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Gendered ParadoxesEducating Jordanian Women in Nation, Faith, and Progress$

Fida Adely

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780226006901

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226006925.001.0001

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Who Is a Good Muslim? Making Proper Faith in a Girls’ High School

Who Is a Good Muslim? Making Proper Faith in a Girls’ High School

(p.83) Four Who Is a Good Muslim? Making Proper Faith in a Girls’ High School
Gendered Paradoxes

Fida J. Adely

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter analyzes the struggles between texts, teachers, and students to define proper Islamic mores in religion classes and beyond. At al-Khatwa, the debates about “true” Islamic teaching and what should be taught about Islam were enmeshed with similar struggles outside of school and specifically with a local da’wa or “piety” movement that made its way into school. All schools in Jordan require formal religious instruction; however, in the space of the school, religious instruction could also be quite informal. Although discussions about morality stemmed from multiple notions of respectability and progress that drew on notions of family honor, kin obligations, and tradition more generally, the author takes up the very explicit efforts of some actors within the al-Khatwa School to define what is Islamic and what proper Islamic behavior is for girls and young women.

Keywords:   Islamic mores, religion classes, al-Khatwa, Islamic teaching, da’wa, religious instruction, Islamic behavior

We don’t want you to think that those girls out there represent the true Islam. We want you to come in here [into the prayer room] and see us. We hope we are examples of good Muslims.

—Amina, eleventh grader, president of the prayer room committee

Attempts to educate students and adults at al-Khatwa about religion were both ubiquitous and obscure in everyday life and interactions in school. All schools in Jordan require formal religious instruction; however, in the space of the school, religious instruction could also be quite informal. For example, one day the lab teacher asked a religion teacher about purification rituals before praying. On another occasion, I overheard a student admonishing her friend for gossiping, drawing on religious grounds. And, in another example, I listened as the principal asked the school community to fulfill their obligation to do zakat, or to tithe, by helping to cover the high school completion exam fees of some of the poorer students. My own presence made for much conversation about Christianity. Although discussions about morality stemmed from multiple notions of respectability and progress, which drew on notions of family honor, kin obligations, and tradition more generally, here I take up the very explicit efforts of some actors within the al-Khatwa School to define what is Islamic and, more specifically, what proper Islamic behavior is for girls and young women. Understanding these efforts is critical to providing a broader view of the struggles surrounding religious authority within Jordanian society.

Teaching about Islam in schools goes beyond the official curriculum and entails a set of daily practices, school-based activities, and day-to-day interactions. It involves actors—teachers, students, and parents—all of whom bring a variety of perspectives to any number of pressing questions about what it means to be a good Muslim in Jordan today. As described in the previous chapter, even extracurricular (p.84) activities and events designed to instill patriotism and “teach” citizenship could become the subject of religious “lessons” as they at times highlighted debates about modesty and proper comportment for a Muslim woman, as well as the religious propriety of music. In this chapter, I analyze the struggles between texts, teachers, and students to define proper Islamic mores in religion classes and beyond. At al-Khatwa, the debates about “true” Islamic teaching and what should be taught about Islam were enmeshed with similar struggles outside of school and specifically with a local da‘wa1 or “piety” movement that made its way into school.

Competing interpretations of Islamic orthodoxy come to the fore in schools in unique ways; schools provide a critical lens onto contemporary religious sentiments and the tensions that emerge when contending religious projects seek to be authoritative. Schools are not isolated from the debates over religious meaning and practice in which local actors are engaged outside of school. The boundaries around religious debates in schools and state institutions are somewhat circumscribed but cannot be entirely controlled. Moreover, schooling—a project of state development embedded in global educational narratives—creates new models and expectations for living as an “educated” person that cannot be divorced from debates about religion and proper forms of piety, particularly for young women. At al-Khatwa, teachers and administrators gave religious activities and religious discourse space to flourish. and as a result, the contests over religious authority flourished also. Indeed, by employing religion to maintain discipline and to point students in the “right” direction, educational institutions expand the arena for such efforts both spatially and discursively (Coe 2005; Starrett 1998).

As I have argued throughout this book, schools are particularly significant in the lives of young women, and this importance extends to their religious lives. As with young people in many other parts of the world, becoming “a more committed Muslim” was one way in which some girls at al-Khatwa sought to demonstrate maturity and to shape their sense of self during a period of young adulthood (Smith and Denton 2005; Wilkins 2008). Yet the relative newness of mass education as well as dramatic transformations in the organization of family, work, and public life in a relatively short period of time means that religious explorations can be particularly fraught with the ambiguity that stems from competing perspectives on the role of religion in public life and the role of women in present-day Jordan. Many of the public deliberations about proper faith are deeply gendered, marked by passionate debates about the (p.85) role of women in contemporary Jordanian society. Girls at al-Khatwa were very much at the center of such polemics.

What became clear at al-Khatwa is that what constitutes being a better Muslim for young women in Jordan today is not always self-evident and is in some instances openly debated. Furthermore, even though the public school is technically the domain of the state, other actors brought their own perspectives on Islam into the school, and the state curriculum (as embodied in the textbooks) did not stand alone. Even the state’s own gendered narrative in the curriculum is at times inconsistent, reflecting the competing interests and perspectives of a variety of state representatives. Teachers and students interpreted and deployed lessons from the textbooks, lessons that catalyzed religious debates but did not entirely contain them. At times, they drew on other materials and media sources, or their own religious convictions, as they actively engaged in the day-to-day praxis that is integral to the making of orthodoxy—what Talal Asad (1993) describes as the “(re)-ordering of knowledge that governs the ‘correct’ form of Islamic practices” to achieve “discursive coherence” and dominance (210). Moreover, schooling itself triggers particular religious debates, due both to its formal presentation of religious content and to its employment of religiosity to promote particular values and behavior (Starrett 1998). Finally, the modern project of schooling provides new images of what a girl’s future may hold, and these new trajectories are entangled with debates about what it means to be a pious Muslim woman today.

At al-Khatwa these deliberations were embodied in the preaching of Amina, the eleventh grader who regularly lectured her peers, drawing on the influences of the da‘wa group in which she was active, her own independent research and reading on Islam, and the religious programs on television that she argued preached the true Islam. The debates also came to life in the directives of Miss Suheil, the religion teacher, who as the official religion expert worked to establish authority by regularly critiquing that which she viewed to be outside the bounds of true Islam, whether it was the extremism of local da‘wa groups and the conservatism of local tradition, or the “other type of extremism,” characterized for Miss Suheil by immoral satellite television programs or the ideas of “feminists” outside the bounds of the religiously acceptable. Miss Jude, another religion teacher, generally let the textbook guide her, but students regularly questioned and challenged the content, and she herself emphasized particular themes and downplayed those that did not fit her particular viewpoint. Others at al-Khatwa similarly engaged in such debates even if they did not take center stage. The textbooks, like television preachers (p.86) and “immoral” satellite programs, provided important substance for such arguments.

Legitimate Religious Knowledge

“Orthodoxy” is not easy to secure in conditions of radical change. This is not because orthodox discourse is necessarily against any change but because it aspires to be authoritative.2

—Talal Asad

Competing projects to define religious orthodoxy characterize religious discourse and practice in Jordan today. With a religious revival in the region that has now spanned nearly three decades, the power to define and monitor religious knowledge has been at the center of struggles between the state, various Islamic groups, and Jordanians who seek to live as good Muslims. Key to constructing religious legitimacy has been official efforts to control religious discourse and define what is religiously legitimate, allowable, and “true.” Since Jordan’s founding, the Hashemite regime has based its legitimacy to some measure on its Islamic credentials, and this continues to be at the core of Jordan’s self-definition as a state. In this vein, the Hashemites have emphasized their status as descendants of the prophet Muhammad and protectors of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem as the basis for their religious legitimacy (Anderson 2001; Katz 2005; Layne 1994). However, this narrative represents only one dimension of the regime’s larger efforts to control religious discourse and practice. The regime has sought to promote a particular vision of a moderate Islam in Jordan (and in the region) by sponsoring conferences for religious scholars, by emphasizing its vision in public speeches and policy statements, and by seeking to control the production and transmission of religious knowledge within Jordan and beyond.

