Women, 86 Percent Absent From Jordan’s Work Force, Are Left Behind

AMMAN, Jordan — Marwa Alomari’s compassionate and patient style made her a popular English teacher, filling her classes in Irbid, Jordan, with eager students and her off hours with private tutoring.

A university graduate, she was paid up to $3,000 a month, far more than most fellow Jordanians.

But after she married an army officer and moved in with his family, he began to resent that she was paid more than he was. Even though she contributed to the household with both money and housework, he and his family discouraged her from working and the marriage nearly fell apart, she said.

“I became adamant that I wasn’t going to quit, but eventually I found no support and I just got tired and gave up,” said Ms. Alomari, 35. “I went back to cooking, cleaning, gossiping with women. And this wasn’t my ambition.”

Her story reflects what is happening across Jordan — a small Arab monarchy that has been a steadfast ally of Western countries — where women’s status in terms of labor force participation, health and politics has been regressing for years, even lagging behind more conservative countries in the region.

For the past 10 years, the country has sat near the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, which tracks gaps between women and men in employment, education, health and politics.

After big gains over the past three decades, more women than men in the country now graduate from university, and women also have higher literacy rates.

Despite that, 86 percent of women in the country are absent from the work force, according to government figures and the latest Global Gender Gap Report. That is the highest rate in the world for a country not at war, according to the World Bank.

In contrast, Western Europe has moved the most toward gender parity and is continuing in that direction, followed by North America.

And the effects are felt far beyond economics.

“As long as women are absent from the labor market, they are absent from the public sphere,” said Asma Khader, the president of the nonprofit group Sisterhood is Global Institute in Jordan. “Top officials are afraid to impose decisions favoring women, because society is conservative. But I believe when there is real economic reform, women will become empowered and make demands.”

With its close ties to the West, an outspoken queen, and female members of Parliament and police officers, Jordan has long had the image of a relatively progressive kingdom in a conservative neighborhood. But recently, some Gulf neighbors have seen an increasing number of female-led start-ups and changes in employment legislation that have led to growing opportunities for women.

In Jordan, the head of the household is usually defined as the husband, unless he is dead, missing or has lost his citizenship. This gives him sole guardianship over children, with authority over matters such as travel, citizenship and opening bank accounts. In Saudi Arabia, though, recent amendments allowed women to also be considered a “head of household,” at least in theory.

Traditional attitudes, discriminatory legislation, a lack of access to public transportation and pay disparities are hindering women’s advancement in Jordan.

Elections for the country’s 130-seat Parliament in November were a testament to women’s shrinking role. Voter turnout was low, and female candidates lost starkly. Women did not take a single seat beyond the quota of 15 female legislators, compared with 20 in the previous Parliament.

Sara Ababneh, an assistant professor of politics and international relations at the University of Jordan, said the problem went beyond elections.

“Sometimes we talk about women’s representation — we say that there should be more women ministers,” she said. “But we never talk about overall rights and real political empowerment.”

Recent World Bank research found that men in Jordan are paid as much as 40 percent more than women are for the same job in the private sector. In the public sector, the gap is 28 percent.

The disparity in employment — 53 percent of men are in the labor force compared with 14 percent of women — is nearly double that of neighboring countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

Traditional roles in Jordan are enshrined in laws that differentiate between women’s and men’s rights and responsibilities. There is no law prohibiting gender discrimination in the workplace. And while the Constitution provides that “every worker shall receive wages commensurate with the quantity and quality of his work,” there is no right to equal pay for women and men.

For Muslims, who make up most of Jordan’s population of nearly 11 million, matters of marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance are governed by Shariah, or Islamic law, and adjudicated in Shariah courts rather than civil or military courts. Under Shariah law, for example, women can inherit property, but daughters receive half as much as sons.

And during the Arab Spring a decade ago, many women and human rights activists assailed a parliamentary committee for breaking its promise to include the word gender in the Constitution’s Article 6, which is supposed to guarantee the equality of all Jordanians. It states, “There shall be no discrimination between Jordanians with regard to their rights and duties on grounds of race, language or religion.”

Despite the obstacles, some women have managed to succeed professionally.

Jamileh Shetewi is by all accounts an exception among Jordanian women. She grew up in a one-room mud-walled home with her eight siblings and parents, and spent her childhood days picking tomatoes, eggplants and bananas in hot and shadeless farms with her four sisters.

The odds were stacked against her.

She dropped out of school at age 17 and married at 18. As a young farmer from 1997 to 2002, she was paid $3 a day less than the men she worked alongside, and she had to cook for them on top of her job.

She decided to go back to school, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in archaeology. Today she heads the Department of Antiquities for the Jordan Valley region.

“Yes, I defied all expectations,” said Ms. Shetewi, 50. “I fought and shattered the culture of shame.” But without changing laws and perceptions, she said, most women will not be able to advance.

“I didn’t care what people had to say, and I told my husband, ‘I need your support to make our lives better,’” she said. “We aren’t the enemy. Do you think a country can reform and prosper without half its population?”

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