Female Smoking in Jordan: women as a “Dangerous Class”

10/30/2016, Middlebury college


For a female, lighting up a cigarette on the street in Amman is comparable to suddenly taking off her head scarf- while not unthinkable, it is nevertheless followed by serious consequences to the daring woman’s “reputation”, privacy and even physical safety. A woman who smokes is an “inviting seductress”, a “fallen woman”, “a shameless trespasser of morality” as Jordanians will eagerly tell you on the street, in online forums and in numerous article and TV reports.  While female smoking in public places is more infrequent, women smoking shisha are not an unusual sight in most of Amman’s cafés. Smoking of tobacco, hookah or both is somewhat characteristic of Middle Eastern culture, yet, women’s use of these substances has traditionally occurred within the confined space of the home, in secrecy. 

As cultural transformations in the past fifteen years have led to increased access to public spaces for females, growing anxieties regarding gender transgression on behalf of females have found an outlet in frequent moral disputes over what is acceptable for a woman. The gendered discourse regarding female’s smoking of either tobacco or shisha is part of a larger societal controversy over tobacco and shisha consumption and their positive and negative influences on both society and the individual. Yet it is also distinct because of its narrow focus on females who in Reinerman’s words constitute “a dangerous class” (1994, x). Additionally, Jordanian media’s preoccupation with female smoking resembles a drug scare because it frequently suggests that legal measures be taken against the practice. 

With 60% of adult men and 10% of adult women identifying as committed cigarette smokers, Jordan is at the forefront of warnings against smoking globally, and is presented in international media as “a country that, by most measures, is solidly hooked on nicotine”. In Jordan, as well as throughout the Middle East, the discourse against smoking is hegemonically defined through the rhetoric of future risk and physical harm. The panic revolving around smoking draws strength from and is perpetuated through the scientific knowledge of medicine, whereby cancer and smoking-related statistics are perpetually used to incite fear with the goal of convincing the population to make what is presented as the only rational choice- to quit. Indeed, the emphasis on raising awareness against the bad effects of smoking shows that attempts to reduce smoking are discursively associated with and appeal to rationality:

In recent months, authorities commissioned billboards around Jordan with kooky anti-smoking illustrations – like a heart and a cigarette with the caption “Your love is killing me” – and warnings have been introduced on packets. (…) part of the anti-smoking agenda includes increasing lectures at universities and targeting teenagers, who are the most vulnerable to starting cigarette smoking”.

Yet, prescribing lack of knowledge to smokers misses the intricacies of smoking as a cultural practice and frames smokers who argue in favor of the pleasurable and positive aspects of smoking as irrational.

 For example, an article from 2016 in a prestigious Middle East news platform relates hookah smoking to a mental health disorder and explicitly communicates the irrationality of smoking throughout the text. Not only does the title of the article reads “Shisha madness”, shisha smokers are continuously ironized and depicted as lacking senses, such as when the article’s writer sarcastically notes that a male interviewee has “happily”confessed that he smokes eight narguilles a day or when Jordanians are said to spend more on cigarette than on food and other necessities. The article described, together with the majority of newspaper and TV reports on smoking, refers to Shisha as a greater “evil” than cigarettes, justifying the judgement through the evocation of the “commonsensical scientific claim” (which is not even referenced in most publications) that “Smoking one waterpipe is equivalent to smoking up to 100 cigarettes”

Evidently, the general discourse against smoking constitutes a cautionary tale against the negative health consequences smoking brings: “It depends explicitly on the truth of the connection between smoking and future ill health, aiming to make the probable and the possible real enough to motivate behavior change” (Keane, 2002, 10). However, the widespread media reports focusing specifically on women’s use of tobacco and shisha deviate from this tendency and posit gendered morality instead of health risk at the core of their explicit disapproval of smoking. Readily available on Youtube, a plethora of TV and online media video reports from Jordan, as well as various other Middle Eastern countries, take the viewer to the streets where random passerbys are asked what they think of female smoking. 

The responses to the intentionally divisive question are overwhelmingly negative, with only few interviewees saying that “smoking is bad for both men and women”. Both men and women featured describe female smokers as “shameless” and “immoral”. Femininity and motherhood are repeatedly asserted as the moral barriers to female smoking. The heightened surveillance female smokers are subjected to is demonstrated in a video report whereby a news channel visits a private university in Amman to report on a rumor that the institution has allowed a place for women to smoke inside of the university. 

With slow pace and frequent close-ups, the clip shows an empty bathroom with cigarette stubs on the floor and inside the wash basins. The reporter, a young female, then walks around the university, asking passer-bys whether they know of the “secret smoking hub”. “Isn’t allowing the existence of a place like that an encouragement from the University for women to smoke?”- she asks repeatedly. All are concerned, yet some give a reluctant approval: “It’s better for the girls to smoke inside, then to be seen smoking outside”

 The construction of female smoking as a definite societal taboo is a form of social control over women which gets enacted in various ways. A set of popular online articles on Jordanian websites, for instance, draw attention with provocative titles such as: “Groom-to-be backs off from engagement because his fiancée smokes narguille”and “Divorced her because of her addiction to smoking”. The latter presents the story of a woman who has gotten divorced after giving birth to two children and being married for seven years; her divorce is caused by her continuous failure to quit smoking shisha despite her husband’s forbiddance. The lack of stories about women divorcing their husbands because of smoking in Jordanian media may point to the fact that such cases are unlikely to occur. Furthermore, the articles mentioned clearly intend to grab attention, benefitting from the conceptualization of female smoking as a societal taboo and serving as a scare tactic to preclude the practice. 

