Ataf sets her blow dryer down on the boudoir to announce the local election results from the daily paper, snapping her fingers to silence the manicurist in the corner. She rattles off the usual suspects—tribal leaders and businessmen with ties to the monarchy—then pauses. After a beat, she announces the final two—younger candidates, well liked but wholly unexpected to win. Faces shift from apathy to excitement and the salon erupts into lively debate, with women yelling and hugging over bobby pins and mascara.
Later between sips of Bedouin coffee, Ataf recounts the story of her salon and what it represents: “It is the only salon in the area. Women arrive in buses from the other villages, sometimes for weddings, other times to relax and make themselves beautiful. Often they come to discuss, to criticise—it’s not just a business but a place in which we women are in control.”
These salons—and the safe space they provide—are common in Jordan’s capital Amman, but scarce in remote towns like Lib, where Ataf lives, or the desert protectorates of Karak and Ma’an.
Three years ago Ataf and a handful of other women from Jordan’s poverty pockets were selected to attend a yearlong business training run by a local non-profit committed to civil society development and good governance. At the end of the program each participant received a micro-grant to launch a business addressing community needs.
In recent years, hundreds of similar programs have sprouted across the Middle East. In a region where unemployment hovers around 11.5 percent and female workforce participation rates are at a global low between 9.5 and 13.2 percent, ‘female entrepreneurism’ has become an attractive strategy for international donors and state organisations to tackle unemployment and social equality concurrently. Indeed, this year major international donors have committed nearly half a billion dollars to various related initiatives.
This recent windfall has benefited Jordan in particular, where female economic empowerment is championed as a key part of development efforts. The MicroFund for Women (MFW) is one of the largest female-targeted Micro-Finance Institution (MFI) in the Middle East and the second largest MFI in Jordan by gross loan portfolio.
Women’s training centers and incubators for female entrepreneurs receive between $4-8million per program in donor funding. Last year the kingdom received $180 million in blanket aid to enhance its MSME Development for Inclusive Growth program and widen financial access for the country’s most underserved populations.
These efforts share a common philosophy: if you teach a woman to run a business, then she becomes better able to control other aspects of her life. The King Hussein Foundation, a royal NGO for human security and socioeconomic development, claims on its website, “Economically empowered women are more engaged politically, take a productive role in community affairs and strengthen social networks.”
The fund is led by Queen Noor and is part and parcel of state development efforts. Its mission statement reflects the World Bank’s push towards “smart economics,” a concept that, according to its Gender Action Plan, “yields very large economic and social returns” in the form of greater peace, human security, and well-being of current and future generations.
Empowerment as presumption
Such mission statements are ambitious and noble en face, but their proponents lack the social business plan to achieve the returns they seek. The assumption that a handful of women business owners will independently improve social circumstances for other women in their communities, whether through providing employment or space for free political discussion, is both fallible and risky.
First, women in Jordan’s most impoverished communities often join the workforce out of necessity, seeking additional household income rather than a sense of entitlement or desire for independence.
“A woman in my village is not ready to empower others by circumstance,” says Yousra, one of Ataf’s fellow graduates. She used the grant to start a training center in her village outside of Karak. Rent and registration fees forced her to shut down last year in spite of high local demand. A single mother of two, she’s now working at a copy lab to support her two sons. “How can I think about empowerment when I can’t even put bread on the table?”
Additionally, few programs ensure that grant money stays with the grantees - and not their male relatives. Nizar Saoub, director of micro finance at the Jordan Hashemite Fund for Human Development (JOHUD), estimates that 40 percent of the loans they give to women go to their husbands, usually for direct consumption. “This isn’t necessarily bad,” he notes, “If it goes to paying for a kid’s textbooks or buying a car, this may, may empower women in a more subtle way.”
Still, Nizar insists that such a high percentage is problematic when financial control, not poverty alleviation, is the goal. Put differently, one’s decision-making capacity is almost impossible to monitor when family resources are pooled.
At a women’s summit in April, Mayyada Abu Jaber, founder of the Jordan Career Education Foundation, noted that in Jordan’s rural areas, “decision-making is a collective process led by the male family members. Change isn’t going to happen until this process is broken and women have the ability to have primary say in the life choices she makes.”
This isn’t Bangladesh
The social environment of a culture or region strongly influences the meaning of “empowerment.” Over lunch, several summit attendees discuss the discrepancies between Islamist, liberal, and western conceptions of empowerment, and what they imply for the women’s movement as a whole.
“We can’t ignore the fact that an empowered woman in our country more often than not is a wife with children,” one woman insists. “But does having a family change the nature of her empowerment?” questions another. The third pipes in: “The west and its donors forget that life is different here, and what they want is not necessarily what we want.”
By the end of lunch they lament that initiatives for women’s empowerment are too universalised to distinguish what works in places like Bangladesh—the birthplace of microfinance—from what is feasible within the complicated social power structures of Jordan. They aptly note that while patriarchal societies dominate both countries, the similarities end there. Social, political, religious and economic dynamics make the two incomparable.
