatrooms and through mobile text messaging.3 As is conventional, he started by asking for her "asl." This term, which sounds like the Arabic word for "origin," was coined in English language chatrooms as shorthand for "age, sex, location." In Jordan, chatters identify themselves instead by listing their age, sex, and national origin. Mona told Romeo that she was 19, female, and Palestinian; he responded that he was 23, male, and Jordanian.

The conversation proceeded slowly. "Romeo" told Mona that she was romantic; she denied it. Romeo asked her to dance. Mona resisted. Finally, Romeo asked Mona which café she was in.

"I can't tell you that!"

"OK, I can guess. You're in Rishrush."

"You're really smart! How did you know?"

"I didn't. I just said that because I'm in Rishrush! So, which one are you?"

"None of your business."

"You're the one down at the end, to the left of the door." This was true, but Mona denied it.

"No, I'm not!"

"So, which one are you?"

"I'm not going to tell. Which one are you?"

"Do you see the girl sitting next to you?"

Mona forgot that she had denied her identity. "That can't be you. She's a girl!"

"I'm the guy next to her."

Mona turned very slightly to the left, trying to look as subtly as possible. She saw a Malaysian man. "He can't be you. He isn't Arab!"

"What's wrong? You don't like my face? It's true, I look Malaysian."

"I like it, but I still think it isn't you."

"OK, I told you who I am—so which one are you?" Romeo insisted.

Mona picked a boy. "I'm the one in the red shirt, across from you."

"That's me!" said Romeo, and proved it by making a small movement with his hand. [End Page 252]

Romeo and Mona continued to chat online for another hour, before he told her that he had to go. Each of them unsmilingly raised one hand in parting as he left.

Since the late nineteenth century, Middle Eastern women have steadily increased their presence in "public" spaces, such as the street, the university, the market, the office, and the mosque (Macleod 1993, Arat 1997, Asfaruddin 1999, Massad 2001, Thompson 2000, Newcomb 2006). While modernization projects throughout the region have relied upon them to do just that, concerns of honor and respectability have nevertheless haunted their efforts. Specifically, many local observers have feared that women in public space would form sexual or love relationships...