The media reports against the supposedly “all-encompassing” smoking habits in Jordan may include statistics on the prevalence of female smoking, but they never feature the voices of women, thus, isolating their message to males. Their ironic tone is discursively opposed to the chastising spirit of media representations of female smoking. Associations of female smoking with moral deficits and gender deviance are, clearly, incomparable with the emphasis on health risks and awareness raising in response to male tobacco or nargile use. In regards to smoking, taking it easier on men is not a phenomenon unique to Jordan; as Keene (2002) states popular narratives “construct women as motivated by lack, while leaving the male smoker unmarked and unproblematized” (15). While mainstream discourse against smoking portrays the predominantly male Jordanian smokers as somewhat irrational and “idle”, as shown in this excerpt: 

“I work a bit, and then I come back here and take an arguila. Then I read and take an arguila. Maybe another in the afternoon. Then when I go home I can sit with an arguila too,” Ibrahim said, chuckling”,

the discourse against female smokers is much harsher.

The rhetoric difference in media portrayal of female versus male smoking already described shows that the drug scare about smoking gets strengthened through the implicit construction of women as a “dangerous class” (Reinerman, 1994, x). Reinerman’s concept is well-applicable to women smokers in Jordan not only in sight of the evidence presented, but also given the sociocultural context of the country. Modern Jordan remains a tribal society, although the political influence of tribes has significantly decreased since the initiation of its constitutional monarchy. Holding on to its cultural influence, tribalism assumes that the woman’s inferior position in society is justified because of her inability to control her body (examples for which are the physical processes of menstruation, conception, giving birth) to the same extent that man does. Through sex and pregnancy women become dependable on others, but this dependency carries on throughout their life as they are also considered the “owners of sex”. As such they need to be vigilantly protected by their male relatives, so as to not deprive their families from their honor- an attribute so treasured families will sometimes sacrifice their daughters in “honor killings” in order to restore their respectability. 

Clearly, Bedouin culture views females as vulnerable, in need of protection and untrustworthy. This cultural context helps understand how female smokers are construed as a “group of users perceived by the powerful as disreputable, dangerous, or otherwise threatening” (Reinerman, 1994, x).  In the context of the drug scare associated with smoking women are an easy and predictable target, given their a priori sociocultural status. Yet, the outrage against female smoking could also be seen as a form of resistance against the relative advancement of women in the society. The drug scare functions in the same way street harassment employs abuse to assist men in defending their “territory”, e.g. that of public spaces. It forces women to respect the boundaries set by the dominant group in society- men- and justifies their mistreatment by turning it into punishment for their attempted transgression of the cultural limits.

As with other drug scares, the symbolic crucifix of the “dangerous class” in media representation is only a segway to criminalization, meant to expand social control over the subordinate groups deemed threatening (Raynerman, 2012, x). While a ban against female smoking in public places has not yet been issued in Jordan, not afar, Gaza has done so in 2014 in order to “protect the customs and norms of the community”. While a ban targeting female smoking specifically is unlikely to be issued, given the relatively more pronounced “open-mindedness” of Jordanians, the movement to outlaw smoking in public for both men and women has been successful. Although it has not been enforced, Jordanian law prohibits smoking in public places since 2008. Recently, the politico-moral entrepreneurs representing primarily medical and religious institutions increasingly have been pushing for its enforcement, despite the outrage of the smoking majority, as well as the professional groups such as café and restaurant owners and staff who fear that the ban will put them out of business. The intensification of the drug panic against smoking and its prosecution has led to unprecedented number of reported violations, whereby the Ministry of Health has issued “1,100 fines and 300 warnings to individuals and institutions, and closed 15 facilities in 2014”. The penalty for anyone caught smoking in a public place is either one week to one month imprisonment or a very high fine.

Not long ago coffee shops in Jordan were attended only by males, while women spent their leisure time within the confines of the home where they could be protected and supervised by relatives and neighbors. These times are now changing, although many women from religious or rural background do not enjoy the same freedoms as their more liberal, urban counterparts who take pleasure in walking around the many shopping malls in Amman and frequent its numerous coffee shops. Underneath the preoccupations with women’s respectability and morality surfacing in the discourse against female smoking is a desire to suppress the transformation of women’s status in Jordanian society. The dominant class of men feels threatened by females’ increasing access to public spaces, traditionally thought of as belonging to males such as the street, work force and leisure-time social venues. 


  • Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1986. Veiled sentiments: honor and poetry in a Bedouin society
  • Reinarman, Craig. 1994. The Social Construction of Drug Scares in Constructions of Deviance: Social Power, Context, and lnteraction Adler & Adler, eds. Wadsworth Publishing Co.
  • Keane, Helen. 2002. Chapter 7: Smoking, Addiction, and the Making of Time From Brodie, Janet Farrell, and Marc Redfield, editors. High Anxieties: Cultural Studies in Addiction. Berkeley: University of California Press

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