Women in Jordan Snapshots: Coffee to Courage

In Jordan, I spent a lot of time with men. Not only did my immediate company consist of men (our driver and host were both men and I had Dan by my side), but many of our in-home social and cultural experiences were dominated by them, too. Tea and coffee in Bedouin tents was served by and among men, dinners in homes — outside of some interactions with the women of the house – were largely a male affair.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy spending time with men and learning about their world, but I also look forward to sharing time with women so that I may get a glimpse into their lives and appreciate their work.

And so I did in Jordan. And for me, three stories stood out. The women I met and their pride as individuals, as mothers, and as breadwinners left an impression on me.

You’ll find two snapshots below. We’ll leave the third snapshot to its own piece, a second part in the series.

Um Ahmed: The Best Cup of Joe in Aqaba

As we set out on the road each morning in Jordan, our day would begin with a search for a roadside coffee shop. The goal: one part fix of caffeine, another greater part fix of ordinary Jordanian life.

Most coffee shops featured a guy with dual gas burners set up to make some of the hottest coffee in the world. However, on our way out of Aqaba toward the great desert of Wadi Araba is where we found Um Ahmed. (Literally Mother of Ahmed – it is common to refer to a woman as the mother of her eldest son).

Um Ahmed’s coffee stand was not only the smallest we’d visited, but it was also the first one we’d seen run by a woman.

Aqaba's Best Coffee at Um Ahmad - Jordan
Um Ahmed’s Coffee in Aqaba, Jordan

As Um Ahmed lit the burner and spooned in the right proportions of coffee grounds, sugar and water, she made her pride clear: “To make good coffee you need to know how to use the heat properly to get the right strength and consistency.” She learned her trade from her father, and without any hesitation she shared her joy in a trade she’d perfected: “On Fridays [the beginning of the weekend in Jordan], there are lines of people down the street waiting for my coffee.”

Originally from Syria, Um Ahmed used to run her coffee stand by the beach, but increased competition forced her to move elsewhere. Nowadays, she works mornings and afternoons on the edge of town in front of Aqaba Grand Style Shopping Center to support her family, a group of growing young boys.

While I remember Um Ahmed’s coffee being quite good – not too bitter, not too sweet – it’s her exuberance and spirit which still make me smile.

Nature and Women, Conservation and Courage

As a woman in the corner of the workshop pounded out the contours of a decorative copper leaf, another woman in her early thirties with wide, bright eyes greeted us at the workshop entrance. She looked at me straight and offered in soft English, “You are welcome.”

Having worked in the workshop at the RSCN (Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature) Dana Biosphere for almost ten years, Raedah had executed dual transitions: one from single woman to bride to mother, and another from courageous new hire trainee to group workshop leader.

Pounding Away to Make Copper Jewelry - Dana Reserve, Jordan
Jewelry making at Dana Reserve.

Why courageous? As Raedah demonstrated the different tools and machinery (some to flatten metal, others to shape it), we learned a little about how she carved her own path.

Raedah’s story is one of overcoming societal norms. Not so long ago, it wasn’t so acceptable in the local culture for a woman to work outside the home. So when a women’s workshop at the nature reserve opened up, only a very few brave women, Raedah included, signed up.

They set the example. Now the project employs twenty-five women – working, accruing health benefits for their families, and paying into the public pension system. A waiting list of even more are hoping to join them.

Sometimes, it takes a few brave souls to help carve a path for others.

To learn more about the workshops and to see the types of products made at Jordan’s nature reserves, check out Wild Jordan, the business development side of RSCN. In addition to making products for gift shops, many of the workshops fill commercial orders for anything from organic herbal tea to gift packaging made from recycled paper.

If you find yourself at one of Jordan’s nature reserves, ask about the women’s workshops. You’ll see for yourself how women of different ages and backgrounds have come together under this umbrella organization to learn new skills and help provide for their families and themselves.

Next up in this series: Zikra Initiative, a surprising visit to the once forgotten women of the Dead Sea.

