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