In November 2004, during the month of Ramadan (the Muslim holy month of fasting), King Abdullah II delivered the “Amman Message,” an official religious platform for the regime, which emphasizes that Islam is a religion of moderation, peace, and progress:

In this declaration we speak frankly to the [Islamic] nation, at this difficult juncture in its history, regarding the perils that beset it. We are aware of the challenges confronting the nation, threatening its identity, assailing its tenets … and working to distort its religion. … Today the magnanimous message of Islam faces a vicious attack from those who through distortion and fabrication try to portray (p.87) Islam as an enemy to them. It is also under attack from some who claim affiliation with Islam and commit irresponsible acts in its name. (“Amman Message”)

The Amman Message was a response to internal concerns about the growing strength of militant Islamic groups that threaten the regime, as well as religious extremism in the region more broadly (International Crisis Group 2005; Wiktorowicz 2001).3 After the public launch of this message, the regime initiated an ongoing initiative under the framework of the Amman Message, which aims to take leadership in authoring and delimiting legitimate religious discourse in all its dimensions in Jordan and the region. The message specifically emphasizes the importance of education in this regard: “Hope lies in the scholars of our Nation, that through the reality of Islam and its values they will enlighten the intellects of our youth. … The scholars shield our youth from the danger of sliding down the paths of ignorance, corruption, close-mindedness, and subordination. It is our scholars who illuminate for them the paths of tolerance, moderation, and goodness, and prevent them from [falling] into the abysses of extremism and fanaticism that destroy the spirit and body” (“Amman Message”). Thus, in Jordan as in many other states, the proper education is considered critical to preventing religious extremism among young people. To this end, the regime has also sought to keep close control over religious public spaces, religious teaching, and preaching in mosques and in Islamic centers (Antoun 2006; Wiktorowicz 2001).

The regime’s efforts in this regard have been in response to competing religious narratives and authorities. Throughout the Middle East since as early as the 1970s, religious movements of various persuasions, from those with overtly political agendas to those concerned with encouraging greater piety and promoting new interpretations of what it means to live as good Muslims in the contemporary world, have gained prominence and popular currency. As discussed in chapter 2, the increasing prominence of Islamist movements in the region and the growth in religious sentiment among the population have led to a new politics of identity, with debates about religious practice and politics at the center. Private Islamic organizations, most notably those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, have been in competition with the state over the authoring of religious discourse.4 These developments challenge the regime’s attempts to control and shape religious discourse and the model of Jordanian and Islamic citizenship the regime has put forth. Perhaps one of the most underexplored avenues for the regime’s efforts to control religious discourse is mass public schooling, the institution that acts as the (p.88) primary purveyor of a state discourse of religious authenticity.5

Jordanians have access to a variety of Islamic centers of education throughout the country where they can go to learn about Islam, Islamic teachings, and living their lives as good Muslims. These institutions include formally registered ones under the auspices of the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs as well as private centers. The Muslim Brotherhood has also been active in providing its own private religious education through a network of Islamic centers under its umbrella.6 Many of the young women at al-Khatwa had attended or were currently attending some form of religious education outside of school, particularly for Qur’anic recitation.7 For the school-aged population, such centers supplement the religious education that they receive in school and at home, as is the case in other countries (Boyle 2006).

Although there are many contexts for learning about Islam in Jordan, schools are critical spaces for examining the efforts to secure orthodoxy (Asad 1993). Textbooks, which are synonymous with curriculum in this context, are the most palpable tools in this endeavor, presenting “official wish-images” about proper faith and religious practice (Limbert 2007: 121). In Jordanian state schools, religion is a formal subject that all Muslim students must take from first grade until twelfth grade.8 In high school in 2005, all students took at least three periods of religion a week, and students in the literary or humanities track took an additional three periods in the eleventh and twelfth grades.9 The religion class is more specifically an Islamic religion class, and so Jordan’s Christian minority is exempted from this subject throughout their years in the public school system.10 At al-Khatwa, Christian students typically left their classroom during religion class. On occasion, Christian students remained either because they wanted to stay indoors out of the cold or because they were curious about the religion lessons.11 The form and content of the religious curriculum vary from year to year and for the different academic tracks after the tenth grade, although one finds a significant amount of repetition and revisiting of particular themes and topics within and across textbooks.12

Topics covered in these textbooks range from the more “technical” matters of religious doctrine, specifically the methods and principles of jurisprudence, or fiqh and Qur’anic interpretation (al-Sawa et al. 2001), to lessons about the implications of religious teaching for a range of day-to-day matters from marriage and family life, to work, economic systems, and professional unions.13 Although all the textbooks make religious references, the relationship between religious doctrine (in the form of verses from the Qur’an or ahadith) and many of these day-to-day matters is less than (p.89) direct. This is most evident in Islamic Education, the eleventh-grade text, which deals with a range of contemporary topics outside the specific purview of Islamic teaching, such as a discussion about unions in the chapter on Islam and labor (al-Dughmi et al. 1996: 203).14 Even when the authors of such texts do not draw on particular religious teachings to verify or contextualize a particular topic, they frame lessons in the textbook such that they read as the Islamic teaching on this topic so as to establish “textual authority” (Anderson 2007; Messick 1996).

Yet textbooks provide us with a limited view of what happens in schools, what teachers and students do with official texts, and how they interpret them. It is misleading to speak of a singular state vision for religious education, since state bureaucrats (some of whom are directly involved in developing curriculum) hold divergent perspectives on the shape that Islam should take in public education, and this miscellany is reflected in part in inconsistencies in the official narratives and in the broader curriculum. In addition to the formal and intended curriculum, I observed myriad ways and spaces—in the classroom, prayer room, schoolyard, and teachers’ room—within which actors in school attempted to teach others about religion, religious practices, and living piously. I draw on observations from religion classes and some reference to the curriculum to show how the curriculum provides a foundation for discussion in religious studies, one that is in turn shaped by students and teachers. Most importantly, such deliberations were not limited to religion class, as teachers and students worked to convey their vision of true Islam in many other contexts in the school. Not all these efforts were equally fruitful; however, they all represent significant dimensions of this account, both because they aspired to be authoritative and because they are indicative as well as constitutive of the struggles surrounding proper faith in Jordan today. As the school’s official authorities, teachers were central to the debates about being a good Muslim in school.

Miss Suheil’s Distinction

Teachers, both educators and civil servants, are at the forefront of state educational efforts. As representatives of the state, they are charged with implementing state curricular goals (goals they have little say in delineating, like teachers in most countries),15 but in many respects they are the farthest removed from the centers of power in the offices of the Ministry of Education and other related state institutions.16 Instead, they act as mediators of (p.90) the textbook in schools and as the main arbiters of what can and cannot be said in the classroom. Miss Suheil, a religion teacher at al-Khatwa, was one of the most popular teachers among students and regularly engaged them in discussions about how Islam should guide their lives.

When queried about their most accessible teachers, students almost unanimously mentioned Miss Suheil. Her distinction as a favored classroom teacher also stemmed from her pedagogical technique. She employed teaching methods typically associated with “progressive” pedagogical theory, including small-group exercises, role playing, and skits.17 For example, on one occasion, drawing from a lesson entitled “The path to seeking knowledge” (al-Dughmi 1996: 153), Miss Suheil had her students develop skits to demonstrate how early Islamic scholars traveled about in search of knowledge. I observed one skit prepared by six students who acted out the travels and interactions of Abu Ayoub al-Ansari (155). The students were engaged, and the excitement in the classroom was palpable. Miss Suheil asked two classmates to comment on the quality of the skit and the lessons embedded in it, concluding by reminding the students that they all had the obligation to pursue knowledge. Then she asked the students to discuss what they would like to become when they grew up. Samar responded that she would like to be a journalist, while Ayesha said she wanted to memorize the Qur’an in its entirety. Jumana answered, “I want to be on Star Academy,” which led her classmates to erupt in laughter. Miss Suheil reminded the class that they should not laugh at anyone, although it was clear the girls were laughing because Jumana was once again having fun at Miss Suheil’s expense.

