Jordan's new female workforce

A 1996 trade deal has given economic clout to Jordanian women; Egypt signed a similar deal Tuesday.

Unlike most Jordanian women in their twenties, Fatima Mohammed has no plans to get married any time soon. "That's the last thing I'm thinking about," says the ambitious factory worker, her hair covered neatly with a headscarf she bought with her own money.

She works 72 hours a week with 470 other young women at the Silver Planet garment factory just outside Jordan's capital, Amman.

Over the past decade thousands of women like Fatima have rejected traditional family roles to find work in the garment industry here, which has boomed since Jordan, Israel, and the US signed a joint trade deal in 1996 establishing Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZs). The agreement allowed Jordanian factories operating within the QIZs to export goods - manufactured with some Israeli materials - to the US duty-free.

The agreement was largely seen as a way for the US to reward Jordan for making peace with their Jewish neighbor and as an incentive to Arab businessmen and governments to begin building economic ties with their Jewish neighbor. Jordan's annual exports to the US rose from $2 million in 1994 to almost $1 billion this year.

"More than 25,000 Jordanians are working ... and a new sort of culture is being established where girls are going to work, they are supporting their families and raising the standard of living," said former Jordanian trade minister, Dr. Mohammed Halaiqa.

Partly encouraged by the success in Jordan, Egypt on Tuesday signed as similar agreement with the US and Israel establishing QIZs there. Egypt had resisted signing until now out of anger at Israel and because Egypt wanted a comprehensive free-trade agreement with the US rather than the restricted access provided by the QIZs, analysts say.

But the US insisted on an Egyptian agreement with Israel first and in recent months, Egyptian and Israeli relations have warmed as never before, largely at the prodding of the US.

Now, Egyptian officials like Foreign Trade Minister Rachid Mohammed Rachid say they see the deal with the Israelis as a first step towards a Free Trade Agreement with America.

Mr. Rachid acknowledged that the Egyptian public views Israel darkly, but said he was confident that the economic benefits will win most Egyptians over. "The fact the Jordanian experience next door has been quite positive" convinced Egypt to go ahead, he said Tuesday.

"There has always been an emotional reaction to cooperation with Israel on the public side ... [but] once the business cycle starts, I think this will be a much more positive environment."

In Jordan, although QIZs have helped forge better economic ties with Israel, some analysts say challenges remain for the development zones. Competition from Egypt will soon vie for the same US markets. And the many Asian-owned factories in the QIZs import large numbers of workers from abroad because of the lack of domestic skilled labor. And analysts say the foreign owners have little stock in Jordan's long-term economic development.

But in the shortterm, the arrival of QIZs has paved the way for the beginning of an industrial revolution in Jordan, with women being major benefactors.

After her father's death left the family without a breadwinner, Fatima left her village of Ossera and traveled to Sahab, where she heard factories were opening.

Fatima and her older sister, Neemat, and her younger sister, Kafaa, broke the taboos around working women and became among the first females from Ossera to go to work in one of the factories that opened up in Irbid, north of their village. More village women eventually followed.

In the beginning, Fatima and her sisters commuted by bus, but eventually they moved to the Al-Tajamouat QIZ near Amman where they live in factory housing, the first such QIZ dorm for Jordanian women.

Women have benefited most from the tens of thousands of jobs that have been created in the Jordanian QIZs, because factory owners have trouble attracting and keeping Jordanian men, who represent only 10 percent of the total number of employees in the QIZ factories.

"[Here] it's not shameful for a 30-year-old [man] to be unemployed and asking his parents for money even if there is work," says Halim Salfiti, general manager of the Al-Tajamouat QIZ, whose factories sell garments to Ralph Lauren, Victoria's Secret, Levi's, and Wal-Mart.

Mr. Salfiti hired Ayda Maaya, a former social worker, to recruit young women from poor villages.

"More and more fathers are giving permission," says Mrs. Maaya, "but convincing them is not easy. Especially in the south where they are more conservative."

Justin Siberell, a diplomat at the US Embassy in Jordan notes that while the peace agreement has not necessarily made Jordanians and Israelis better friends, the benefits provided by the QIZs "become in themselves positive arguments for peace."

But Fatima thinks little about regional peace and more about getting a promotion at the garment factory. "Maybe if I save some money I'll open up my own small factory in my village."

Staff writer Dan Murphy contributed to this report from Cairo.

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