Jordan’s men cheer working women. But will they help out at home?

Why We Wrote This

Financial need is one factor helping women break down barriers to enter the Jordanian workplace. But without a shift in society’s attitude toward their obligations at home, the burden on women becomes especially heavy.

Taylor Luck
Romouz Sadeq (l.) and an employee go over their budget at Mryati, an all-women business that sends beauticians to homes, at their Amman office April 30.

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Women have long pursued and excelled in higher education in culturally conservative Jordan, but few have continued on to have careers. Bowing to cultural barriers in some professions and owing to their duties at home, women overall have had low participation in the workplace. But rapid change is afoot. Despite a challenging economy and job market, rents and the cost of living in Jordan have skyrocketed. Second breadwinners are now a necessity.

Husbands, fathers, and brothers now enthusiastically encourage female family members to work. Young Jordanian women talk about internships, not marriage, after graduation. Yet social change at home is slow to arrive. Families are often unwilling to have men share in the workload at home.

“As soon as my mother-in-law sees my husband washing a dish or the neighbor sees him sweeping the balcony, they begin to intervene, tell him to stop and that I am being a bad wife,” says Um Mohammed, who runs and owns two beauty salons in Amman and takes a two-hour break each day to cook for a family of five. “We got to a point where we pull down the blinds and my husband sweeps in secret.”

Fatemah Hussein is one face of the new Jordan. A homemaker, cook, and caregiver, she has added another task to her list: factory-line worker.

“Our mothers and grandmothers kept a home and raised children,” Ms. Hussein says at a garment factory in central Jordan, taking a break at the factory day care to feed her infant son. “But we have two careers; full-time jobs at home and outside.”

Her workload speaks to an added strain being placed on Jordanian women, but she is determined. “We are in the 21st century,” she says, “and we are not going back.”

Women have long pursued and excelled in higher education in culturally conservative Jordan, but relatively few have continued on to have careers, and even fewer after marriage.

Bowing to a culture of “shame” surrounding certain professions and workplaces that were predominately male, and meeting the demands of child care and household duties, Jordanian women often worked exclusively in teaching, nursing, and government administration jobs.

That has kept women’s overall participation in the workplace low. But rapid change is afoot, driven by economics and need.

Government subsidies are down, and taxes are up. Even with wages largely stagnant and the unemployment rate hitting 18.6%, rents and the cost of living have skyrocketed. Rather than a source of debate, a second breadwinner is now a necessity.

Husbands, fathers, and brothers are now enthusiastically encouraging female family members to work, actively shopping around their CVs. Young Jordanian women talk about internships, not marriage, after graduation.

And Jordan’s government is on board, too, encouraged by International Labor Organization statistics showing women’s increased participation could boost gross domestic product by $8 billion a year.

Earning or just helping?

Yet social change at home is slow to arrive, and economic need is running up against family structures that are stubbornly patriarchal. Even as women’s parents, husbands, and brothers have a say in their professional lives, their families are also often unwilling to have their husbands share in the workload at home.

That puts women at a disadvantage as they move into a more accepting workplace.

Romouz Sadeq’s startup Mryati provides on-demand beauticians to the home via a phone app. Her all-women business employs 47 women, and aims to employ 100 by the end of the year. While husbands and families feel more comfortable with their wives and daughters working in an all-women business, they often dictate when and what type of bookings they take.

“Families want women to work, but they want to decide where and when they work,” Ms. Sadeq says from her Amman office. “It is a control many families are not ready to give up.”

Many women say their families impose similar conditions: same city, close to home, no late hours.

“The salary doesn’t have to be right, the location has to be right,” says Suhair, an unemployed 26-year-old who declined to use her full name. She says her family pressured her to turn down three job opportunities the past year as they were too far from home.

Multiple employers told the Monitor that their female employees often hand over their checks directly to their husbands or families, whether to pay off household debts or make car payments. This has led many to see their 9-to-5 jobs as a way of “helping out” their family, rather than a long-term career with progression and goals.

“Everyone needs to pitch in to help pay the bills,” says Mariam Ibrahim, 25, who works as an accountant at a company owned by a family friend for about $560 a month, which she says she applies to her family’s budget. “Now it is our turn.”