Pedagogically speaking, such exercises were unique at al-Khatwa, and despite the jesting of students like Jumana, the students appreciated Miss Suheil’s efforts. Although students found Miss Suheil’s exercises enjoyable and her classes interesting, the opinions of her colleagues were not always as generous. Some teachers found her presumptuous and felt that her extra efforts in class were meant to paint their own practice in a less than positive light, a tension common to many workplace settings. They seemed threatened by her pedagogical authority; her work outside of school as a researcher and writer may have compounded this resentment.18

Miss Suheil’s role in the classroom was critical both because she was the arbiter of the curricular content presented in the text and because she aspired to be authoritative. As an educator, she explicitly took part in struggles over religious authority in her own community (Bawadi al-Naseem), juxtaposing what she believed to be true Islam with what she viewed as illegitimate. She also typically used her religion class to launch into a social critique of Jordan and the Arab world more broadly. She found much to be lacking in the education system, (p.91) criticizing teaching methods and the particular types of knowledge valued in Jordan. She also believed that employing progressive teaching methods was indispensable for the confidence and moral edification of the high school girls who were her charges.

In her work to define proper faith, Miss Suheil frequently commented on the problem of tradition, various forms of “extremism,” and the ways in which they denied women their rights and corrupted true Islam. Miss Suheil defined true Islam by juxtaposing it with what it was not: Islam was to be found in neither the traditions that oppressed women, nor the conservative views of religious elements in her community, nor the depravity of some television programs. True Islam gave women the right and responsibility to pursue education, work outside the home, and contribute to society. True Islam enabled a woman to be a full participant in her society while remaining within the bounds of what was good and moral. For Miss Suheil, the process of defining the terms of moderation was critical to conveying her vision of Islam to her students.

For an educated and pious woman her perspective was not atypical. Some of the most vocal female Islamists throughout the region have argued that it is the corruption of Islam that has denied women their rights.19 Miss Suheil was not involved in any religious organization or movement; however, being a committed Muslim was central to her sense of self and purpose. She drew on the topics raised in the textbooks to launch into broader conversations about education, progress, Islam, and women. All of these were part and parcel of her efforts to point young women in the right direction and to defend her authority as teacher when it was challenged by other voices of religious and moral authority.

Da‘wa: The Call to Islam

In the spring of 2005, I attended a lesson on da‘wa in Miss Suheil’s Islamic culture class.20 As previously stated, da‘wa refers to the responsibility of individual Muslims to call others to be good Muslims, although it can also include calling non-Muslims to Islam. In the past few decades, however, da‘wa activities have been central to the formal activities of Islamic organizations, “encompass[ing] a range of practical activities that were once considered outside the proper domain of the classical meaning of the term,” such as establishing neighborhood mosques, social welfare organizations, Islamic education institutions, and printing presses (Mahmood 2005: 58). Saba Mahmood argues that “while many of these institutional practices have historical precedents, they have, in the last fifty years, increasingly come to be organized under the (p.92) rubric of da‘wa” (58). Da‘wa activities have been central to the mission of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, as well as those of other Islamic organizations, including the Jama‘at Tabligh (Islamic Missionary Society), whose explicit goal is missionary activity within Jordan, “enjoining friends and strangers alike to practice Islam” (Wiktorowicz 2001: 136).21 The responsibility to do da‘wa was described as a duty for all Muslims in religion textbooks, but it was also evidenced in the myriad ways that actors within the school worked to call their fellow Muslims to follow the true Islam. What this duty consisted of could be a matter of debate, as became evident in Miss Suheil’s class on da‘wa.

The topic of da‘wa was a full unit in the Islamic Culture textbook for all eleventh graders, and I sat in on several classes during which it was discussed (Jabr et al. 2004). The unit was in turn divided into three sections: da‘wa; the methods of da‘wa; and the goals of da‘wa. In the first lesson of this unit, the authors discuss the duty of all Muslims to engage in da‘wa: “The Islamic calling is a responsibility to be borne by all Muslim men and women within their ability to do so and within the limits of their knowledge. Thus, the responsibility of the great scholars is greater then the responsibility of others and the responsibility of the ruler greater than that of his followers. … However, the responsibility is that of all Muslims within the limits of his or her knowledge and abilities” (169–70). Upon beginning this unit with a group of eleventh graders in the science track, Miss Suheil summarized some of the main points of the lesson but quickly branched out to other topics:


  • The call should go out to everyone, but each person should have a chance to decide. For example, you can talk to your friend about the importance of the hijab, but she must decide on her own. … What are people’s rights in al-da‘wa? People have the right to hear the message but with respect. We must respect people’s choices even if they go the other way.
  • By the way, those involved in da‘wa here [in Jordan] don’t follow these guidelines. They think they are the only ones who know the truth. They pressure people. For example, regarding women covering their face, only one of four religious scholars has called for it. The da‘wa people say women should cover their face. They say cover your face to fight imperialism.
  • Miss Suheil began by discussing the proper methods and ethics of da‘wa, which were expressly discussed in the text (180). She criticized those involved in such activities for failing to follow these guidelines, accusing them of being aggressive and of (p.93) believing they had a monopoly on the truth. She used the example of women covering their face, a practice uncommon in Jordan but increasingly being practiced and encouraged by some groups involved in da‘wa. Again, she worked to bolster her own authoritative message about Islam by critiquing that which she saw as unacceptable or illegitimate.

    As class discussion continued, prompted by a passage in the textbook about calling non-Muslims to Islam, Miss Suheil talked about the perception of Islam in the West:


  • There are those in the West who accuse Muslims of being terrorists. This does not represent the true Islam but rather a small group that claims to be Muslims.

  • And there are those who say that Islam oppresses women.

  • Can you believe that they say that the hijab closes minds [she says this as if she thinks this notion is ridiculous and some of the girls laugh with her]. There was this woman who used to write this in the newspaper. She wrote that the hijab closes minds.

  • What was her background? Is she Muslim?

  • She is a Jordanian, a Muslim. Such attitudes are wrong, but so are those who follow their religion too strictly. For example there are those who believe that girls can’t go to the university because it is mixed [coeducational]. There are girls like that here [in the school].22 I tell them, “Is it better to stay home and not influence people at all?” She is worried about mixing with males. Well, we walk down the street with males. We all studied in the university [i.e., the teachers]. Did things fall apart? No.
  • We should be rational. Being extremely open and extremely closed or strict leave us with the same result. You decide how to behave at the university. You can decide to sit on the other side of the room. … A girl can be anything. She can be a journalist, a doctor, a teacher. … In Saudi Arabia they are too strict. … To a degree that is wrong.
  • Shortly thereafter she returned to the topic of the hijab again:


  • In the prayer room, some girls say that a pink ishar is wrong. That is ridiculous. It’s okay to wear colors and different styles. After all, God made beautiful things and God likes beauty, but with limits.

  • A lot of people believe this. They believe the ishar has to be white and the jelbab black.
  • A lesson on the Islamic da‘wa was made into an (p.94) opportunity to discuss the importance of moderation and to criticize those whom Miss Suheil considered to be extreme in their religious beliefs and in their efforts to convince others of the superiority of their beliefs. The class discussion also served to put Miss Suheil in the position of arbiter over what is “true.” The call for moderation was not unique. In fact, as discussed above, moderation and tolerance have been the hallmark of the current regime’s platform on Islam, and these themes have been threaded through most official pronouncements of the Ministry of Education. Furthermore, the concept of moderation is found throughout the religious curriculum, with a full lesson in the tenth-grade Islamic education textbook devoted to the topic. In some respects, Miss Suheil buttressed the state position on the need for religious moderation. Hoswever, she was not merely mimicking official discourse but rather appropriating it to address her own sense of what was corrupting Islam. Miss Suheil’s deployment of this discourse and the way in which she related it to the everyday realities of the girls at al-Khatwa made moderation a tangible ideal—one more directly linked to the lives of the students than somewhat abstract slogans in an official speech.

