Jordan takes lead in Muslim women's fight for equal rights

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 July, 2005, 12:00am

It was launched in autumn 2003 with a grand flourish. News of its opening was even aired internationally on CNN. Billed as the first ever women-only coffee shop in Jordan, the Sabaya Cafe was conceived as a place where Jordanian women of all ages could sip tea and relax, well away from the prying eyes and ears of men.

A sign hanging on its front door clearly stated that men were not welcome inside, where seven young waitresses served tea, sweets and light meals.

Yet by the time this reporter arrived in the capital Amman, 16 months later, the pioneering cafe had long since shuttered its doors. Scores of Jordanian women, from flight attendants to senior government figures, were asked about it. Virtually all had heard of the innovative cafe situated in one of Amman's more trendy districts, but none had felt the need or even the interest to visit the segregated Sabaya.

While the image that many outsiders have of Arabic women is one of black-clad, house-bound captives with downcast eyes, the women in Jordan not only look you in the eye, they drive cars, have careers, vote and run for office. And they are more likely to be dressed in brand-name blue jeans and trendy T-shirts than in veils.

Clearly, Adam Smith's capitalist rules remain relevant in Jordan: for a commercial service to succeed, there must be an actual need for it. The Sabaya, while well intentioned, apparently tried to fill a need that did not exist.

By almost any standard, Jordan is the most even-handed Arabic nation in the Middle East. Although a traditional Islamic society, its population of 5.7 million is both well-educated (literacy is over 91 per cent) and open-minded, ruled by a government that is idealistic and, for the most part, forward thinking.

For women in particular, Jordan is arguably the most progressive Arabic country, where females fare better, personally and professionally, than in almost any other Arab nation. Not only do Jordanian women tend to live five years longer than their men, they have the rights to vote, travel abroad, marry whom they please and dress as they see fit.

There are 13 women in Jordan's 55-seat parliament - up from three in the past five years - and several more hold high-level posts in the king's cabinet. More than 60 per cent of the country's businesses are run by women.

Everywhere in Jordan - from the modern shopping malls in Amman to the poorer desert areas in the south - it's easy to see that women are fully functioning members of their society.

With roughly half the population of the country under 25, teenage schoolgirls are having an outsized influence on popular culture. As many as one in four wear colourful Islamic headscarves, but on weekends and school holidays virtually all also wear trendy stonewashed blue jeans and sport lipstick and mascara. This last habit causes grumbling from Jordanian dads and granddads, but probably no more so than in Kerala, Kent or Kansas.

More importantly, about 55 per cent of Jordan's young women between the ages of 18 and 22 attend university, a percentage that would equal or better most western nations.

In a region that is hypersensitive about foreign influence, what makes the growing role of women in Jordan impressive is that it has not been the result of outside pressure. It has come from within, and - equally important - from the top.

It has not hurt that King Abdullah's wife, 34-year-old Queen Rania, constantly travels her small kingdom hammering home the issue of equality for the sexes, as does her mother-in-law, the American-born Queen Noor.

The women's movement could hardly ask for a better figurehead. When Vanity Fair listed Queen Rania as one of the world's best-dressed women, she was quick to declare that beauty 'is more about strength of character, disposition, demeanour and the kindness of your heart'.

Another relentless royal upholder of women's rights is Princess Basma, King Abdullah's aunt - and sister of the late king Hussein - who a dozen years ago initiated the Jordanian National Commission for Women. The Oxford-educated princess headed the Jordanian delegation to the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.

Despite such achievements, Jordan's image has been tarnished by the horror of 'honour killings' - the murders of women by their own families, for actions deemed 'dishonourable' - which could include something as innocent as being seen with a male who is not a relative.

Such murders are hardly unique to Jordan. They occur across the Islamic world, from Pakistan to the Palestinian West Bank. Scotland Yard believes there may be as many as a dozen such murders each year among fundamentalist Muslim communities in Britain.

What could be a source of hope for women in Jordan is that while such nations as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen actively hide such crimes, Jordan vigorously reports them in its media, willfully exposing and shaming the perpetrators.

Such exposure added to greatly increased penalties - in May, 68-year-old Hussein Ahmad, killer of his 18-year-old daughter, had his original six month jail penalty increased to 10 years - and appears to be pushing the barbaric practice out of existence.

While some males seem determined to perpetuate outdated customs, it appears most women have their eyes firmly on the future. Four Jordanian women have been nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.

Perhaps Jordan's progress in sexual equality can best be viewed when juxtaposed with that of neighbouring nations. Last month, the first Saudi Arabian woman to obtain a commercial pilot's licence graduated from a flight training school in Jordan.

Upon returning to her homeland, 24-year-old Hanadi Zakaria will take a job as a private pilot for one of the country's royal princes. She will, however, have to be driven to the airport whenever she flies: under a Saudi law introduced in 1990, Saudi women are not permitted to drive cars.

Royal Jordanian Airlines hired its first Arab female pilot more than 30 years ago.