What do you do when you are a progressively thinking monarch ruling a conservative country? While that question has never been at the forefront of my mind, it begs to be asked when you visit Jordan – a country caught between modernity and Islam’s Sharia Law. As one of the most western-leaning and open heads of state in the Arab world, King Abdullah II and his wife, Queen Rania, are doing what they can to push for greater freedoms and rights for women in their country. Especially Queen Rania, who positions herself as a role model for young women, is advocating for a changing world for women: away from the traditional stay-at-home mom who is uneducated and has limited options for her future, towards a woman with post-secondary education, a well-paying job and greater independence from her husband. As a Palestinian with a business degree from the American University in Cairo, she is also active in de-constructing stereotypes about Arab society and promoting greater dialogue with the West.
In Jordan, street life, work environment and public squares, all are mostly male dominated and void of women. At present, Jordan ranks 99th out of 148 countries on the Gender Equality Index and 121st out of 135 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index. The unemployment rate among young women is 82%. Less than 4% of all privately owned assets in Jordan belong to women. Jordanian women, who work outside the home, earn less than their male counterparts and are less likely to be promoted in their jobs, even when they are better educated. Essentially, only 50% of the potential work force is employed. According to the World Bank, the country of Jordan is only living up to half of its economic potential. In the more conservative countryside, it is common for husbands to “own” their wives. Women are expected to stay home, mind the children and prepare meals while the men earn the family income. Men expect total obedience from their wives. Sharia Law and honour killings are still practiced with lenient sentences handed down to the culprits.
While the Queen seems to like a challenge, there are signs of change. Though tentatively, the laws of the land are changing to advance women and allow equality. As a result, literacy among women increased from 69% in 1980 to 92% in 2002 and female participation in education is among the highest in the Arab region. King Abdullah II has also instituted a quota for minimum representation of women in elected positions. As a result, 6 of the 110 seats in parliament are occupied by women. While this is progress, it still is far less than the 16% of parliamentary seats held by women globally.
Dressed in colourful clothes and seemingly pushing the boundaries of what is considered modest and respectful in their society, some young women want to break free from suffocating discrimination, a male dominated home life and restrictive cultural norms.