    In the class discussion I reference above, the notion of “moderation” specifically led to a commentary on women’s dress and access to higher education. Miss Suheil criticized members of the da‘wa movement for pressuring women to cover their faces, but she defended the practice of covering one’s hair, a practice widely accepted in Bawadi al-Naseem.23 However, unlike some other teachers at al-Khatwa, she never told students who did not cover that they should wear the hijab. She criticized those in the West and Jordan who considered the hijab to be oppressive. The student who responded to the claim that the “hijab closes minds” was almost indignant, assuming that such a statement could come only from an outsider: “What is her background?” the student asked. Miss Suheil clarified that it was a Jordanian who had a criticized the hijab. Miss Suheil rarely leveled her criticism at “outsiders” (although she often compared Jordan and the Arab world with the West), reserving her censure for her own society. Indeed, on a number of occasions, I have heard elite Jordanians complain about the hijab and “the closing of minds.” On one occasion, a Jordanian who worked with teachers complained about the prevalence of veiling among them. She wondered how teachers oppressed by the hijab could be effective educators. Thus, the struggles surrounding the terms of Islam, education, and progress for women were very much local ones enmeshed with other contests for power and influence. Young women in Bawadi al-Naseem were situated in a particular place vis-à-vis these local debates.24

    In this vein, Miss Suheil’s criticism often turned toward actors within the (p.95) school, where the struggle over religious authority was most immediate for her as a religion teacher. Thus, when Miss Suheil argued that it was possible to be modest and fashionable (as in the color-of-hijab discussion), she was responding to lectures that had been given on campus in the prayer room about proper forms of dress for Muslim women, where females who wore colorful headscarves were criticized. At times, she specifically challenged beliefs articulated by the student president of the prayer room, Amina, although Miss Suheil never mentioned Amina by name. As the religion teacher and the in-school religion “expert,” Miss Suheil may have felt personally challenged by other efforts to teach about Islam in school.25 Miss Suheil responded to the challenge posed by Amina, as it was critical to establishing her authority as a teacher. Amina’s challenge was both individual and institutional, as Amina both functioned as an unofficial authority in the school and was linked to a da‘wa movement in the community. Amina had made it clear to many in the school that she would not go to the university on moral grounds because all of the universities were coeducational. Miss Suheil completely rejected such grounds for not pursuing higher education. First, she argued, if one (a female) wanted to be in a position to influence people (as in the case of the da‘wa preachers), being out and active in places like the university was important. Second, with sarcasm she said, “[Will] things fall apart?” In contemporary Jordanian society men and women often found themselves sharing public spaces, and moral chaos had not ensued; Jordanian society did not fall apart.

    The religion textbooks generally emphasize the importance of knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge for all Muslims, as long as one approaches learning with seriousness of purpose, puts forth real effort, and remains ethical in his/her interactions with teachers and students (al-Dughmi et al. 1996: 144–62). The twelfth-grade Islamic text (Jabr et al. 2004) specifically addresses coeducational institutions in a lesson called “The Provisions for the Mixing of the Sexes” (108). In this unit one can sense some ambivalence about the propriety of young women going to coeducational institutions, although it is not forbidden by any means. The lesson outlines the conditions under which it is acceptable for men and women to be together.26 Among the acceptable situations, the textbook highlights three: at times of war; to go to the market; or for the pursuit of education (Jabr et al. 2004; 108). However, two pages later the authors say that the pursuit of knowledge in a coeducational setting “is permitted only under the condition that the environment is completely devoted to learning as in the atmosphere of worship in a mosque or during the pilgrimage” (110). Although the textbook states that Islam permits (p.96) attendance at coeducational settings, it emphasizes the need for seriousness of purpose, as well as modest dress and demeanor. For Amina, the textbook did not go far enough. In fact, many families were concerned about the potential for moral corruption (typically a reference to relationships with the opposite sex) at the university, and rumors about immoral behavior at universities were rampant. In light of these concerns, many parents insisted that their daughters attend classes and come right home, in keeping with the directive of the textbook to stay focused on the educational imperative. At the same time, some parents were willing to send their daughters to other cities to study and to live in dorms. Thus, “seriousness of purpose” was open to interpretation.

    In many respects, the fear among some Jordanians that moral corruption is threatening their way of life is at the crux of the struggles that Miss Suheil’s students face in Jordan today. Betty Anderson (2007: 72), in her analysis of Islamic education textbooks in Jordan, charts a narrative of change as threatening. According to Anderson, students are instructed that “individual transgression will lead to disintegration of society” and that Western influences will corrupt the Muslim world intellectually and culturally (81–82). Just as Amina and others in the da‘wa movement seek to convince young women and their families of the moral perils in contemporary Jordan (at universities, in schools, on television), the official “wish-images” in textbooks sometimes foster similar sentiments. Even Miss Suheil, who sought to temper the crisis mentality of people like Amina, found the “foreign” influences in media excesses to be a threat to the moral edification of youth. However, she did not necessarily frame such media as Western, and many of the programs or pop stars criticized by adults at al-Khatwa were Lebanese or Egyptian. She also framed the West in positive terms, particularly with respect to education and intellectualism. Furthermore, her pedagogical outlook meant that she preferred to engage her students in discussion about various forms of media rather than preach about dangers and hellfire. Using her authority in the classroom, she sought to empower the girls but with the intention of guiding them toward her vision of correct Islam and the rejection of other perspectives.

    My observations of religion classes and Miss Suheil’s class in particular reinforced my conviction that textbook analysis is a limited way to understand what happens in schools. The teacher had a significant role in conveying the curriculum, and students at times shaped the content of the lesson as evidenced in Miss Jude’s class, which I discuss below. More important, the religion classes I attended did not conform to the stereotypical picture of religious education, and Islamic (p.97) education in particular, shared by many in Jordan and in the United States; my research shows we cannot assume that religion classes by default stifle thought.

    Answer Our Questions and You Will Get “Points from God”

    Miss Jude was a young substitute teacher who at times struggled with classroom control. She was a deeply religious woman who had married shortly after finishing high school. After a few years of marriage, she convinced her spouse to support her in pursuing a bachelor’s degree; she had only recently graduated before coming to al-Khatwa. Her approach to teaching religion was more traditional than Miss Suheil’s. Like Miss Suheil, she typically started with the lesson in the text and at times made links between the texts and everyday life. However, she primarily talked at her students and often admonished the girls for behavior she considered to be un-Islamic, although always in a gentle and friendly way, never raising her voice. However, Miss Jude did not completely determine what happened in the classroom, as the students questioned her and at times challenged her. Also, because she was a new teacher who conveyed a sense of insecurity, some of the older students took advantage of her by being disruptive and making it difficult for her teach.

    I observed fourteen of Miss Jude’s religion classes and spoke with her on a number of occasions. One thing I noticed in Miss Jude’s classes was that she often began class by asking girls to cover their hair. Some of the students at al-Khatwa wore headscarves only outside of school and had headscarves with them. Some of these girls responded to Miss Jude by covering their hair. However, others disregarded her, and some did not even have a headscarf to begin with. In some classes (such as an unruly group of eleventh graders) she did not even broach the topic. The tenth graders had the best rapport with Miss Jude, and the students liked her. Although she was not always the most engaging teacher, she was kind. One day I joined a group of tenth graders for a lesson on “moderation in Islam” (‘Oweidhah et al. 2001). The lesson in the textbook began: “God made the Islamic community [umma] the best community, distinguishing it with the most perfect law [i.e., religious law] and the soundest method, and made the community moderate. What is moderation then?” (210). This opening statement is followed by a Qur’anic verse related to the lesson, which is the case in every lesson in this textbook. The remainder of the lesson addresses moderation in one’s faith (belief), in (Islamic) law or legislation, and in spending, eating, (p.98) drinking, and punishments (i.e., for sins and/or crimes). Drawing on the lesson, Miss Jude began a discussion about what moderation meant for religious practice and in one’s life:


  • What does moderation in Islam mean?

  • You should not just pray all the time and do nothing else.

  • Yes, you need to take care of your body too. Islam makes adjustments for those with physical limitations. So a traveler does not have to fast, nor does a pregnant woman. You need to take care of your body and spirit. Zakat [tithe] puts you at ease … but even zakat should be moderate.27
  • We should also show moderation in other ways. We should show respect for teachers and not overdo our friendliness. It is overdoing it when you start calling teachers by nicknames like “Tutu.”
  • LENA:

  • Miss, that means you would be “Ju Ju.”
  • Miss Jude’s reference to the need for moderation in teacher-student relations was her own and perhaps stemmed from her own efforts to assert authority in the classroom as a new teacher. Shortly after Miss Jude discussed the importance of not being too friendly with one’s teachers, Deema got up from her seat to throw something in the wastebasket and then proceeded to walk by Miss Jude’s desk and pinch her cheek. The class all laughed at this excessive friendliness. Even Miss Jude could not contain her smile. The students were comfortable with Miss Jude, perhaps too comfortable in her view.

