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Women experts: Jordanians are educated, but they often stay at home

Experts: Jordanian women are educated, but they often stay at home | Photo: GIZ archive

Although Jordanian women make up the majority of university graduates, their participation in the labor market is very low. Why is that and how is the position of women changing in Jordan? More on this in the following conversation with Nour Moghrabi and Safaa Daradkeh from the EconoWin program, which focuses on helping women participate in the economy in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. The program is provided by the German development agency GIZ, which is active in Jordan.

WHAT ACTIVITIES ARE YOU FOLLOWING?

Nour: We try to involve women in the economy through our activities, and above all by creating a suitable work environment. We strive to educate young people from different social groups, for example through the production and projection of films that are dedicated to the topic of working women. The films are such an instrument for bringing about a social dialogue. In Jordan, if I am to be honest, we face a number of challenges related to women's employment.
 
WHAT CHALLENGES ARE THAT?

N: The question of whether women work often not only relates to the situation on the job market or qualifications, but often also to the attitude, willingness and the way to rethink something. It really is a challenge because we are talking about a patriarchal culture that is dominated by men. And this in every place and at every level - in the family, school, mosque, religious institutions, universities, in government, in civil society. We want to bring this topic to the surface in a suitable and not too controversial way. There are no platforms for open discussion in Jordan and in the Middle East in general. People talk a lot, but expressing themselves appropriately, accepting other people's opinions without hurting them and feeling that they need to be calmed down immediately is also something that our culture lacks. And basically on all levels. There is little group work in schools, there are no discussion groups, and there are limited theater or concerts. And in families, the last word is left to the men - the father or the brother.

Safaa: One of the greatest Jordanian challenges is the participation of women in the labor market. About 13% participate in working life, which is very little. Nevertheless, we have many women who have graduated from universities and for whom it is difficult to find employment. We have a lot of activities, but especially as part of the Ana Hunna campaign mentioned, we are producing films about working women who can be role models for others and mentors on the job market.
 
WHY DO WOMEN ENTER ONLY IN LOW NUMBERS IN THE LABOR MARKET?

N: It's about the cultural context. As Safaa said, we have many educated women in Jordan who do not work. Often they do not want to and it is not required of them. This has something to do with the gender aspect. The men are the ones who make the living and the women do the housework. The woman is thus a member of the household who takes care of the children and older family members. And when women enter the labor market, they often only work until they get married. That is the main problem. It's not that the young women are uneducated and sit at home. Often times they are actually looking for opportunities to work. However, this is subject to conditions and rules.
 
WHICH RULES DO YOU THINK OF?


N: A woman cannot find any job she likes. It must be approved in advance by the family. For example, she cannot work in a hotel, even if it were a five-star global chain. She cannot work as a stewardess because she would not sleep at home or come home late. Usually this is seen as protection of the respective woman: we do not trust society. Why should we let our daughters or sisters suffer in such a jungle? We protect them, that doesn't mean we don't like them.
 
WHAT DOES THE RULES OF THE RESULT LOOK LIKE?

N: Ultimately, to some extent, it's up to the woman to choose. And we should give her the opportunity to choose. Sometimes we assume that she doesn't want to work, but in reality she is not given the opportunity to make that decision at all. If the woman decides to sit at home and do nothing, or, on the contrary, to open an art museum, volunteer or get paid, then that's fine. We strive through our campaign to make women feel important whatever they do. A woman should stand behind what she thinks and what she believes. And don't allow anyone to tell her anything. Not to allow whoever to force her to do something she wakes up from at 50 and finds she hasn't really accomplished much other than being beaten by her husband and bullied by her sons or brothers. That she didn't go anywhere, because in the beginning she never drew anyone's attention to think of herself and what she wanted. And that is the starting point. Everything else can be discussed.
 
WHAT DOES THE LAW ON EQUALITY FOR MEN AND WOMEN SAY?

N: In our constitution, men and women are equal; in our Personal Status Law, women are the entourage of men. They are tied to her and even punished for not taking good care of her husband. If they become victims, they are usually punished for it themselves. For example, if a woman is sexually harassed, there is no law here that would protect her. It is extremely difficult to succeed with a sexual harassment complaint. This is also something that can limit you in your job, because you cannot protect yourself if something like this happened in the workplace. In our film about a Jordanian stewardess, the protagonist says: "If someone tries to attack me or comes too close to me on the plane, I am very well protected under international law." Unfortunately, this does not work in Jordan. When we talk about culture change, we also have to think about the culture of those who make politics. Because you have to change your mindset too.
 


