Women In Jordan Face Familiar Problems

This is an interesting article on women in Jordan as seen through the eyes of an American women grassroots organization. It’s very telling that from a western perspective the hijab is seen as the biggest obstacle to women development in the Middle East. It’s also kind of ironic since in our part of the world the hijab is a symbol of religious devotion and conjures a sense of respect for its wearer. In any case, this fact finding team of American women discovered that women in Jordan face actual real and tangible problems. The last paragraph of the article also points to the kind of social movement that I wish was more prevalent in our society despite government (in)action. It’s a good read:

(11-13) 04:00 PST Amman, Jordan — Jordan and California are separated by 10 time zones, thousands of miles and vastly different languages and cultures. But, for Maya Garcia, there is something linking high-tech Silicon Valley with the poor villages surrounding Amman.

“It’s amazing to see that the challenges faced by women in Jordan are similar in so many ways to those we face in America,” she told The Chronicle. “In the West, there is this idea that women in the Middle East are downtrodden compared to us, but it’s not the case.”

Garcia is president of Spark, a 2-year-old San Francisco-based organization dedicated to empowering the world’s women. A delegation from the group has just concluded a 10-day fact-finding trip to Jordan, where it provided money and advice to small business projects.

“It’s striking to see women talking about a work-life balance, and problems of getting maternity leave and equality of pay,” the 30-year-old UC Berkeley political science graduate said. “It takes apart any preconceptions you might have about women’s lives here.”

For many Westerners, the Middle East is seen as a region of long-running conflicts, oil and oppression — particularly for women — as symbolized by the hijab, the traditional Muslim head-covering. Garcia, who lives in Pacific Heights, says those assumptions do not hold up to scrutiny.

“In America when we see a woman wearing hijab, it scares people,” she said. “We take it to mean someone is close-minded, badly educated or under pressure to dress a certain way.

“Speaking to women (in Jordan), it’s obvious that’s a dangerous oversimplification. We found women of all kinds — from highly educated government officials to poor women from rural backgrounds — pushing for their rights, seizing opportunities and making the most of them,” she added. “The veil is something they wear as a matter of individual religious choice — it’s not a symbol of being oppressed.”

Fairuz Taqi-Eddin, 31, Spark’s coordinator for grassroots women’s organizations, grew up in the Jordanian capital and in Saudi Arabia, and moved to San Francisco in 1998. Since then, she has worked on various international development projects with charities and the British government. She returned to Amman as part of the Spark group.

“What we’ve seen here is that equality and power are about access to education, access to employment and justice. These are concrete things and, for the women we’ve met, have nothing to do with how you dress. We’ve seen really dynamic, positive and effective women here, working to improve their communities and their lives, and they’ve all worn head scarves. In the West, we’ve got to get over the mental block that this an obstacle to overcome.”

The Sparks team gave a $5,000 grant to a secondhand clothing business in the Jordan Valley community of Kaferin. Called Aweaeena, meaning “Our Clothes,” the shop will sell new and used clothing to women without much money. It will also rent dresses for formal occasions, such as weddings, that are considered essential but are extremely expensive to buy. In addition to giving customers alternatives for their wardrobes, the effort also teaches the all-volunteer staff how to run a business.

Jordan, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, is ruled by a monarchy, and has come under fire from international rights groups for its lack of democratic political reforms and its human rights record. The Sparks delegation hopes that by helping women in modest projects like the clothes shop, they would feel empowered to take on wider issues affecting them.

One such issue is so-called honor crimes — the slaying by male relatives of female family members accused of bringing shame on their clans, often after being accused of infidelity. Killers are usually let off with a jail sentence of a few months.

“This is still a conservative society, it’s a more conservative culture,” Taqi-Eddin said. “We’re certainly not here to say that everything is perfect, because it’s not. And I won’t say we’ve come here and found equality because we haven’t.

“There are a lot of problems, but we’ve seen women here working for themselves to overcome them, and they are making progress. They’re not sitting here doing nothing and staying quiet.”