    At times, however, Miss Jude tried to get the girls to take their religious lessons more seriously. One week she brought a DVD to school, what the girls called the “the death DVD” as it was filled with scenes of accidents, funerals, and deaths, with subtitles about the afterlife and at times the voice of someone preaching about the afterlife. The DVD was clearly meant to put “the fear of God” into these young women.28 The following week she asked the girls if they had been affected by the DVD: “How many of you started praying as a result of watching the DVD?” Two of the girls raised their hands. One girl joked that she no longer went to the market as she was afraid to be hit by a car. But other girls said the DVD made them cry and fear the loss of loved ones. Miss Jude continued, “Who began wearing an ishar as a result of the DVD?” None of the girls raised their hand. Miss Jude frequently discussed the need for head covering and at times addressed particular girls who did not cover their hair, asking them when they would start covering. I had heard one other teacher, a math teacher, ask a student the same question. Students told me that for the more religious teachers (not necessarily the religion teachers), this was to be expected. Even the (p.99) official religion curriculum explicitly addresses the need to cover one’s hair.

    The religious curriculum included passages that explicitly addressed modesty in dress for men and women and provided Miss Jude with an opening to emphasize the need for a woman to cover her hair. Lesson 37 in the tenth-grade religion textbook explicitly addresses clothing and modest dress in Islam for men and women (“Clothing and Decoration in Islam”). Although this lesson does not include an explicit discussion of veiling, it references a saying attributed to the Prophet (hadith) that is interpreted to mean that women should cover everything but their hands and face (‘Oweidhah et al. 2001: 174). The last lesson in the tenth-grade textbook specifically enjoins women to cover their “wrists, arms, neck, ears, and the hair on their heads” (242). Miss Jude reiterated the passages in the lesson on women’s dress, adding that the need to cover one’s face was debatable.29 For the most part Miss Jude stuck quite closely to the text. However, she added her own assertion that unrelated men and women should not shake hands. I found no mention in this lesson (or other lessons I had read in the religion textbooks) of a prohibition against handshaking, and in my experience such beliefs were considered to be too conservative by many Jordanians, including students and adults at al-Khatwa. However, like covering one’s face, handshaking between the sexes had become another marker of a new form of public piety in Jordan, a development closely associated with new religious movements and sentiments in the region (Deeb 2006). These piety movements have worked to redefine the requirements of living Islamically in a contemporary era, in ways that are not necessarily in tandem with the public discourse of the regime, although the textbooks—the official state religion curriculum—contradicted this discourse at times.

    Many girls raised their hands during this lesson and began to ask questions: “Who should you shake hands with? What if you have friendly relations with your neighbor and he is like your brother?” Ibtisam asked if it was acceptable for men to look at women uncovered on television. However, before Miss Jude could answer her questions, the girls began debating this among themselves. The discussion then shifted to marriage (the final paragraph in this lesson was about marriage), and one student asked out loud, “What about women marrying women?” Miss Jude ignored her. The student behind me, whom I did not know, kept muttering things that the teacher could not hear. At one point, when Miss Jude was talking about the immodest dress of people before Islam, this student said, “They were smarter then.” This student also said something about never getting married. Miss Jude seemed uncomfortable with questions but the students persisted.

    During another classroom observation, (p.100) Miss Jude seemed particularly uncomfortable with student questions. On this day, Lena initiated a discussion about fate, destiny, and free will. The lesson itself began with a brief synopsis of the previous lesson on moderation, but Lena raised her hand and said, “There is something that I have been wondering about.” She went on:


  • If people are destined and God gives grace [ziraq], then it’s not fair to judge them if their fate is written.
  • RITA:

  • If God made us and knows what we will do, then what is left?

  • It is not that God will determine what you do. It’s just that God knows what you will do. There have been many debates and judgments made about this among religious scholars so we don’t need to repeat this.
  • Miss Jude seemed bothered by the questions, and Lena sensed this. She responded to her teacher, “We are just using our minds.” Miss Jude in turn said, “Use them for something useful. Read books [for example].” Rita raised her hand to add to this conversation; the teacher ignored her, even joking to the class about ignoring troublesome students. After Rita had been standing and waving her hand for almost five minutes, Miss Jude said jokingly, “Oh. Rita. Do you have a question?” Rita, bothered by the teacher’s actions, said, “Just forget it. I don’t want to ask anymore, but, Miss, it’s not right to cut me off.”

    Miss Jude tried to refocus the class on herself. She asked two girls why they were not wearing an ishar, neither of whom responded, and then she began talking about prayer and the need to focus on God during prayer. Some students were not paying attention at all; I saw Kareema and her friends looking at pictures of movie stars cut out of a magazine and then passing them to their friends. But others continued to ask questions, and Miss Jude remarked, “Your questions don’t end.” Deema responded, “Miss, they are questions about religion. You will get points with God [for answering them]. You will go to heaven.” Miss Jude seemed a bit overwhelmed by all the questions but kept smiling. Then Majida, who was usually somewhat quiet in class, asked a question Miss Jude seemed more comfortable with: “Miss, I don’t wear an ishar. I pray. I don’t do anything wrong. Will God judge me?” Miss Jude responded, “Everything will be judged for its own right. Being stubborn about something is wrong. It’s like disobeying your parents just to be stubborn.” The class ended on this note, but this group of tenth graders persisted in their questions in the coming week.

    (p.101) I found many contrasts between Miss Suheil’s classes and those of Miss Jude. Most significantly Miss Suheil was more experienced and explicitly experimented with different pedagogical techniques. Both were concerned with the moral education of their students, but Miss Jude’s directives were more specific and related to particular “Islamic” practices and behavior, most consistently the dress and composure of females. Miss Suheil, on the other hand, gave more general advice and was more broadly concerned with inspiring and encouraging her students to be confident and strong as well as moral beings. Thus, although each of these women was quite religious by local standards, their vision of what this required of them as teachers varied. Each teacher shaped the content of religious lessons in the classroom by deciding what to emphasize from the text and what direction to take the textbook lesson. Yet neither completely defined the parameters of those lessons, both because the text and religious doctrine as portrayed in the text created a framework for discussion and because student responses were varied and at times exigent.

    The place of religion in the assessments that determine students’ future educational opportunities is also relevant. Al-tarbiyya al-islamiyya (Islamic Education), the curriculum and textbook for eleventh graders in the humanities track, is a case in point. Because the girls would not be tested on this particular text in the tawjihi exam, Miss Suheil could veer from its contents without too much concern about jeopardizing the students’ scores. This was also the case with Miss Jude and her tenth-grade classes. The twelfth-grade religion teacher, in contrast, was focused on helping her students pass the high school completion test, which required memorizing the contents of their text. Thus, the possibilities in the class were in some sense shaped by the structures of the school and assessment system.

    At some level, religion class is more conducive to discussion and debate than other classes because of the way in which it relates to questions about proper living in the contemporary world. Gregory Starrett (1998) has argued that this process of making religion applicable and useful to everyday life in state religious curricula—what he calls “functionalization”—has unintentionally supplied the tools for a counterdiscourse of Islamic opposition in the Egyptian context: “In order for compulsory schooling to relay knowledge of the ‘legitimate’ religious culture sufficient to attain its goal of social control, it must use pedagogical techniques that work to undermine the authority of the holders of religious legitimacy by marginalizing the means of cultural production that they possess” (187). Starrett argues that this process of functionalization serves to undermine not only the state’s (p.102) dominance over the interpretation of religious knowledge but that of the traditional religious authorities as well,30 in essence popularizing or democratizing processes of attaining and making meaning in religion. The way in which religion is objectified and then functionalized in state schools has a powerful albeit unintended effect. The curriculum in Jordan similarly functionalizes religion. However, the clearest models of these pedagogical techniques at al-Khatwa were Miss Suheil, Miss Jude, and Amina, the sixteen-year-old da‘iyya, or preacher. The textbooks are meant to impart orthodoxy, the accepted account of proper faith, but their transmission is dependent upon the work of the actual actors in the school. Proper behavior and comportment, legitimate textual references, and acceptable belief are communicated through the practices and narratives of individuals in the space of the school. The practices and discourses that vie for this authority are many, and not limited to religion class, but not everyone is accorded equal authority, as I will show in the example of Maysoon later in this chapter.

    Amina: An In-House Preacher

    Amina’s vocation was da‘wa. She wanted to show her peers the “true” Islam and thus was engaged in actively trying to define that truth. Amina was an average student who, as already discussed, regularly announced that she had no intention of going to college because it was coeducational and, hence, immoral. She was one of a handful of girls in this school and a small minority of women in Bawadi al-Naseem who wore the full khimar. In Jordanian colloquial, khimar refers to a long and loose robe, usually black, and a head covering that completely covers the face. Amina’s father had been a religion teacher for decades, and her family was active in da‘wa activities. Such a family history was not a given, however, for students active on the prayer room committee. Dunya, Amina’s friend and a prayer room committee member, came from a family that had only very recently become more observant, prompted by the “conversion” of her older sister, who became more religious and then preached to her own family, calling on them to be better Muslims.