MODERNIZATION AT YOUR OWN HAND

Have there been positive changes in this regard in recent times?


N: When we talk about these things, we often do so with the expectation that it will not change. But the culture and traditions are changing. It may come as a surprise, but in Jordan, for example, the divorce rate is very high. Social problems that have their origin in the divorce rate and the breakup of marriage have a major impact on government and society, because such women are then often not able to be economically independent. There is no social justice here in the sense that they and their children are offered a good standard of living. That is why the only one of all the solutions we advocate is economic empowerment for women. So that a woman has the choice between different options and can stand on her own two feet. I think that changes will happen depending on how we react to a situation. It is not that we want to achieve change and then encounter its consequences. In connection with the current refugee crisis, Jordan is facing various problems related to this.
 
WHAT PROBLEMS ARE THAT?

N: These are, for example, child marriages or polygamy, the numbers of which are increasing. In addition, more and more people are dependent on just one breadwinner. And all of this is changing Jordanian society. Many people have also left the labor market because they have been replaced by Syrian workers who do better jobs for lower wages. Jordan is a small economic area in which everyone has their role. If you take a population of which half are able to work but have no work, that part of society doesn't even share in GDP. A relatively large part of this first group, which is men, is still working abroad at the same time. You can now imagine the economic importance of our country? Many families live on money that is earned abroad. I think it is the right time, if it is not already too late, to enforce the integration of women into the local economic processes.
 
WHAT IS THE SITUATION OF WOMEN IN THE COUNTRY? DO YOU ALSO SUPPORT THESE WOMEN IN THIS ENVIRONMENT?

N: Among other things, we work with women who work in agriculture in rural areas to help them achieve economic growth. If we take the production of dairy products as an example, women have a very important role to play here. They take care of the cows, and they often produce them themselves, but the sale is then a man's job. Likewise, the purchase of grazing land for the cattle is mostly a male domain, while women often have very poorly paid jobs. In the event that they already sell some of their products themselves, they do so for a very small profit. We managed to convince some of these women to modernize their products.
 
WHAT DOES THIS MODERNIZATION LOOK LIKE?

N: Take, for example, a woman who has been making cheese the traditional way for years. In a way that she, in turn, learned from other relatives. And everyone loves their cheese. At first she gave away the cheese around her, but over time people started to order the good cheese from her and she started selling it. For further development, it is important that these women have their products tested to ensure that they are not harmful to health, whether they can still be improved in some way, in order to get a certificate and to establish themselves as suppliers of goods. But many women were against this idea and said: “I know my cheese is good. Why should I have it tested? ”And when you tell these women that they could then sell their cheese for a higher price, they often reply,“ No, no, I am satisfied as it is. ”But the problem is, that if you then ask whether they have health insurance or can purchase necessary household items, they answer no. Because they only run their small businesses to survive. Many women live like this in a bubble and are very difficult to get out of it.
 
LOGICALLY IT WOULD LIKE TO EXPECT YOUNG WOMEN TO BE MORE PROGRESSIVE. BUT IS THIS REALLY SO?

N: In this respect a deterioration can be perceived - if only with regard to the participation of women in the economy. This is also one of the things we encounter when we work with college students. It is very difficult to motivate them. And my generation, which is not that far removed from theirs, was much more open to new opportunities and sometimes felt like taking risks. Today their thinking is more uniform, which is a sign of the absence of discussion and cultural dialogue. Society is polarized, so we can find very open-minded young people, but on the other hand, and the majority will be, very conservative-minded people.
 
HOW DO YOU EXPLANATE THIS DIFFERENCE?

N: Our generation was exposed to different influences, whether it was Islamic or, on the contrary, secular movements. That helped the social situation a lot. In my opinion, the current generation is exposed to only one aspect - war, including war against the West. On the contrary, we were still talking about a peace process in the 1980s. And I am also thinking about my children in this direction. I want them to know they have a choice. But it is getting more and more complicated because we have two camps here and it is very difficult to equalize.
 
NETWORKING EVENING IN A HOTEL IN AMMAN AS PART OF A MENTOR PROJECT FOR WOMEN
 
YOU MENTIONED WAR. IN GENERAL THAT THERE IS A GREAT UNCERTAINTY IN TIMES OF WAR AND EVERYONE TRIES TO PROTECT ITS OWN. BEING OPEN CAN BE CONSIDERED DANGEROUS BY A NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN THIS REGARD. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT IT?

