Jordanian Women Break Workplace Barriers To Gain Independence

In a country plagued by economic crisis, women are entering professions usually reserved for men. Against societal expectations, they are striving for independence.

Jordanian Women Break Workplace Barriers To Gain Independence

A group of girls sit and enjoy a panoramic view of the Jordanian capital

Artur Widak/NurPhoto/ZUMA Press
Laure Stephan

AMMAN — At the end of the production line at the Combaj factory, Inas Shenawi checks the packaging of detergent bottles. Neither her degree in accounting nor her previous work experience had prepared her to work as a supervisor in a factory. But the 34-year-old Jordanian has no regrets: Shenawi says she is thriving and plans to climb the ladder at the factory in suburban Amman, where she first began working in spring 2020.

The current harsh economic crisis in Jordan made her take the leap into a job not common for women, but one that assures her rights and stability. "I can support my family, ensure our dignity," says Shenawi. As a single woman, her role as family breadwinner became crucial after her father could no longer work because of a heart attack.

Nivine Madi, a 35-year-old Jordanian mother of two, values her financial independence. She works in the butchery department of the Kareem supermarket in Zarka, not far from the capital. She is the first female butcher in the country.

One of the obstacles to women's employment is what's called the "culture of shame."

But these women's monthly salaries remain low: above the minimum income (260 Jordanian dinars, about $360), but below the average salary (about $650, what a teacher earns). However, they consider their work beneficial.

Fatima Khashqa, a Syrian refugee who works at Safe Techno Plast, a plastic utensil factory, says she has more confidence in herself now. But it wasn't easy pushing open the doors of industries that, unlike textiles or food, do not have a tradition of employing women. Dua'a, a 22-year-old Jordanian, and Amal, a 20-year-old Syrian, remember the shock of discovering "a man's world" in the electrical appliances factory, Refco, where they were hired. Since then, they have gotten used to it, even if these jobs are not very socially valued.

The low employment rate of women in Jordan has been the subject of countless studies: The percentage of working women is less than 15%, a figure lower than in neighboring Arab countries. And it's not for lack of education. Enrolment in girls' school has been steadily increasing, and more female students are attending university than their male peers. When women do manage to enter the workforce, the majority are in skilled jobs. They are also very active in education and healthcare fields. Renowned women lawyers have even been pioneers in the fight for social justice.

A Jordanian women stands above a view of the Old Town of Amman — Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/ZUMA

But traditions are strong. For one, there's the persistent association between women and the home: 57% of Jordanians surveyed in 2014 felt that the children of a working woman suffered from this situation. Women also face various obstacles, such as access to reliable, safe transportation and discrimination that hinders their workplace integration.

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the country's already existing economic crisis. Unemployment has reached 25% and is twice as high among young people. Because the labor market has not been able to create enough new jobs for more than a decade, various recent national initiatives have emphasized the vocational sector as a pathway to employment and emancipation. It's of growing interest to Western donors, who are focusing on women's employment as well as the integration of Syrian refugees — for political reasons in order to avoid emigration to Europe.

Nivine Madi, Inas Shenawi and Fatima Khashqa have been able to find their current jobs through vocational training provided by the Business Development Center (BDC), a Jordanian service organization financed by the French Development Agency (AFD). Women represent more than 40% of the people trained so far through the Tanmyeh ("development" in Arabic) initiative, which is part of a larger program to finance development projects in countries affected by the Syrian crisis (Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey). The majority of those who have found a job after their training have a contract and social security. They are also regularly monitored by the BDC team. But the challenge is to make these jobs sustainable.

It's a cultural barrier for women who come from conservative backgrounds.

One of the obstacles to women's employment is what's called the "culture of shame." Nivine Madi and Inas Shenawi explain that this represents the stigma associated with manual labor and the scorn cast on women who practice "unconventional" jobs. While working as a butcher, Madi had to deal with the harsh remarks of customers who felt that a woman didn't belong behind the counter, or even refused to let her serve them.

Breaking free from social norms is also a personal struggle. Because she is married, Fatima Khashqa — who came from rural Syria and studied through high school — was initially more embarrassed by the mixed gender training in the factory she was to join. It's a cultural barrier for women, Syrian or Jordanian, who come from conservative backgrounds and worry about their reputations or fear harassment.

Khashqa says she finally feels "safe" today. Her employer, Abdel Hafez Mouaffaq, an industrialist from Aleppo who runs the company Safe Techno Plast, has chosen to separate the spaces between men and women as much as possible in order to prevent the latter's reluctance to female colleagues.

Two women watch a film at a drive-in cinema in Amman, Jordan — Photo: Mohammad Abu Ghosh/Xinhua/ZUMA

"We only mix with the male workers we know, not with those who are passing through," says Mouaffaq. "In Syria, I already employed women. I think they have to work to take care of their children. Besides, women are more stable."

To help these women, some employers are looking for solutions. Before the pandemic, Mouaffaq sought to identify a place to open a daycare center, perhaps to share with other nearby factories. An amendment to the labor law expanded the requirements for companies to provide this service, a move considered essential by women's employment advocates. Another revision is that equal pay for men and women is now enshrined in law. But this change will still have to be enforced.

The crisis does not prevent the women from planning ahead. Nivine Madi is determined to open her own butcher shop, employing only women. Inas Shenawi aspires to become a commercial attaché in the company where she works, with a better salary. Fatima Khashqa would like to take further training. But already, she says, the progress at the factory is a stamp of success.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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