    Amina considered herself to be a da‘iyya in training; in fact, she was already a preacher at school, taking any opportunity she could find to preach about being a good Muslim. In addition to giving lectures in the prayer room, she gave impromptu lectures in class if a teacher did not show up or if a teacher ended class early. She also had a tendency to turn an answer to a teacher’s question into a ten- or fifteen-minute monologue. Although Amina placed much weight upon her influence over students, on the few occasions where I observed (p.103) her “lecturing” her class, the majority seemed to lose interest quickly, and some seemed annoyed. The teachers at most encouraged her and at least tolerated her. At least one student who had been active in the prayer room committee quit because, as she said, “the girls go only when Amina is there, and when they are not in the prayer room they are fooling around outside. … The point is they act all nice and well-behaved around Amina, but the minute she’s not around they are like a zipper that’s wide open.” This student also bore some resentment because of Amina’s dominance in the prayer room.

    However, Amina did seem to hold sway over some students. Khadije, a twelfth grader, was a follower of Amina, and Amina’s influence led to major changes in Khadije’s dress (she began to cover her face) and in her behavior (she stopped listening to music). Khadije was socially awkward, had few friends, and was from a desperately poor family. She found much comfort in the attention she received from Amina and her peers. By discussing Khadije, I do not mean to imply that only someone so marginalized could respond to Amina’s preaching. Research around the globe has shown that becoming more religious, or seeking new religious experiences, is often part of the search for meaning or purpose in young people (Smith and Denton 2005; Wilkins 2008). Khadije followed her because she was looking for friendship and because she sought some status or recognition from her peers and maybe even her teachers. Although many of the students were ambivalent toward or even openly dismissive of Amina, some students clearly found her knowledge of Islam useful in their own struggles to make something meaningful in their lives, to help them get through problems at home, or just to make friends. Like their peers around the world, for some of the girls religion figured strongly in their coming-of-age process.

    One of the primary venues for Amina’s work was the prayer room, a small one-room building that had been constructed some time in the mid-1990s. Students who prayed regularly and wanted to do their midday prayers at the prescribed time were allowed to go into the prayer room to do so.31 In addition to being a space to pray, the prayer room was the site of lectures organized by a student committee during the midday break, and interested students could come hear a fellow student or a teacher speak on a particular topic related to Islam. According to Amina, it was her initiative as the student president that led to the lunchtime lectures in the prayer room.32 The number of students in the prayer room at lunchtime could be anywhere from fifteen to thirty, although their attendance seemed to trickle off as the semester progressed. The prayer room committee also held a number of contests or competitions of Qur’anic memorization and knowledge of the Qur’an. Students worked under the guidance of one teacher, Miss Majida, (p.104) who provided books and sometimes money as prizes for such competitions. Although Majida acted as an advisor, the students seemed to have almost complete control over the activities held in the prayer room, in distinct contrast with all other such “extracurricular” activities at school.33 Amina and Dunya corroborated this, stating that they received very few directives for their work.

    Al-Khatwa administrators, like many Jordanians, viewed the influence of religion and of more religious members of their community as positive and in line with their efforts to ensure that girls behaved, respected their teachers, and followed school rules.34 The principal talked about the role of the prayer room committee as supportive of the school staff’s goals:

    I tell them [the prayer room committee]: “Keep your focus on student behavior, manners, and discipline. Focus on these things so we can cut down on the problems in school.” If I notice that we [the school] are in need of a particular lesson, I will tell them, “Talk about this or that.” For example, sometimes I ask them to talk about makeup. Sometimes about lateness, absences, or the behavior of the girls in the street. These are the things on which we focus.

    The prayer room committee was seen as an ally in keeping the students in line. The staff and administration took the view that these girls, and especially Amina, were calling their fellow students to Islam and encouraging them to behave better, which had to be positive from the perspective of a staff trying to keep nearly six hundred students under control and out of serious moral trouble. To this end, Amina was free to act and preach as she saw fit, even though Amina represented a minority perspective, one that was considered overly conservative and even extreme by some. The independence given to this space and to the students involved in managing this space was uncharacteristic of the way in which business was normally conducted at al-Khatwa and in state schools.

    The leeway given to these students may have been a function of several dynamics: Amina was a student and not a teacher; the prayer room was an informal space; the primary actors were females. Had a teacher taken on the same role as Amina, her divergence from the official curriculum might have raised more concern. Indeed, Miss Suheil had been active in the prayer room prior to my arrival at al-Khatwa, and according to her, she had been discouraged by the administration from taking this role. Of course, a teacher could deviate from the official curriculum in the privacy of her own classroom. (p.105) However, preaching in the prayer room constituted a potentially more visible deviation. Indeed, the religiosity of teachers is a concern in Jordan, as it is in other countries such as Egypt (Herrera 2000), and the Muslim Brotherhood has long emphasized the importance of teaching and education.35 Furthermore, not only were these merely students, they were females. The specter of extremism that circulates in the region and around the globe is a decidedly male image. Although there has always been a role for women as religious authorities in Islam, the dominant image and reality of religious authority is male. The activities of adolescent girls like Amina are viewed as less authoritative and less threatening than activities undertaken by males.

    Amina and her peers were given the autonomy to pursue their da‘wa activities because these activities did not seem to openly contradict mainstream religious ideas and because they might be helpful in maintaining order in the school. However, in many respects Amina’s Islam did challenge other perspectives on the truth and the authority of others in the school to define what it means to be a good Muslim. By preaching outside the parameters of religion class and, in some instances, conveying a message that was different from that found in the classroom (e.g., concerning gendered modesty and the implications for women’s participation in public life), she posed a challenge to the official attempts to control religious discourse in schools and to propagate standard narratives about women and development. Furthermore, as depicted in the previous chapter, by constructing certain activities sanctioned by the state as haram, she indirectly challenged the regime’s religious legitimacy. On at least one occasion she also acted to monitor the realm of acceptable religious discourse, which I will explore now.

    Maysoon and “Unorthodox” Islam

    The terms of acceptable debate about Islam were limited, as I discovered in the case of Maysoon, a student who was almost expelled for her ideas about Islam. Maysoon was a sensitive eleventh grader easily brought to tears by an admonishment from a teacher. She seemed interested in religion—she read religious magazines and at times sung hymns in class—and usually went to the prayer room during break. When Maysoon did not show up for school for several days, I asked about her and heard conflicting stories about what had happened. One of her classmates said her parents took her out of school because she “caused problems.” Another girl told me that Maysoon had been transferred to another secondary school because of a disciplinary problem.36 She said she had heard that Maysoon had had an argument with Miss Majida. Another student said they (p.106) transferred her because she was sitting with groups of girls and talking with them about “strange” ideas; I tried to find out more about what had happened:


  • What kind of ideas?

  • Well, she is in this religious group called al-Habashiyya.
  • FIDA:

  • Are they Muslims?

  • Yes, they are, but they are not accepted by Islam.

  • They follow ‘Ali.
  • FIDA:

  • Isn’t that Shi‘a?

  • Yes, they are Shi‘a.
  • FIDA:

  • I didn’t know there were Shi‘a in Jordan.

  • They are from Palestine.
  • FIDA:

  • I didn’t think they had Shi‘a in Palestine either.
  • No one responded to my last comment and the period soon ended. What eventually became clear after repeated inquiries was that Maysoon had somehow gotten involved in a controversial Islamic movement called al-Habashiyya. She had been speaking to her peers about the al-Habashiyya movement, and this had led to her expulsion. Al-Habashiyya, which literally means Ethiopian, or al-Ahbash, is the commonly known name for the Association of Islamic Philanthropic Projects, an organization and movement established in Beirut by Shaykh ‘Abdalla, an Ethiopian Islamic scholar. Al-Ahbash are known for their emphasis on moderation and coexistence with Christians (Kabha and Erlich 2006: 525). They draw on some Sufi practices, although Mustafa Kabha and Haggai Erlich argue that Sufism is not central to the identity of the movement (2006: 525).37 Their movement has spread throughout the region, with a particularly strong presence in Lebanon and among Muslim minority populations in Europe. Al-Ahbash have been in direct conflict with Wahhabi scholars, and Saudi clerics have issued fatwas against them, accusing them of being “deviators” from Islamic orthodoxy (Kabha and Erlich 2006: 527).