The American women were adamant that Western solutions could not be successfully imposed on local problems.

“When we asked about honor killings and domestic violence, the women here working on these things told us it had to be dealt with in a way suitable to the culture,” said Garcia, an ex-political consultant who now works as an advocacy coordinator at United Way of the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. “When they tried to confront it in a very direct, head-on manner, (the strategy) ran into resistance. So they take a more subtle approach.”

The Bay Area women visited a sewage project in Madaba, where Garcia said village women spent three years working to improve sanitation and, as a result, won respect of the community. “Because they’ve visibly improved their environment and made things better for everyone, they have leverage. And they grow in confidence, they stick together and they grow in power.” [source]


  • Salaam,

    Way to go women of Jordan!

    …all the best…and all the respect…we love you***

    I hope we’ll have a female prime minister in any new coming government.

  • muslim women are facing problems from jordanians themselves. its hard for a woman who wears khimar to get a job in citys like amman.

  • I know many women who study or work in america wearing alhijab without affecting theire success and relations with the comunitty around them, i don’t know why they make it a big deal for muslim women to wear hijab and live in amreica , that mieght be aporblem in europe but not america , most people in america understand that alhijab covers the head not the mind.

  • Salaam,

    I understand your concern Summaya, but we have to remember that a woman who takes the decission of wearing the khimar, or ‘niqab’ has to understand that she has rights as well as duties. She has the right to wear whatever she wants, but at the same time she should understand that wearing the ‘niqab’ might lessen the degree of her communication with others, and she has to exert extra efforts to express herself (like trying to be extra friendly, use more verbal expression, and body language)….Body language makes up about 80% of human communication , the rest 20% is verbal (using words)….

    I understand that most girls who wear ‘niqab’ want to be more pious and chaste…and have the least amount of communication with men…if so I find it a bit contradictory that they demand that society should involve them more in the community work force…(this is their major problem in the U.K…they think people should accept them as they are without they themselves exerting any effort to actually be more communicative or expressive!)

    What also makes me crazy … is that most sisiters who wear’niqab’ if not all of them have a strange liking to the colour ‘black’ which makes this worse , specially in the west…I mean Islam is not a ‘black’ religion…even prophet Muhammad (PBUH) didn’t like this colour…

    I wish womwn in Saudi Arabia and the gulf countries would encourage women to stop wearing this miserable colour…a Muslim women in Europe wearing black attracts attention more than a girl wearing a bikini!

    When are Muslims of today ever gonna wake up.. and start thinking smart?

  • Raya, I have to agree with a lot of what you said but to some extent. I find it contradictory for a nation to claim to accept people of all races, creeds and cultures yet reject them at will. And not on just a social level (which is expected as you said) but on a political and legal level.

    The being said, the black color is one of the reasons many scholars have put forth the claim that the niqab is a bedioun tradition predating Islam and some how both became merged under a religious banner as did other things practiced today. whether there’s any truth to that is another matter

  • Salaam ‘Alaikum

    How come black marks one as sophisticated or cool if they’re a non-Muslima in NYC or LA or whatever, but when a Muslima wears it, we’re all “Oh, that’s not good da’wah?” I like black; 80% of my wardrobe is black. Of course, I’m also from NY where everyone wears black. 😉 Let a sister wear whatever color she wants, if it’s black or pink. (b/c I know sisters who criticize those of us who wear colors too).

    When the sis said khimar did she mean niqab or did she mean khimar as in the Egyptian style cover more sis here in Amman are wearing or khimar as it is meant to generally mean headcover? I know sisters in niqab and hijab and khimar (egyptian) who work (mostly Americans) and I also know Jordanian sis who do… but then again, I also know Jordanian sis who had a hard time getting a job wearing western dress with hijab — and who were told it was the hijab that was the issue.

  • I found living in Amman from 1992-1994 quite different and quite difficult… though I have heard honestly that things have changed dramatically over the past 13 years… way to go more women educated and involved in government/parl. is very good to see… advances will only strengthen this country for the better.

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