- Dreaming of Change: Young Middle-Class Women and Social Transformation in Jordan
As the title suggests, this work undertakes the task of tracing the social transformations among educated young middle-class women in contemporary Jordan. Julia Droeber, a German anthropologist, draws upon two years of fieldwork in Jordan's capital, Amman. Most of her subjects shared a specific identity: unmarried female students who attended the Modern Languages Department at the University of Jordan (where Droeber was teaching German) and who continued to live with their families. [End Page 129] Droeber's discussion of these women revolves around the themes of religion, family, friendship, honor, modesty, and lack of political participation.
Although the project emanates from worthy questions about women's political agency and self-identification, Droeber ultimately fails to explain the very social transformations she intended to explore, leaving readers with more questions than insights.
Despite the timely importance of the topic, the book lacks both a solid theoretical base and historical contextualizing. The author overlooks the large body of anthropological literature, especially studies of political economy and social class, and never provides her own definition of the "middle class." Thus she obscures other subdivisions among the women students, such as the crucial distinctions between those who live in Amman, in smaller cities, and in rural areas, or those of Palestinian or Jordanian origins. Nor does she compare her subjects to their counterparts living away from their families in college dorms. Her only demarcation of the middle-class college students is religious, delineating Muslim from Christian, indicative of her preoccupation with Islam. Additionally, the first chapter's historical background on Jordan neglects basic historical, political, and economic factors—in either Jordan or the Middle East—that have influenced the formation of the country's "middle class."
In an ethnography that addresses Jordanian young women and social change, a discussion of the networks of women's organizations, beyond a mere two pages and passing mention of the royal family's leadership in NGOs, would have been welcome. Readers are left to wonder, what prevents middle-class young women from joining the numerous existing organizations, or starting alternative ones? In the chapter focused on women as social agents, Droeber narrates one of the anecdotes that characterize her writing, describing how she participated in an Islamic anti-war march through campus as her informant-friends stood on the sidelines. Typical of the book's style, in her description of the march she foregrounds her own participation and her relation to her informants, comparing herself to them and to other women, while failing to address the more germane question: why didn't those women join the march?
With the exception of two informants (both of whom went to Europe to study), Droeber depicts her interviewees as passive agents with [End Page 130] respect to social change. The book implies that the young women are trapped in the web of religious traditions and social pressures that are imposed on them by their families, especially their fathers. The book implies that the only challenge to these social restrictions, the only forms of social change, are living away from one's family, going to Europe, and dressing in Western clothes, precluding myriad other modes of social resistance or social transformation (as, for example, women's participation in Islamic political movements).
While Droeber's bibliography does list a significant number of the primary works on women in Middle Eastern societies, her ethnography does not use them to analyze her ethnographic data, and by neglecting the strongest scholarship, she ends up rehearsing some outmoded qualities of the Westerner studying women in the Middle East. For instance, having discovered in the field that—contrary to her expectations—"religiousness" was not a main concern of the young women themselves, she nonetheless devotes most of the book to religion (and those discussions remain vague). She dwells on the predictable aspects of clothing (the veil and modesty), especially in chapter seven, "Dress to Impress," which begins and concludes with her anxiety about her own modes of dress...