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Sacredness of Space: Understanding the Relationship Between Hammams, Sexuality, and Body Politics

14 March 2023 | Asiyah Ball

A recurring motto throughout my study abroad experience in Amman, Jordan has been,

“this experience will challenge all that you know and all that you think you know.”

This phrase could not have been more true as I stepped foot into Alf Layla Wa Layla, a Turkish bath, in Tla Al ‘Ali one Monday evening. What I saw challenged what I had been conditioned and socialized to believe, as a woman from the West, about women’s sexuality and body politics in the Middle East.

Common rhetoric found in the West about Arab and/or Muslim women, their bodies, and their sexualities is that women in the Middle East feel shameful of their bodies and fear their sexualities, Arab and/or Muslim women are always covered, or Muslim women are oppressed by patriarchal, Islamic societies. These are but a few of the ideas that Western media or Western feminism pushes when talking about the experiences of Muslim and/or Arab women in the Middle East. However, these generalized statements not only lack context and cultural relativism, but they are also harmful as they perpetuate orientalist views and take agency away from Arab and/or Muslim women in sharing their own narratives and depictions of their bodies and sexualities. Thus, in this blog, one will understand how the cultural and religious context of the Middle East helps in understanding sexuality and gender in Arab countries like Jordan, while also understanding how spaces like the hammam (public bath houses) challenge patriarchal and orientalist views of Arab and/or Muslim women and provide a space for Arab and/or Muslim women to affirm their sexuality and womanhood.

Before understanding how the hammam affirms women’s sexuality and views of the body, one must first understand the context and culture that exist in Arab countries such as Jordan and how this context informs notions of gender and sexuality. Jordan, like many other countries, exists within a patriarchal framework. As a result, men are the primary agents of power and privilege in Arab societies and are given more respect and regard than women. This is seen in a few of the practices I have observed while studying in Jordan this semester. For example, in Jordanian society, it is not uncommon to see men act as facilitators of women’s interactions or see men assume the role of protector, representative, or guardian of a woman. This is common around the Middle East, especially as this belief of men as protectors or guardians of women is said to be legitimized by religious sources such as the Qur’an. Many people reference verse 34 of Surah An-Nisa, which is often translated as “men are the caretakers of women,” or “men are the guardians of women” (Leila, 1992). Men use this verse to justify male dominance over women socially and religiously. As a Muslim American, I grew up around the idea of mahram (a person, usually a male, who one is prohibited from marrying–one’s brother, uncle, or father) and having a mahram act as a protector, especially when traveling, but when I came to Jordan, I was able to see this notion of male protector or guardian through a different lens. This was seen when I first arrived in Jordan and had to extend my visa at the police station. I noticed a woman, who may have also been looking to correct or complete important paperwork, was trying to explain her situation to one of the officers, but he refused to listen to her until a male figure came. It is unclear if this figure was her brother, father, uncle, husband, etc; however, what is clear is how the officer immediately changed the way he engaged. They laughed, shook hands, and talked amicably–an interaction that was completely different from the one the woman had five minutes prior. This observation was indicative of not only the practice of privileging men over women but also of assigning men as representatives or spokespeople on behalf of women as if women are incapable of speaking for themselves. Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian-American scholar, even mentions this in her book, Women and Gender in Islam. She states that, as a result of urbanization, women were considered the property of men, to be bargained on and exchanged from one man to another (Leila, 1992). From her father to her husband, women were only ever viewed through their relationship or proximity to a man (Leila, 1992).

Additionally, with Jordan being a Muslim-majority country, one often sees the intersection of religious and cultural traditions informing gender dynamics. This is seen in how the socialization of women and men differ even during days such as Friday when all Muslims are religiously encouraged to go to the mosque and worship. As Ahmed mentioned in Women and Gender in Islam, women, as a passed-down practice from Athenian society, were secluded to the Oikos, a Greek term referring to anything related to domesticity (Leila, 1992). Women were limited only to the private sphere, specifically the home (Leila, 1992). This is commonly seen in Jordan. I attend Jummah prayer every Friday, and the difference in the number of men I see versus the number of women is noticeable. Even my host mom does not leave the house to pray Jummah in the mosque. She would rather stay home; she still ensures that she prays, but she would rather do it privately. This is the reality, I have noticed, for many women. They prefer to stay at home and practice privately. This observation affirmed the idea that men are encouraged, by society, to socialize and be more present publicly whereas women are encouraged, socially, to stay home, despite Friday prayer being equally available for all Muslims to pray–there is no hierarchy in who can pray the Friday prayer. This context is important because it helps provide background as to why hammams or public bathhouses act as spaces that challenge both orientalism and patriarchy.

Hammam, linguistically, relates to ideas around heating or heat. It can also be used to refer to a bathroom or bathhouse. In this context, the term hammam will be used to not only refer to a bathing house, but it will also transcend this meaning and be used to describe a transformative space for women. Moreover, to help discuss the topic of the hammam in this blog, I will use first-hand experiences and observations from my time at Alf Layla Wa Layla Turkish bath house. Though, I would like to note that, because I respect the sacredness and privacy of the space and experience, I will try not to go into too much detail but highlight core experiences and aspects of the process that contribute to and affirm my argument.