Disclosure: Our trip to Jordan is sponsored by the Jordan Tourism Board, but the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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Comments

  1. says

    wonderful inspiring story about women. its also refreshing to read something new on women in middle east – something about empowerment and not about victomhood

  2. says

    What wonderful and unique stories…sometimes when you’re going through a place rapidly it’s easy to forget that every person you meet has a story that has taken them up to that very moment. Does the Womens Conversation side have a website or some way for people to support it virtually?

    Looking for the next in the series! :)

  3. says

    @Prime: Glad you enjoyed these profiles of a few of the women we met in Jordan. The areas outside of Amman are more conservative for women, but we found inspiring women everywhere, even when the situation looked on the surface otherwise sometimes.

    @Nisha: Thanks! Glad you liked this!

    @Shannon: You are so right that it is difficult sometimes when traveling quickly to just stop, breathe, ask questions and enjoy the moment. When writing this I realized there were other questions I wish we had asked…

    You can find out more about the different women’s projects at the conservation centers here and I’ll try to find a central contact for you to get in touch with about them. Also, the next post in the series involves an organization (Zikra Initiative) that knows the power of social media and is incorporating this not only to get word about about their work, but also for locals to share information and connect with others. A really interesting organization.

  4. says

    Like Prime, I’m so happy to hear of good things happening for women, and at their own direction. I can’t wait to read the next installment. And just the thought of sugar in my coffee makes me want to run away, but I’m sure I’d get over it for the sake of culture!

  5. says

    Yes, these are inspiring stories told well. When you think of women in the middle east, you usually have a mental picture of someone all covered up doing chores at home, not outdoors, working next to men… Hope to hear more stories like this.

  6. says

    Yeah what we think of the women in the middle east is not exactly how it is anymore. yeah in some places its still true but my friend brings me pictures from Persia all the time and its a lot different than i expected.

  7. says

    @Eileen: As a western woman traveling through Jordan I kind of had the best of both worlds in that I was accepted as a guy for most social settings, but could also sometimes sneak back into the women’s section of the house or felt more free asking questions of women. Hope you enjoy the next installment here – Zikra Initiative was a fantastic organization.

    Have no fear – it is possible to ask for your coffee without sugar in Jordan. Our driver always did this and *most* of the time he actually got a sugar-free cup :)

    @tripgirl6: Outside of Amman (i.e., city), women do make up less of the public and social space. The official women’s employment rate in Jordan is still quite low (like 15%), but you can still find women working and trying to create a beter life for themselves. And I imagine many of these women don’t make the official statistics.

    @Kirk: Persia (Iran) is more conservative in terms of dress from Jordan, but I have quite a few Persian women friends who are not afraid to do and say anything. Really amazing. Just shows that you shouldn’t judge by the cover/dress.

  8. says

    I must just say that I am friends with a man from Syria. I had no clue what the Middle East was all about just what you are shown on T.V he changed my perception from bad to good and i cant wait to go there to see what its all about …………

  9. says

    @Richard: Unfortunately, a lot of what is shown on TV about many parts of the world – and especially the Middle East – is incomplete. When you meet people from those areas or visit those areas, you realize there are many more similarities with regular people than differences. This is one of the great benefits of being open to people from different countries and traveling. Hope you have a chance to go to Syria to see it for yourself – I’m sure you’ll be even more surprised, in a good way!

  10. says

    Thank you for sharing these stories! It’s really inspiring to hear about female entrepreneurs in any country and especially so in a country where women make up such a small percentage of the workforce.