    I never learned what ideas Maysoon had sought to share with her peers, but I discovered that the student prayer room committee and Amina in particular had brought these “unacceptable” ideas to the attention of their advisor, Miss Majida. Thus, what most students came to know about Maysoon’s expulsion was that she had had a disagreement with Miss Majida. On a couple of occasions, I tried to learn more about this incident from Amina and some of her peers, but they seemed determined to keep the details quiet, and I respected their wishes. When I asked Miss Suheil about Maysoon, (p.107) she did not explicitly discuss the incident, saying: “I do not like to just reject a student’s ideas. I don’t like to just disregard them. I like to approach them through discussion. I try and convince them.” Thus what made Miss Suheil unique as a religion teacher was not that she did not seek to be authoritative; rather, it was her pedagogical perspective, which viewed rational debate and discussion as the best means to “true” religious knowledge.

    To my surprise, Maysoon returned to school after several weeks. When I asked the principal what had happened, she explained: “Maysoon was talking about some religious movement, al-Habashiyya, in school with the girls. We do not allow new ideas that are not acceptable to society, especially ideas about religion, in school.” The principal explained that she and Maysoon’s father had agreed to let the girl think that she was expelled and then allow her to come back to school if she promised never to discuss such things again. The principal said that Maysoon’s parents had thought their daughter was going to “ordinary” religion lessons at someone’s house and did not realize that these ideas were being taught. Although al-Habashiyya has a small presence in Jordan (Kabha and Erlich 2006: 523–24), the group was clearly considered outside the realm of the acceptable.

    The staff and teachers in tandem with students worked to prevent the emergence of a different religious perspective—one outside the bounds of the dominant Sunni narrative. The al-Habashiyya movement was made “unthinkable” (Asad 1993: 35) by the power of this dominant narrative, and the move to silence Maysoon was swift. Maysoon was disciplined because she challenged the bounds of acceptable religious belief, in this case the dominant Sunni narrative. Amina seemed angered by Maysoon’s transgressions and even demanded an apology from her upon her return. In speaking with me, the principal did not convey any personal sentiments about al-Habashiyya, but rather a concern with her role as moral arbiter of what was socially acceptable at the school. Miss Suheil took a slightly different stance; although she did not question the premise that Maysoon’s new beliefs were problematic, she argued that the adults in the school should approach the project of guiding Maysoon to the right knowledge differently. Despite the prevalence of debates about proper faith within the school, the terms of such debates were limited by the power of a dominant discourse, even if the terms of that discourse were regularly tested.


    Teaching about Islam was part of everyday efforts to point others in the “right” direction and fulfill the personal responsibility to do da‘wa within one’s capacity. Given the increasing (p.108) number of Jordanians involved in da‘wa or piety movements, schools are logical places for such activities. The Muslim Brotherhood has long seen education and teaching as among its most important vocations (Wiktorowicz 2001). Even the leftists and nationalists of the 1940s and 1950s saw schools as critical recruiting grounds for their efforts to create an Arab nationalist ethic (Anderson 2005; Kharinu 2000). The piety movements are a new manifestation of these historical efforts to shape young minds, beliefs, and practices through school. They are less about recruiting members to formal political organizations and more about calling Muslims to be better Muslims. However, even for those not formally involved in any religious organization, pointing young people in the right direction and teaching them to be moral and good people are clearly within the realm of what schools do. Thus, this struggle to participate in the moral edification of youth is not limited to the efforts of organizations that challenge the state but is also about teachers and administrators who want to control students and maintain orderly schools as well as work to shape moral citizens and community members. However, these are clearly political contests as well. Ultimately debates about proper forms of piety and legitimate forms of religious knowledge are deeply political (Mahmood 2005).

    As I have shown in this chapter, although educators at al-Khatwa accepted the centrality of Islam in this process of edification, different ideas about what constitutes proper faith circulated within the confines of the school. Furthermore, these debates were entwined with the gender deliberations that have characterized contending discourses about progress, development, and authenticity in Jordan. Competing interpretations of the proper modesty and comportment of women, of the proper Muslim family, and of legitimate gender roles and relations are all central to religious discourse in Jordan today, as they are to public images of what a girl’s future may hold. At al-Khatwa, these struggles were manifest in the competing efforts to be authoritative in the space of the school. The state’s curriculum is the dominant narrative and has the most resources at its disposal. Educators are state representatives, but they are also social actors with their own experiences, lives, and intentions. Their struggles to be authoritative are not contained by state designs. I do not mean to imply that they are always in opposition to the state. Indeed, Miss Suheil’s teaching was in many respects in step with the official narrative, as was Miss Jude’s. But the “wish-images” of the textbooks are limited in their reach and the discourse of public figures distant and abstract. It is in the teaching and day-to-day interactions that such sentiments are made actual.

    (p.109) Furthermore, the teacher is not alone in her teaching. Amina was a prominent student educator and one whose lessons directly challenged the authority of others in the school. Amina’s work also highlights the porosity of the school’s walls and, as a result, official authorities’ inability to control the terms of religious discourse. Yet it was not just Amina and her da‘wa group that entered this space, for the sources of religious authority were multifarious, albeit not equally powerful. Even the constant questions from students such as Deema, Rita, and Lena served to challenge teachers’ lessons and the text. From the al-Habashiyya movement that almost led to Maysoon’s expulsion, to the television preachers who conveyed a range of doctrinal perspectives, to the satellite TV programs that functioned as a foil for what is right and good, the religious material and sentiments that flowed through the school were many, and the attempts to interpret, foreground, and forbid particular visions of true Islam were persistent. In the next chapter I follow some of these themes as I examine competing notions of gendered respectability and related discourses about love, marriage, and relationships that drew on multiple notions of morality not exclusively religious in nature. (p.110)


    (1) . As discussed in chapter 2, da’wa literally means calling, and in the context of Islam it refers to the “call to Islam.” In its more specific sense, today in Jordan it refers to a range of activities in mosques, study circles, Islamic centers, the press, and media aimed at calling fellow Muslims to be more pious (Mahmood 2005; Wiktorowicz 2001).

    (2) . Asad’s (1993) conceptualization of orthodoxy is similar to Raymond Williams’s (1977) concept of hegemony in that orthodoxy must recreate or redefine itself in response to challenges and changing material realities.

    (3) . Other government responses have included closer monitoring of preaching, the training of preachers, and the issuance of fatwas.

    (4) . In the fall of 2006, the regime put forth several pieces of legislation aimed at tighter controls over the religious realm, and the government took control over the largest Islamic charity, the Islamic Center Society (Al-Rai, July 6, 2006, July 7, 2006, July 11, 2006). As of February 2011, it still held the charity in receivership.

    (5) . Research about state efforts to control or shape Islamic discourse in the region has typically focused on the sphere of the mosque and the media, Islamic law, and preachers or imams. The degree to which schooling has been included in such research has been limited. One approach has been the historical analysis of “traditional” Islamic schooling, kuttab and madrasas, and the transformation of such institutions as a result of colonization, nation building, and modernizing reforms (e.g., Berkey 2006; Eickelman 1985; Gesink 2006; Messick 1996; Mitchell 1988; Wagner 1993). More recently a body of work has emerged about contemporary forms of Islamic schooling and private Islamic schools (Hefner and Zaman 2006; Herrera 2000, 2004, 2006). In addition, one finds a rich and growing literature concerned with educational spaces that have emerged alongside new Islamic movements, particularly among the female participants in these movements (Deeb 2006; Limbert 2005; Mahmood 2005; Shively 2008). The literature that addresses state schooling and religion has focused largely on school textbooks and/or curriculum (e.g., Doumato and Starrett 2007). One exception is Gregory Starrett’s (1998) Putting Islam to Work.

    (6) . As discussed in footnote 4, since 2006 the Jordanian government has put forth new efforts to bring these centers under their control.

    (p.189) (7) . Most often students attended religion classes, specifically with a focus on Qur’an, in the summer, and local religious centers held summer camps for this purpose. However, as students approached their final year in high school, they typically ceased these supplemental religious classes so that they could focus on studying for tawjihi.

