World Middle East

With elbow grease and conviction, Jordanian women move into male vocations

breaking barriers

The women workers – mechanics and plumbers, welders and drivers – invoke conservative social norms even as they stretch them, saying they're providing services to other women in a more comfortable environment.

Khawla Sheikh (l.), Jordan's first licensed woman plumber, trains women on cutting thermal piping at a workshop in Zarqa, northern Jordan, Jan. 22, 2018.
Taylor Luck
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Caption
  • Taylor Luck
    Correspondent

When life gave Balqees Bani Hani lemons, she decided to repair them.

“I fix cars,” Ms. Bani Hani says as she checks the oil of a car in her newly opened garage in northern Jordan, “and I break stereotypes.”

Jordan’s first commercial female car mechanic is one of hundreds of Jordanian women who in recent years increasingly have taken jobs in traditionally male, vocational trades to make ends meet: welding pipes, fixing transmissions, repairing boilers, and driving taxis.

It is a sign that as prices and unemployment rise in the resource-poor kingdom, some conservative elements in Jordanian society are changing their perceptions of what women can and can’t do, even gradually accepting women working independently in the company of men.

“A high level of unemployment and the threat of poverty is driving many women to take up vocational work under any conditions, and has led many Jordanians to encourage their wives and daughters to do so,” says Ahmad Awad, director of the Amman-based Phenix Center for Economic and Informatics Studies.

“At the end of the day the pocketbook is more important than cultural ‘shame’,” he says.

Rather than simply working against conservative social norms, women workers say they are working with them: They argue that in addition to proving – with some elbow grease – that women are just as talented as men, they are also providing services directly to other women who may be wary of being alone with strange men.

Tired of the lack of job security in the private sector and looking to become her own boss, Bani Hani, a 34-year-old single mother of two, decided in 2016 that she should open up her own small business. But when she looked at the conventional opportunities open to her, she was unimpressed.

“Everyone told me to open yet another beauty salon or tailor, as if all women could do is straighten hair, paint nails, and sew,” Bani Hani says from her Zahreh Garage in her home town of Irbid, 60 miles north of the capital, Amman.

Balqees Bani Hani checks the life of a car battery at her newly-opened Zahreh Garage in Irbid, northern Jordan, Jan. 21, 2018.
Taylor Luck
|
Caption

She says she found inspiration when she had to get her car repaired and was forced to deal with patronizing male mechanics and spend hours driving around an industrial zone looking for parts she had never heard of.

“I hate the idea of women left at the mercy of men,” Bani Hani says of the car-repair industry and the wider business world. “I believe all women, no matter their nationality or origin, would agree.”

She decided to fix cars.

Gaining men's trust

After spending six months apprenticing at a garage, Bani Hani took a $14,000 loan from the government’s Development and Employment Fund to rent, renovate, and open Jordan’s first ever “women’s garage,” servicing and repairing cars for women by women. Future female employees are in training.

Although her business model is eventually to exclusively serve women, initial overhead costs in her first month have meant Bani Hani has had to provide service to male customers to get her project off the ground.

And the men have come around to the idea of a woman working under the hood of their car.

“Jordanian society is conservative, but when we see a woman working hard to stand on her own two feet, we want to support them,” says Ahmed Hassan, a 56-year-old former owner of a fleet of trucks, as he waits for Bani Hani to replace the brake pads on his 1994 Toyota Camry.

Khawla Sheikh has also helped blaze the path for Jordan’s workwomen. 

A former housewife, Sheikh decided to train as a plumber in 2004 to serve women and later teach women home repair. 

Encouraged by the enthusiastic response among her trainees, in 2011 she formed Jordan’s first women’s plumbing company, Plumbing and Energy Cooperative Society, comprising 16 women from across the country who repair and maintain water systems and piping. At first, she says, people laughed at them, and sometimes her plumbers would literally have clients close their doors on them, unwilling to trust the handiwork of women.

Now, there are dozens of women plumbers across the country.

“These women now don’t have to face the resistance I faced 10 years ago, and in 10 years’ time it will be even easier for the next generation,” Sheikh says on the sidelines of her advanced-level course in plumbing and repair for women.

Steep path to workforce

Despite being highly educated – more women graduate from Jordanian universities than do men, year in and year out – only 22 percent of women in Jordan participate in the workforce, compared with 87 percent of Jordanian men, one of the lowest rates in the region, according to the World Bank. This is despite a population that is 49.7 percent female. Unemployment among Jordanian women is around 33 percent, more than double than that of men’s 13.9 percent.

Economists, analysts, and women workers attribute this low participation to a combination of cultural misconceptions and practical barriers.

Some conservative and tribal families, although they encourage their daughters to continue their higher education, find the thought of women being alone with strange men, working long hours, or having to take public transportation to be “shameful”.  

Meanwhile, a lack of transportation, day care for children, and social security make many jobs more trouble than the salary is worth.

Women’s path to the workforce has been steep in Jordan, where traditionally the only acceptable work for women was as school teachers, and later professors, government clerks, nurses, doctors, and secretaries.

Now that times are tougher, hundreds of Jordanian women are taking up vocational trades, becoming plumbers, car mechanics, taxi drivers, electricians, and gas station attendants.

Women are also motivated by the pay. One day cleaning water tanks can earn a worker 90 Jordanian dinars, or $126, more than one-third the monthly minimum wage in Jordan. Good days as a plumber can bring in excess of $170, the amount of monthly rent, a mortgage payment, or university tuition fee. A busy day at the garage can generate upwards of $100, equivalent to two weeks’ worth of groceries.

Thousands in training

Jordan’s iron women are quickly passing on their craft to thousands of eager women.

Bani Hani is selecting women engineering graduates to train at her garage as car mechanics, later to be appointed as her first full-time employees.

For a decade, Sheikh has provided plumbing and home maintenance training to women, and now provides advanced courses – complete with her own textbooks – funded by the German government and the United States Agency for International Development. Since 2007, Sheikh has trained 16,000 women across Jordan, many of whom are now starting their own companies and cooperatives.

At Sheikh’s training workshop in the town of Zarqa, women trainees chisel away at cinderblock to lay pipes. Others cut and shape thermal pipes, or design their own blueprints for a planned bathroom.

“People have seen our work and are now trusting us,” says Saeda Hamdan, a 54-year-old mother of five who after freelancing as a plumber is now planning to open her own company to clean water tanks, which all Jordanian households rely on. “Now we are going into homes and fixing the mistakes of men plumbers.”

Regulatory obstacles

Despite a shift in perceptions of women’s place in the workforce, practical barriers remain: women-owned businesses face all the regulatory obstacles that men’s businesses do.

While the country has strived to create an investment-friendly climate for foreign investors, Jordan’s bureaucracy, arcane regulations, licensing, and heavy taxes at the local level stifle many homegrown small- and medium-size enterprises before they even get off the ground.

Bani Hani spent thousands of dollars in licensing fees before opening her garage, while aspiring plumbers are often forced to work informally.

Meanwhile, the conditions that have long dissuaded Jordanian women from entering the private sector remain: expensive or unavailable health insurance, a lack of nurseries to place their children, and costly transportation.

“The cultural ‘shame’ preventing women to enter these sectors is gone, but the support to keep them there and protect them are still not in place,” says Mr. Awad.

Still, Jordan’s tradeswomen vow to plow on.

“A hard day’s work has no gender, only results,” says Hamdan, the trainee plumber. “No one can take that from us.”

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