AMMAN — At nine on a Thursday night, La Calle — a popular bar in Amman — is just starting to fill up.
A Jordanian woman in a low-cut shirt shares a love seat with a man with slicked-back hair; the two lean in close, talking quietly and laughing. Upstairs couples mingle on the balcony where it’s not uncommon to see a pair steal more than just a friendly kiss.
This is the scene of the new, trendy Middle East, where (for a small group) sex before marriage is possible. While fundamentalists tend to grab most of the headlines, throughout the region a growing number of young people are breaking with tradition. Dating and sex are no longer so taboo.
In Iran, for example, a recent government survey showed that one in four men between the ages of 19 and 29 had sex before marriage.
Back in Jordan, a wave of child abandonments last year prompted one medical official to call for lifting the ban on abortion in Jordan, a topic so taboo here it’s generally considered outside the realm of discussion.
Although just a limited segment of the Jordanian population appears to have embraced the lifestyle — and it's easier for men than women — their numbers are growing.
“It’s still a certain part of the community, it’s not the masses, but there are enough numbers now for it to be seen,” said Madian al-Jazerah, owner of Books@Cafe, a trendy bar in Amman. “This younger generation has broken quite a bit of the barriers.”
In the last five years, Damascus has seen a proliferation of nightclubs that are still hopping until the early hours of the morning.
To be sure, the core cultural concerns about dating and sex remain. But for those interested in exploring, “there are more opportunities and there are better opportunities to keep it private,” said Andrea Rugh, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.
At the bar in Books@Cafe, Mohamed Qawasmeh and his friend Shadi Al-Saeed flirt with a group of American girls. The two Jordanian 20-somethings said that a few years ago there were only one or two places where they could go to get a drink and meet girls. Now there are more choices than they can list.
“It’s not weird for anyone to say I’m going clubbing. It’s a style of life now,” Qawasmeh said, adding that with more options, nightlife has also become more affordable for a larger number of people.
Qawasmeh’s only complaint is that most Jordanian girls are off limits when it comes to casual flirtation or more. Still, he thinks even this may change. “Every year it’s improving. I’m thinking that next year you can go talk to any Jordanian girl and she’ll be okay with that,” Qawasmeh said.
The shift has been several decades in the making, said Husein Al-Mahadeen, a sociology professor at Mu'tah University in Karak, Jordan.
Beginning with the oil boom in the 1970s, many Arab families became increasingly fragmented as people moved to the Gulf for lucrative jobs. Today the trend continues, as people move to cities or abroad for work. Away from the gaze of their families, many young people begin to push the romantic boundaries.
In addition, women are entering the workforce in greater numbers here, creating more opportunities for gender-mixing. In Jordan, the number of female workers has more than doubled in recent decades, from 6.7 percent of the workforce in 1979 to 14.7 in 2007.
Meanwhile, technology has made it easier for young people to connect. The Internet and cell phones have provided young people with the means to privately communicate. All the while, western media has flooded the Middle East, exposing people to more liberal lifestyles.
“We’re moving from a conservative society to a more open society,” Al-Mahadeen said. “It is expected that people’s personal freedoms will continue to grow still wider.”
In the corner of a noisy bar on a Thursday night, Sheila, a Jordanian who asked only to use her first name, snuggled with her boyfriend and chatted with two friends. Unlike years past, she said, young couples like her and her boyfriend can now spend time alone together. Many of her friends have taken advantage of this shift and are now sexually active.
How far young people take their relationship “depends on how you were raised and how open your parents are,” Sheila said.
Additionally, the growing number of liberal hangouts afford couples and singles the opportunity to flirt and mingle without the possibility of running into someone who might report back to their family, said Khalil “KK” Hareb, who works at La Calle.
“Dating, in general, has changed," Hareb said. "People are going out more, it’s very open, and now you can walk down the street in certain places [in Amman] and no one will bother you."
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