The hammam can be best described as an anti-structural space, challenging the patriarchy and offering relief from social expectations found in Jordanian society. Anti-structure, a term coined by British anthropologist Victor Turner, refers to the idea of challenging existing hierarchies or social structures. His work primarily focused on rites of passage and rituals being antithetical to daily life and roles. In a sense, the same understanding can be applied to my experience at the hammam. First, the physical space of the bathhouse, while it is public, is a private space only for women. This, essentially, sets the frame for the intimate interactions and experiences one has in this space as it works within the ambiguity of being both public and private. Moreover, establishing this space as an only women’s space sets the foundation for the antithetical nature of the hammam as this differs from patriarchal society where men are the primary agents. Here, women are the primary agents. Moreover, after arriving at the entrance and paying, I was led to a locker room where I was encouraged to take off my clothes. This step in my experience at the hammam further affirms this idea of anti-structure because an essential part of ritual or rites of passage is the clothes. However, in this case, it would be the lack of clothes. You would not find a woman walking through Amman in just her undergarments or completely bare. It would be seen as very taboo and scandalous, especially in a culture where covering is viewed as both a cultural and religious practice (Leila, 1992). Thus, the act of removing one’s clothes can be understood as a symbol of beginning to remove or separate oneself from social expectations. In Jordanian society and many other Arab countries, women are expected to cover or dress modestly, but in this space, within the set framework, nudity is encouraged and accepted.

This idea of nudity plays a very important role in my experience at the hammam as it provides commentary on perceptions of the body and sexuality among Arab and/or Muslim women in Arab countries. In patriarchal societies, a source of male power is linked with sex and a man’s ability to have children as a way to pass down his lineage and wealth (Leila, 1992). Because of this, not only are women reduced to and viewed through their reproductive capacity, but men create social expectations, customs, and laws that work to control and police women’s sexuality and bodies (Leila, 1992). Examples of this are marriage, norms around dress and adornment, encouraging chastity or virginity, and the honor-shame complex (Leila, 1992). Within the patriarchy, women have little control over their sexuality and bodies as they are viewed as objects or facilitators of male power. Moreover, women are shamed for their sexuality and taught to fear it as seen through the existence of the honor-shame complex. A woman’s social status is tied to her sexuality and whether or not she has remained chaste. Women, in fear of being pariahs or socially disowned, must hide their sexualities and bodies publically. However, in the hammam, one saw a different approach to sexuality and the body. The private space offered a sense of power and agency that the public sphere could not; it also offered a certain level of comfort, security, and sisterhood. Everyone was comfortable being nude or having very few clothes on. From personal experience, despite having very few clothes on, I felt comfortable. I did not feel hypersexualized or ashamed, highlighting the impacts of patriarchy on women’s perceptions and relationships with their bodies and sexualities. It also highlighted how spaces void of masculinity create a sense of security for women and positive experiences with sexuality and the body. I felt affirmed as a woman because I was able to comfortably be naked in front of other women without feeling objectified or dehumanized, an experience that grossly contrasts experiences in downtown Amman or in Ubers where men catcall me or ask me intrusive questions about my marital status. In the hammam, I felt comfort and safety. I felt confident and in control.

Additionally, the hammam, through engaging in bathing rituals, offered a level of intimacy and comfort that facilitated women’s solidarity. My hammam experience highlighted a different aspect of communal care and socialization that I had not seen before this experience. For example, a core part of Jordanian culture and perhaps, Arab culture, is community care. The idea of neighbors helping each other or people being welcoming and hospitable to one another is not abnormal. I have been able to see it as my host mom cares for one of our sick neighbors. She will go, sit, and watch over our neighbor who once had cancer and now suffers from muscle aches and fatigue. However, in this space, the care came in the form of being cleansed and bathed by the women who worked at the hammam. The act of being exfoliated and massaged by another woman created a level of familiarity and intimacy between two strangers. I was also able to talk to the woman who massaged me. I told her about me studying in Jordan, and why I was interested in Arabic as a language, showcasing the forms of socialization that happen in this space. Moreover, I went to the hammam with two friends, and I would argue that the combination of being cared for, relaxed, and exposed to one another created a certain level of trust and comfort among us as we were experiencing the hammam together.

Lastly, the hammam challenged orientalist beliefs about women’s sexuality and perceptions of the female body, especially concerning Arab and/or Muslim women. It is a common misconception, especially in the West, that Muslim and/or Arab women, because they cover, dress modestly, or are Arab, have little to no understanding of sexuality or are uncomfortable with their sexuality and bodies.

However, from personal experience and after experiencing the hammam, this is far from true. Furthermore, as Edward Said, a Palestinian-American academic and scholar, highlighted in his well-known work Orientalism, the West often perceived Arab women or women from the designated “East” as hypersexual beings, but as I highlight in my observations, I did not feel sexualized at all, and no one in the hammam even regarded the body as an object of sex (Said, 1995). It was more so viewed within the larger context of care and wellness–no relation to desire. Moreover, in the West, the act of wearing the hijab, the abaya, or dressing modestly is associated with oppression, and Arab and/or Muslim women are perceived to be hiding and secluding themselves. They are often seen as docile or passive, within a Western feminist framework, because they cover (Barlas, 2019). However, this is not only an unfair and misguided understanding of the hijab and practices of covering but also an unfair representation of Arab and/or Muslim women. Furthermore, while in the hammam, the women around me were not uncomfortable with our bodies or seeing people uncovered, an experience that contradicts orientalist views of Muslim women and women from the East.

Sources for further reading:


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