Social norms even lead upper-middle-class families and husbands to bar many women from traveling alone internationally or to other cities in Jordan for work-sponsored trainings, seminars, and conferences.

“By default, by [women] not traveling abroad, men tend to end up with better qualifications, contacts, and therefore opportunities than women,” says Ms. Sadeq. “Women more often than not end up stuck at the bottom of the organizational pyramid.”

Courtesy of the Hashemite Royal Court
Jordan’s King Abdullah visits a factory employing dozens of women in the northern province of Jerash May 2, 2018.

Matchmaking

While social stigmas around the workplace are dissipating, Jordanian women and advocates say greater career achievement has come with higher social expectations, even affecting marital prospects.

For decades, matchmakers and families would research a male suitor’s education, career, salary, and even health insurance before considering a marriage proposal for their daughter.

A suitor, in turn, would examine a woman’s values, religiosity, and education.

Now, some Jordanian men and their family browse young women’s CVs and even ask about their salary and career plans before a face-to-face meeting.

The entire equation has flipped; whereas before a working woman would at times be looked down upon as “selfish,” now an unemployed woman is considered an undesirable burden – all at a time when the economy has never been worse.

“Women’s unemployment is not just a national issue. In many households it is a crisis,” says Jawad Anani, former chief of the Royal Court and economic adviser, who most recently served as minister of state for economic affairs in 2018.

Before Mr. Anani finishes his sentence, his phone rings. It is yet another call from a man pleading for help in finding a job for his daughter who has a finance degree.

“When they say, ‘Help me, my daughter is sitting at home without a job,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘I’m afraid my daughter will never get married,’” Anani says. “And that is both culturally a catastrophe and an economic burden.”

An unshared burden

Working married couples also struggle. Not all men are willing to share in domestic duties such as cooking and cleaning – mirroring the same adjustments American society went through in the 1970s and ’80s.

“It is great when a Jordanian man wants a wife who works – but we have to ask: are you also making his wife’s life or conditions better to help her access this job? Will you be willing to share household responsibilities more equally?” says Sahar Aloul of SADAQA, a Jordanian nongovernmental organization that advocates for fair and women-friendly work environments.

While some upper-middle-class working couples have a modern “partnership” approach, some women say they not only have to convince their husband to carry a greater share, but also must overcome pressures from their husband’s family, friends, and co-workers who would judge him for pitching in.

“As soon as my mother-in-law sees my husband washing a dish or the neighbor sees him sweeping the balcony, they begin to intervene, tell him to stop and that I am being a bad wife,” says Um Mohammed, who runs and owns two beauty salons in Amman and takes a two-hour break each day to cook for a family of five. “We got to a point where we pull down the blinds and my husband sweeps in secret.”

Outside the capital, women are often forced to rely on informal transportation: private buses, vans, and walking, sometimes taking up to four hours for a 45-minute journey.

This has allowed a patriarchal hold on some women to persist. Some Jordanian women say they must rely on fathers, husbands, and brothers to drive them to the workplace, allowing families to dictate when and where they work.

With a growing number of women competing over limited desirable jobs with “family-friendly” hours, less scrupulous employers have forced hundreds of Jordanian women to take less than the minimum wage in verbal deals, with private school teachers receiving as little as JOD80 ($110) a month.

Advancements

The path from employment to empowerment is rarely a straight line. But there are already signs that women in Jordan are overcoming obstacles to make strides.

Private school teachers have begun to organize and lobby employers to give them full pay, benefits, and parental leave. Similar awareness movements are fermenting in other women-dominated professions.

Hiring weekly cleaners, once a luxury reserved for wealthy Jordanians who imported full-time Asian domestic helpers, is now becoming more common for middle- and even working-class families in Amman and outside towns, as a rising number of Syrian refugees and Jordanian women clean homes to help out their own families.

“We worked hard in school, we studied to be the top in our universities – of course we want to have careers and enjoy the fruits of our labor,” says Ms. Hussein, the factory worker. “The only way for us is forward – and we are taking the country with us.”

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