Nadia Oweidat: A Hunger Strike Just To Get To College

Dr. Nadia Oweidat is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, focused on extremism, counter-terrorism, and the Arab Spring. Born and raised in Jordan, she holds a Ph.D. in Oriental Studies from Oxford University, where she was awarded the Weidenfeld Leadership Scholarship. She has appeared on various Arabic and English networks including BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera Arabic, Al-Arabiyya, BBC Arabic and National Public Radio.

When I told my family I wanted to go to university, they were indignant. Having just finished high school, I already had too much education, they told me. And I was starting to have some crazy ideas like wanting to master the English language to go abroad one day.

It was time for me to put all that aside and get married, they insisted. But I knew there was one way this would end. I would go to university and pursue a higher education, maybe even go to America.

Or I would die trying.

I am a descendent of one of Jordan’s largest tribes. Having been born in the seventies, I am among the last generation to endure such stubborn, cultural resistance to girl education. In my parents’ generation, it was extremely rare for a girl to go beyond the fifth grade. And in their parents’ generation, only a select few boys among elite families were afforded the privilege of a primary education at all.

In retrospect, my father was on the tail end of this tradition. I had other male relatives who supported their daughters’ higher education, including uncles who devoted their life to being educators in the early years of Jordan’s independence. Also, primary education had long become mandatory in Jordan, and patriarchs who forbade their daughters from attending school were the exception rather than the rule.

Unfortunately for me, my father was among this archaic minority. Perhaps his limited education was to blame. He finished the fifth grade before he dropped out of school to work as a shepherd to support his family. But he was too ambitious and entrepreneurial to remain a shepherd, so he taught himself the inner workings of business and built a thriving company, exporting and importing goods from and into Jordan.

He encouraged my five brothers to continue their education, sending them to a private school, even hiring a private chauffeur to shuttle them there because we lived so far away. But when it came to me, my father saw no value in investing in my education.

My mother, who also has a fifth grade education, was more conflicted. On the one hand, she appreciated my drive to learn, and my insatiable love for books and school.  Because I always had a book in my hands, people used to ask her, “Did you give birth to this girl in a library?!” Unlike my father, she did not have the impulse to discriminate between her children based on gender. She enrolled me during my early childhood in the same private school with my brothers. It was a simple decision then because my father was often away for work, and not involved in such trivial household matters.

But my father returned to live with us full time just as I was finishing my primary education. He became outraged that I was costing him private school tuition, and questioned why I should continue school at all. My mother, being the product of her environment, did not confront him, and slowly turned her frustrations toward me.

“Why aren’t you like all the other girls?” she would say. “Why can’t you just be normal?”

But as far as I was concerned, and despite my youth, the only “normal” outcome was for me to pursue an education. Eventually, my father relented and agreed to send me to the local public school, thus saving all the private school tuition for my brothers, who incidentally cared very little about school. Only I saw the irony in this.

The low point of my adolescence came at age 17, when my father put his foot down and insisted that I do not attend university. I must get married, he said, and if I kept refusing marriage proposals from the many suitors who came my way, my father would pick one for me.

One of the most oppressive dynamics of life in Jordan, and other Muslim countries, is that the individual has no direct relationship with the state. Instead, there is a hierarchy of individuals that the state recognizes as having varying degrees of agency over their own lives and the lives of those below them in the pecking order. There is the patriarch in a nuclear family, the head of a clan, the head of a tribe, and of course each tribe also carries different gravitas in its relationship with the state or, in Jordan’s case, the King.

As a young, single tribal woman, I was pretty low in that pecking order, virtually invisible, and disenfranchised from basic rights of a citizen in the modern state. I could not simply show up at the publicly funded university and sign up for classes without permission from my male “guardian.” Like most women, I was at the mercy and whims of the patriarchs who are, by law, responsible for me and my welfare.

And so it was another patriarch, an uncle of mine, who became my saving grace. It happened during a family visit to our home, when he inquired about my pathetic condition at the time. I had been confined to my room for months, my dreams and ambitions reduced to mere fantasy as I watched endless hours of American television on the tiny screen that my mother had given me out of pity. At least I could teach myself English and perfect my accent, I thought.

But I did hit rock bottom, and I was now on a hunger strike in protest. May death come to me, but I will not marry, I insisted. I will only pursue higher education.

My uncle was shocked and enraged at the way I had been treated by my family. I don’t know what sort of conversation he had with my father, but afterwards my father immediately relented. I was off the hook for marriage, and although university was too much for my father to accept, we came to a compromise and he allowed me to attend the local community college. That was good enough for me, at least for a year, until I ingratiated myself to another patriarch who would open up more doors for me.

This time it was a neighbor whom I called uncle Abu Shihata. He was King Hussein’s personal driver, and he belonged to another tribe that shared a code of honor with my own. In our culture, if you humble yourself before a tribe leader and ask for a favor, they will do their best to oblige.

I figured that the timing was perfect because it was admission time at the University of Jordan, the best in the country. My grades were good, so there was no sidestepping the University’s high admission standards. King Hussein’s generosity was known all over Jordan. So I took a chance and asked uncle Abu Shahata if he would be willing to arrange through the Royal Palace for my enrollment at the University.

And just like that, my wish was granted. I had a seat in the upcoming class at the English Literature Department. More importantly, the tribal code of honor is such that my father could not forbid me from accepting the favor granted to me from none other than the King himself.

I had finally arrived.

Not to be daunted by small details like how to pay my tuition – since my father balked and refused – I searched for ways to pay for it myself. It was virtually unheard of for a college coed to work, and especially to pay her own tuition.

I pondered my dilemma as I sat in the university courtyard facing the linguistics department. I noticed that there were many foreign students enrolled at the department to learn Arabic. Then, the solution hit me. I would offer tutoring services to the foreigners. Indeed, by teaching hours upon hours of private Arabic lessons, I ended up generating more income than the average Jordanian. Seven times as much.

I paid my own tuition and had extra cash for myself and, soon, I even had extra cash to give my own mother and contribute to our household. They say money cannot buy everything, but in my case it bought the independence I desperately needed. I worked hard to earn it, and worked hard to finish my undergraduate degree. I landed a scholarship at the University of Wyoming, and the day that the U.S. Embassy issued me a visa was perhaps the happiest day of my life. I felt unstoppable. I pursued my Masters degree at Wyoming, and later a doctorate at Oxford University.

I now reside in Washington, DC, and sometimes I reflect back on my youth. I remember with mixed feelings the time I spent grounded in my room in Jordan, when I watched American television and dreamed of coming here. During that time, one thing especially made an impression on me. It was when President Bill Clinton nominated Madeline Albright to serve as the country’s Secretary of State. Not only was a woman representing the most powerful country to the world, but she was also an immigrant. I think that was when my love for America was sealed with the determination to come here.