N: Unfortunately you are right. In moments like this, what is important for people is what they believe they know and its interpretations.
 
THE PUBLIC SPACE IS NOT OPEN TO WOMEN

IF WE LOOK AT AMMAN AS THE CAPITAL AND PUBLIC SPACE, IS IT SAFE FOR WOMEN HERE?

S: If we talk about the division of the houses in general and not just about Amman as a city, then we come to the fact that the inner space basically belongs to the women, the outer to the men and their guests.

N: When you are a woman, your sole presence outside the home is always noticed. You must have a good reason to be in this place right now. Even if you go out taking out the trash. For example, I once went to visit a friend who lives in a very poor neighborhood, so there is rubbish everywhere there. I asked her how she can stand it in such a dirty environment. And she said that she always tries to initiate a joint clean-up action with the neighbors. But they replied that they had no permission to clear away other people's garbage outside. But it is also in the consciousness of the women themselves who are afraid. This can also be clearly seen in driving a car.
 
DRIVING A CAR?

N: Women often drive to take the kids to school, go shopping, and so on. It is interesting that the place where they shop is often derived from where they think it is safe to get there by car. So it can easily happen that you can't get out of your neighborhood all year long because you are afraid of discovering new opportunities. There are a number of women who have been driving around town for over a decade and are great drivers, but as soon as you ask them to drive out of town they refuse.
 
WHY DO WOMEN DO NOT FEEL SAFE DRIVING OUTSIDE THEIR AREA?

S: There is always the factor of hidden dangers that are waiting for us somewhere, only to suddenly strike us.
N: And that also applies to the appearance of the city, for example. As soon as you get out of the central parts, the streets become narrower, traffic rules cease to apply. Any fears you may have affect you. And like I said, whenever you are in any place as a woman, you must have a good reason to be. If you are alone in a bar on Rainbow Street in the evening (note: main street with lemonade shops and bars in the city center), this will raise questions. And that also applies to other situations. You can often see a man standing in the street waving a taxi to himself. But if a woman stood there and waited ten minutes for a car, she would feel very bad. She is exposed to notions and questions: Why is she here? Why is she here alone? What is she doing here?
 
 
DOES THIS ALSO BE NOTICED IN OTHER AREAS?

N: For example on social media. We have a popular blogger who is still very controversial. She makes such short and stupid videos on Snapchat. And people don't primarily ask why she makes such primitive videos and talks about such mundane things, but they ask: where is her father? How can her brother allow her to do that? Doesn't her parents mind how she dresses? Why is no one protecting them from public display? (laughs)
 
ARE THERE ALSO MEN IN JORDAN WHO FIGHT FOR WOMEN'S RIGHTS OR IS THAT A PURE WOMEN'S DOMAIN?

S: Our king is basically one of the biggest and loudest feminists in the country. In general, however, it is very important to involve men in the discourse on women's rights. We therefore strive for this in our film projections and discussions. Overall, however, we have a relatively large number of feminists from among writers, politicians and other circles.
 
HOW DO MEN RESPOND TO EQUALITY FOR WOMEN?

N: We perceive that fewer and fewer men are publicly fighting against equality for women. Those who are loud are mostly the extremists, or Islamists if you will. Even people from the tribal communities are for it. This can already be seen in the fact that they nominate women for parliament - albeit on the basis of allotted quotas. And people are beginning to realize that there is no benefit in keeping women in a weak position. The Islamists are of course something else. And here I would just like to say that it has nothing to do with Islam itself.There is a great deal of misinterpretation here. These men take religion hostage to justify their own ideas about how things should be and why anything should be rejected that tries to change people, even if it makes sense. And luckily, these groups are no longer the ones men listen to, middle-aged men. On the contrary, they often begin to think that it is important to take women seriously. It is different with some young men, and that is what we should concentrate on in the first place. That they are not influenced by these ideologies, which talk them into various nonsensical ideas or legends and create artificial constructs based on history. And that's not realistic.
 
The social anthropologist Pavel Borecký and the writer Petra Hůlová also took part in the conversation. They were present at the recording and contributed their questions to the conversation. The conversation arose as part of the Carte Blanche Middle East project of the Goethe Institutes in Prague and Amman.

 

author

Lukáš Houdek is the coordinator of the HateFree Culture project. Studied Romance studies at the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University in Prague. Also dedicates himself to his own artistic work, in which he reflects on the topics of identity, violence from hatred and lawlessness.

Translation: Jan Sommerfeldt
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Czech Republic, Internet editorial office
October 2016

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