According to Hala Deeb from the Jordanian Women’s Union, “In India a women can sell her handicrafts to people on the street outside her home. In Jordan every household is self-sustained—families makes their own dresses, their own soap, their own yoghurt. Women business owners fail because more often than not they are pushed into traditional industries that don’t match local demand.”
Unique market forces also require localised solutions. Muhammad Amr, Nizar’s colleague at JOHUD, says the average loan size given through MFIs to women in Jordan is about 100 dinar. Shaking his head in disgust, he explains, “100 dinar in Malaysia or Indonesia is a lot, but with the cost of living here, you’re getting practically nothing.”
The state’s doublespeak
Women leaders increasingly sense that lack of political will compounds these issues further. The state happily promotes economic empowerment initiatives, as long as the end-goals are disconnected from political and social empowerment, which could threaten the societal structures that sustain its authority.
In Jordan, the state draws from a network of powerful tribes to shape its political and military elite. Tribal leaders in turn rely on an entrenched patriarchal order that enforces and entrenches societal roles. To maintain tribal alliances, the state controls the pace and breadth of gender reform so as to appear progressive before foreign donors without actually disrupting the domestic social fabric.
Codification is one means to this end. Though the constitution encourages the equality of all Jordanian citizens, certain laws treat women and men differently, and thus reflect and encourage the perpetuation of social norms. Restrictions against women working nighttime hours or in “hardship circumstances,” as well as a lack of enforcement regarding equal pay and ownership rights create highly segmented labour markets. These restrictions push women into sectors of low growth and low productivity such as education and health, with little representation elsewhere.
These laws also distort norms around what businesses are appropriate for female owners. “One woman wanted to start a car service for other women and children in her village to take them to school, the doctor’s, visit relatives, and so on,” says Rania about one of the focus groups she led, “But the men in her village said it was a’yb for a woman to drive a van.”
A’yb or shame is a word used often in Jordan to imply acts of dishonour, especially dishonour of the family name. “When someone says something is ay’b, the conversation is over,” Yousra says while shaking her head in frustration.
In 2006, an alliance of women’s organisations pushed to add ‘gender’ to the constitution’s discrimination clause and strike statutes viewed as gender-discriminatory. The royal court rejected the amendment without explanation.
Feminist leaders say this kind of pushback isn’t new. During the 1990s the state ‘depoliticised’ all women’s organisations by re-registering them as social organisations monitored by the Ministry of Social Development. Activism thus became an illegal activity by virtue of legal status.
Concurrently, the government established a new umbrella of state-led women’s groups with co-opted leaders tasked with drafting and implementing a state-approved National Strategy for Women (NSW). The NSW deemphasised political reform and instead focused on the need for anti-poverty programs such as skills training and micro-finance. To bolster public support, royal foundations provided liberal funding to poverty alleviation and income-generating efforts.
Some feminists feel that the government is primarily interested in creating success stories that they can show off to the international community. “The government has all the funds but is entirely uninterested in doing things that are beneficial for the individual and the community,” says Moza Freihad, director of a grassroots association in her protectorate Ajloun. “One woman in my village was given 50,000 dinars by the state to start a shop by her home,” she gives as an example. “I tried to convince her not to take it. She couldn’t pay back the loan, lost family support, and the shop shut down a year later.”
Moza’s story can be found in virtually every protectorate in Jordan. Most economic empowerment projects run through the Ministry of Planning in the form of micro-credit and grant programs, credit funds for charities, or the establishment of community centers. A shadow report by the AWO notes that although “these projects target women with activities intended to empower them, they do not challenge the status quo and do not incorporate gender equality as an objective.”
The less vogue the better
Female entrepreneurship and its potential for revolutionising social power structures is an inspiring concept, but the how behind achieving this potential has not been adequately explored, nor appropriately addressed. So what is to be done? First, state and donor must acknowledge the difference between empowerment and financial inclusivity. Second, vested institutions should funnel more resources into research, testing and opening discussion around whether and how economic growth can lead to social justice, political participation, and equality in public and private spheres.
Experts suggest that only infrastructural shifts and a multilateral approach to economic empowerment initiatives can yield long-term results: a complex yet calculated mix of strategies consisting of legal reform, advocacy, awareness building, access to productive resources, and research in various combinations.
The international community has turned the idea that by empowering women we create a panacea for development into the latest vogue. But when we view gender inequality through the prism of economics, we lose sight of the unequal power relations that impact even the most successful businesswomen. The need for significant structural reform gets lost in the background.
Women’s economic empowerment does not need directionless funds, nor does it need faces like Angelina Jolie and Queen Rania who can catch cameras but have limited understanding of what gender reform really entails and the mechanism behind it. As women’s economic empowerment gains profile, its advocates risk relying too much on superficial platitudes and homogenised arguments. While neither sexy nor sleek, critical qualitative and quantitative studies coupled with a sincere motivation to help can produce profound and substantial results.
Safe spaces like Ataf’s salon are a good start, but lie far from their destination. The real question is whether those spaces can be protected and leveraged for change on a grander scale. “What do you mean when you say empowerment?” Yousra asks, “Women here lack the space and resources to define this for themselves. Solve that problem and then let’s talk business.”