Jordan advances women in schools and workplace

It's not called women's liberation in Jordan. Rather it is referred to as ''woman advancement.'' But the movement in Jordan to encourage women to seek more education and pursue careers represents one of the most liberal, organized efforts to improve the status of women in the Islamic world.

The position of women in Jordanian society starkly contrasts with the position of their Muslim sisters in neighboring Saudi Arabia - where women are expected to cover themselves completely from head to toe in a black veil and where women are forbidden to work or attend classes in the same room with men.

Though an increasing number of Jordanian women - particularly college students - are covering their hair with scarves as an outward expression of their religious conviction, the role of women in areas outside the home, including devout Muslims, is on the increase. Women now comprise 17 percent of the Jordanian labor force as compared to less than 5 percent in 1976. In 1974, Jordanian women were granted the right to vote. (In fact, all elections have been suspended since Israel's occupation of the West Bank.)

One of the key advocates pushing to improve the position of Jordanian women is Inam Mufti, Jordan's minister of social development.

Mrs. Mufti, the first woman Cabinet minister in Jordan, serves to a great extent as an example to Jordanian women that a woman's place is not necessarily exclusively in the home.

A mother of two sons, Mrs. Mufti - who was educated in Jerusalem and Britain - insists that ''access to information and knowledge is a right.'' She adds, ''This includes family planning.'' This is becoming an increasingly important point in Jordan, which, with an annual population growth rate of 3.8 percent, has one of the fastest growing populations in the world.

''The way we think about woman advancement in our country is that it is based on the idea that knowledge and information and education should be made available to every woman to the level she wishes to pursue,'' the minister said.

In Jordan, 46 percent of pupils in the mandatory nine years of schooling are girls. When pupils in the secondary level - the 10th through 12th years - are included, the proportion of girls is 43 percent. Almost half of all college students enrolled in Jordan's three universities are women.

Despite these advances, women in Jordan still have a long way to go. There are no constitutional barriers to women working in jobs traditionally held by men. But the reality in Jordan - as elsewhere - is that because women are only beginning to break into new fields, those doing the hiring are almost exclusively men. Some women complain that they are not considered for decisionmaking positions, and that if they apply for the same job as a man, the man will be hired because it is assumed he has a family to support.

But the issue of women's rights is a sensitive one in the Islamic world, to a great extent because many Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad advocated a society in which men play a dominant role, particularly as providers for women.

Mrs. Mufti stresses that the last thing she would like to see is a confrontation with religious conservatives or others opposed to an expanded role for women.

''Here in Jordan we would like to have the development of women go in a balanced form and a healthy form and not to raise obstacles and opponents,'' she said.

On the question of Islam and women, Mrs. Mufti says some countries and cultures have done a disservice to both Islam and women by perpetuating misconceptions about the role of the Muslim woman.

''I come from a family that was very conservative,'' Mrs. Mufti said. ''My father was a mufti, which means that he interprets and explains the teachings of Islam and the Koran and he was a judge of the Sharia court (Muslim court) where he ruled on matters of the life of the family and whatever problem arose.

''From my own upbringing by a religious man, a sheikh, a conservative man, the issue of education and work was a very clear-cut issue. My father insisted that his daughters should have the same opportunities as his sons in receiving education up to the level they can pursue or wish to pursue.

''This comes from the teachings of the prophet whereby there is a saying: 'Education and seeking knowledge is a must for every Muslim, man and woman.' '' And she points out, ''He did not make it just for every Muslim. He went on to say man and woman.''

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