    (8) . For the majority of the private schools, religious education consists of the state curriculum and state-produced textbooks. The only exceptions to my knowledge are “foreign” schools such as the American School that are not subject to Ministry of Education mandates.

    (9) . Shari‘a, or Islamic law/jurisprudence, is also one of the academic streams, although it was not offered at al-Khatwa or in Bawadi al-Naseem. Presumably, students in this track take much more religion.

    (10) . In communities where a significant Christian population exists, the local Christian community may lobby to have a teacher come in and teach Christian students about Christianity. Outside of these instances, Christian students can attend the regular religion class (the Islamic one) if they choose to do so. A private school my children attended in Amman offered classes for Christian students. The Jordanian government had adopted textbooks developed by the Roman Catholic Patriarchate of Jerusalem for this purpose. Thus, regardless of Christian denomination, all Christian students used Roman Catholic textbooks.

    (11) . A Christian acquaintance of mine in his forties told me that as a youth he was curious about Islam and attended religion classes. However, some of his Christian peers resented this and one even picked a fight with him as a result.

    (12) . The same curriculum is used in boys’ and girls’ schools. Note that textbook and curriculum are essentially synonymous in this context in that the textbook acts as the curricular guide and is commissioned and published by the Ministry of Education. Teachers’ versions of some texts are available.

    (13) . In 2005, all tenth graders took a course titled “Islamic Education,” or Al-Tarbiyya al-Islamiyya, which consisted of seven units: the [Islamic] creed; the study of the Holy Qur’an; the study of the prophetic hadith; the life of the prophet; ethics and moral cultivation; jurisprudence; Islamic systems and thought (al-Dughmi et al. 1996). All eleventh graders took “Islamic Culture” or Al-Thaqafa al-Islamiyya, which consisted of the following units: the Islamic view on human beings; the family in Islam; the Islamic society and system; the life of the Prophet and Islamic civilization; da’wa (or calling to the faith) and jihad (or struggle); and the Holy Qur’an (Jabr et al. 2004). Twelfth graders similarly took a course titled “Islamic Culture” which consisted of the same topics as those for eleventh grade, with the addition of “The Holy Qur’an: Recitation, Interpretation, and Memorization” and “The Contemporary Islamic World.” In addition to the general curriculum for all students, students in the humanities track at the secondary level (eleventh and twelfth grades) also took one additional Islamic studies course: for the eleventh graders it was “Islamic Education,” and for the twelfth graders it was “Islamic Studies.” The topics covered for eleventh graders in this track were family, work, and knowledge in Islam, as well as topics related to worship and the Islamic creed (al-Dughmi et al.1996). For twelfth graders, the focus was primarily on jurisprudence, ahadith, and Qur’anic studies, as well as monotheism and the Islamic creed (al-Sawa et al. 2001).

    (14) . Devout Muslims believe that Islam has an “answer” for any and all issues that may arise. The distinction I am trying to make here is between those aspects of life (p.190) explicitly addressed in the texts and teachings of Islam and those that require greater degrees of interpretation.

    (15) . A representative at the Department of Curriculum in the Ministry of Education informed me that teachers did participate on curriculum development committees, and I know of at least one retired teacher who was hired as a consultant to work on curricular revisions. Also, many of the staff in the Ministry of Education had previously been teachers themselves. My point here is that as in most U.S. school systems with which I have worked, decisions about curricular goals, content, and even pedagogical methods are typically top-down decisions.

    (16) . Teachers are, however, subject to supervision and inspections from regional ministry staff.

    (17) . The “progressive education” movement grew out of the work of John Dewey around the turn of the twentieth century and was concerned with the broader mission of schools to encourage the development of democratic societies. Dewey stressed the social nature of learning and argued that education should help young people address the practical concerns of their societies. Hence, his educational philosophy emphasized problem solving, critical-thinking skills, and knowledge that would connect young people to their communities and would encourage them to be active citizens and help to construct a democratic society (Dewey 1916; Phillips and Soltis 2004).

    (18) . Miss Suheil wrote about topics of personal interest such as emotional intelligence and developing the creative self, as well as a range of other topics her publisher commissioned her to write about. When I met her she was pursuing a Ph.D. in education (she was one of three al-Khatwa teachers seeking doctoral degrees in 2005), regularly contributed to a number of websites, and had written several books.

    (19) . A number of scholars writing about women’s movements in the region discuss the importance of Islamist reformers or Islamic feminists. See Barlas (2002), Baron (1994, 2005), and Mahmood (2005).

    (20) . “Islamic Culture,” or Al-Thaqafa al-Islamiyya, was the title of the textbook and the class that all eleventh graders regardless of track had to take. Twelfth graders in both tracks also took “Islamic Culture.”

    (21) . Missionary work here refers specifically to work among other Muslims who were perceived to have strayed from Islam or who were not sufficiently committed to practicing the faith. Some Jordanians involved in such activities traveled abroad to pursue da’wa among Muslims and non-Muslims in other countries, although in my experience their numbers were few.

    (22) . Here, Miss Suheil is referring to Amina, the president of the prayer room committee. See my discussion about Amina and the prayer room later in this chapter.

    (23) . As I discuss in chapter 3, the overwhelming majority of adult women (over 90 percent) in Bawadi al-Naseem covered their hair, and in the high school the majority of girls already covered their hair.

    (24) . As high school students, many of whom still had little experience outside of their hometowns, the students may not yet have been attuned to these different perspectives within Jordan.

    (25) . Thanks to Lou (Abdellatif) Cristillo for pointing this out.

    (26) . Islamic teaching is specific about whom one is allowed to marry and who is forbidden to a Muslim in marriage. Close relatives who are forbidden in marriage are called mahram (maharim is the plural), and according to some interpretations of Islam only (p.191) men and women who are maharim should be left alone unchaperoned. Each of the units on marriage at the secondary level has lessons on this topic (Jabr et al. 2004).

    (27) . This is specifically referenced in the textbook as evidence of the moderate nature of the Islamic faith (‘Oweidhah et al. 2001: 211).

    (28) . The third lesson in the tenth-grade religion textbook, Al-Tarbiyya al-Islamiyya, deals with death and its significance in Islam. The students covered this lesson before my arrival. The lesson addresses the afterlife, the relationship between life on earth and the afterlife, and the need for Muslims to lead moral lives and to remember that they will meet God after death and will have to account for their deeds on earth (‘Oweidhah et al. 2001: 23–26).

    (29) . Even the requirement to cover one’s hair, neck, and chest is open to interpretation and some debate within Islam. In particular, some feminist Islamic scholars have taken up this question, arguing that the references to veiling or covering are too general to indicate that covering one’s hair is mandated (e.g., Barlas 2002).

    (30) . As Starrett points out, local regimes have pursued a policy of coopting and controlling “traditional” religious authorities and their institutions throughout the region as a means of consolidating state power. For a discussion of this phenomenon in Jordan, see Wiktorowicz (2001). See also Zeghal’s (2010) analysis of Egypt and Tunis.

    (31) . Observant Muslims pray five times a day at prescribed times. However, based on Islamic teachings students do not have to pray during the schooldays but can make up for their “missed” prayer once they go home. Students were not allowed to miss class to pray but had the opportunity to do their midday prayer during the midday break or after their last period. Teachers who prayed at school did not do so in the prayer room but chose to use other spaces in the main building.

    (32) . In a subsequent discussion with Miss Suheil four years after the initial research was conducted, she discussed efforts earlier in her career to supplement her classroom teaching with lessons in the prayer room. Specifically she focused on Qur’anic recitation.

    (33) . As discussed in chapter 3, all other extracurricular activities were very much top-down affairs, originating in directives from government ministries to local officials and eventually to principals. Principals would in turn recruit a teacher to oversee select students in a particular project. Furthermore, most of these activities were undertaken during the course of the day and required that students miss class.

    (34) . However, I have talked with some Jordanians (both Muslims and Christians), whom I would loosely categorize as secular in orientation, who are troubled by the increasing influence of religion in public life.

    (35) . The Muslim Brotherhood is also known to be influential in the Ministry of Education and previously held this portfolio as well (Anderson 2007; Brand 1998).

    (36) . One form of punishment or discipline in schools in Jordan is a disciplinary transfer whereby a student can be transferred to a distant village or another city for serious disciplinary infractions.

    (37) . For a different opinion about the significance of Sufism in Al-Ahbash, see Hamzeh and Dekmejian (1996).