    Speaking of women and Persian women specifically, I once read an anthropological study that explored the lives of women in Iran. The main focus of the study was the fact that so many women are encouraged to do well in school, compete fiercely to be admitted to universities, and graduate with degrees, but then they are still expected to marry and fulfill traditional female roles of managing the household and bearing and raising children; thus, not utilizing the education that they were encouraged to get and becoming frustrated and dissatisfied. An Indian friend of mine told me that Indian women were also strongly encouraged to get degrees, because men want intelligent women–but still to raise their children–not to have a career. I wonder to what extent the same thing happens in Jordan. I was subletting an apartment outside of downtown Amman near all the American chains (yuck), and I often saw young women at Starbucks, at Tche Tche smoking hookah, generally out having a good time, studying for class–granted, these women were probably from decently well-off families–but I wonder if most of them will grow up to be expected to raise families and not work…or maybe to work part time in a support role and not in something for which they actually studied. I know this comment is kinda long, but I wonder what this does to a society culturally, politically, and economically. There are plenty of women with the intelligence to work, but they are still kept out of the workforce. (Rhetorical, I don’t expect you to know) Are they taken into account in the huge unemployment statistics one hears about the Middle East? Do they want to work and societal norms keep them from pursuing that? How does a cultural paradigm shift begin? And I think that’s where the second story you related is important. A lot to think about.
    Thanks again!

  11. says

    @Cathy: You bring up many interesting points and questions regarding women, their education level and the workplace. Many of those questions I can’t claim to know the answers but have some thoughts of my own (not only from Jordan, but many other countries with similar situations). I’ve also experienced the scene you described – young women studying away and wondering whether they will have an opportunity use their education in the workforce. I believe it’s a great loss for any country to miss out on women being engaged and economically active.

    I read an article in Jordan Times for International Women’s Day which talked about the challenges for women in the workforce. On the one hand there are societal pressures – that when a woman marries (or becomes a mother), in many homes her role is at home instead of in the workplace. But, this article also addressed employer challenges as many companies are less likely to hire women (even if they are more qualified than applying men) because they fear that they will either quit if they marry or have kids (or, that they will take lots of leave to take care of family). Amman is quite different than the rest of Jordan though – what is possible there for women may not apply in most other parts of the country.

    I’ve come across so many young, bright young women in Bangladesh studying at University. For the few that I’ve been able to ask about what they want to do with their degree or if they will work, the answer seems to depend on whether their mother-in-law (when they get married) will allow work – she is the decision maker. Difficult situation.

  12. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    Regarding the comments from Cathy and subsequent comment from Audrey, I’d like to add that at least in the Indian subcontinent, norms are changing quite a bit these days. It has to do with the newly emergent middle class and the people’s desire to have a better life, at least in terms of worldly possessions.

    In India (and Pakistan as well), among the middle-class, women are expected to work outside the family; hence all the stuff that preceeds work, namely, getting educated and being skilled at something that would make you employable is happening. In fact, at least in the part of India I am from, if you are a young woman and not employable and don’t have a college degree, your chances of getting married these days are diminished quite a bit.

    I could be wrong about this, I am not a sociologist or an anthropologist and I haven’t done a scientific study. But perhaps the key is the desire for the middle-class (and even lower middle) to have a better life.

    Many of the comments by Audrey on women in Bangladesh rings true in parts of India, though. Mother-in-law is very important! :)

  13. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    My feeling is that once the economy improves in Jordan, Egypt and even Iran etc. and there is a desire for a more material possessions and a better standard of living, the plight of women will improve. Rational thinking and practical common sense will dictate that. Hope I’m not being an idealist who views the world through rose-colored glasses (tinted glasses maybe , rose colored, no).

  14. says

    @Sutapa: Thank you for your thoughtful comment and adding your experience from India regarding women becoming highly educated and working. I do believe that a growing middle class and the desire to improve one’s family situation through another income coming into the family definitely plays an important role.

    But, I also think that cultural norms need to adjust as well. As mentioned here, it took a lot of encouraging for the first women to take jobs and once others in the community (including the men) realized that this was a positive thing for the women and their families, others followed suit. For the children of these women, it will likely be much easier for them to work if they choose as there is a precedent.

    In the United States, one of the things that boosted women into the workforce was that labor was needed in WW II and the men were off fighting – this necessity helped accelerate change of attitudes.

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