How Women Are Taking the Lead in Preserving Jordan’s Past

Eman Abdessalaam of the Temple of the Winged Lions mentors her fellow Site Steward, Safaa al Rfooah of Busayra. Photo by Sofia Smith.

Jordan has one of the lowest rates of female labor force participation in the world. Women’s contribution to the Jordanian economy was roughly the same in 2014 as it was in 1996, a low 12.6 percent. In 2013, the World Bank put Jordan’s total female labor force participation rate at 22 percent, a fourth of the male rate of 87 percent. In 2016, Jordan ranked 142 out of 144 countries in terms of female participation in the economy.

These figures are largely influenced by high female unemployment outside Amman. While the Department of Statistics does not publicize comprehensive data on the gender breakdown of employment in Jordan’s governorates, women’s employment tends to be centered in urban areas.

These areas outside of Amman, where it is rare to find women participating in the formal economy, are exactly where the USAID Sustainable Cultural Heritage Through Engagement of Local Communities Project (SCHEP) has chosen to work. SCHEP supports projects in Irbid, Mafraq, Madaba, Ghawr as Safi, Busayra, Petra, Bir Madhkur, Wadi Ramm, and Aqaba. Although SCHEP was not concieved as a project focused on gender, it has worked since 2014 to empower women and girls to further their education and professional development through cultural heritage programming.

In February 2017 at a celebration of SCHEP trainees working at the site of Tawahin as Sukkar in Ghawr as Safi, roughly one fourth of the graduates were women. They received training in both museum management and archaeological object conservation. Hibbah Bowwat, one of the trainees, passionately described her work conserving mosaics while fielding questions with confidence and poise, during a tour of the conservation labs. “She’s really doing amazing work—they all are,” said Ghawr as Safi project director Dr. Konstantinos Politis proudly about Hibbah and the rest of the trainees.

But women around the world are rarely allowed to focus solely on their professional trajectories, and are often expected to put in a full day’s work and then come home to look after their families. Indeed, the female trainees helped clean up after the lunch served in their honor.

Dr. Konstantinos Politis with the female SCHEP trainees at Ghawr as Safi. Photo by Sofia Smith.

Tahani al Salhi, the Director of Cultural Resource Management at the Petra Archaeological Park (PAP), spoke to these same challenges during the opening dinner of the week-long capacity building workshop held for SCHEP Site Stewards. “I had work today, of course. Then I went home and made [dinner] for my family and then I came here. But at least here I just get to eat and not cook the whole thing,” she laughed to the table.

A native of the conservative Ma’an governorate, Tahani is well aqcuainted with the challenge women face working in Jordan, especially in the field of conservation. “People think they know what it is we do, and many times they think not very nice things. They say this work is not right for women,” she says. But Tahani, who has worked at PAP for 21 years, never let this discourage her. Instead, she worked to boost transparency to let the local community see her work first hand to dispell any rumors.

Being a woman, Tahani says, actually made her a better employee and manager. “I had to work twice as hard, and I couldn’t make any mistakes,” she said. “People tried to make many challenges and problems for me.” Even now, as the head of her own division, she still faces obstacles. “None of the men who work for me [have problems]. They know me and we are a good team, a family. But from some of the men outside [my department]? Of course. They think they can make problems for me but they don’t understand how strong I am.”

From Left to Right: Wajd al Nawafleh, Conservator at PAP; Dr. Barbara A. Porter, ACOR Director; Eng. Tahani al Salhi, Director of Cultural Resource Management at PAP; Areej al Farajat, Digital Documentation at PAP; Sofia Smith, Communications Officer at SCHEP. Photo by Zaid Kashour.

Tahani now manages a team of seven regular employees and various workmen depending on the specific project. Five of them are women, which Tahani says is no accident. She has worked to make her office condusive to female employment, including flexible hours, collaboration, and a family-friendly environment. But she says this has only worked to make her office stronger. “The women here, they work hard and they earn this. Many of them started out without pay, just to learn and to improve themselves,” she said. “If you want to see women in conservation, you are in the right place.”

“People come down here all the time and they say ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this with all women and especially in the south [of Jordan].’ But we know this is normal. This is what women can do,” Tahani says proudly.

At the department’s morning meeting, Tahani’s office is full by 8 am with her team. “We’re here earlier than the men,” she notes with pride. Samia al Falahat is in charge of monitoring the entirety of the park, visiting and reporting on every site. Her information then informs the plan put in place by the conservation team of Wajd al Nawafleh and Sanaa al Rawajfeh.

Wajd, trained at ACOR and previously employed at the Temple of the Winged Lions, and her counterpart Sanaa, are in charge of carrying out interventions throughout the park. Although they say they are confident in their abilites, Wajd says that she is unafraid to ask for help, particularly from ACOR or the Temple of the Winged Lions staff. She is equally eager to learn more to be able to take on more projects independently. As she lists off her training and accomplishments she says, “I took the SCHEP GIS training and I’m ready for more.”

Areej and Wajd of PAP say their shared work brought them together and that they enjoy working in an office filled with strong women. Photo by Abdullah Saedeen.

Khirat al Farajat, a geologist who works on conservation projects with PAP, says that being a woman makes her better at her job. “We look at things in a different way than the men working on these projects. We see different ways to solve the many problems here.”

Areej al Farajat, who works on digital documentation for PAP, says that one of the best parts of her job is being surrounded by strong women who support each other. When asked why she chose this job (her university major was information technology), she grins, points to Tahani, and simply says, “Her.”

These themes of creative problem solving and mutual support are not unique to the women at PAP. Eman Abdessalaam, the founder of Sela, the local nonprofit company that SCHEP has awarded to implement community training programs at the Temple of the Winged Lions, echoes these values in her everyday actions.

Eman, a single mother of two, exudes quiet confidence leading visitors around the site, talking to journalists, and handling the administrative side of Sela. However, she really comes alive when she talks about her own work as a documentation specialist. Eman, normally reserved, will talk at length when asked to explain some aspect of the process or one of her drawings. It’s a passion that she passed along to Halemah al Nawafleh, the documenation assistant at the Temple of the Winged Lions. When asked why she chose Halemah, Eman just said, “she’s the best.”

Halemah delivered an impressive and thorough presentation on photography for the SCHEP Site Stewards workshop, using humor and her own experiences, positive and negative, to keep the room in rapt attention.

Halemah al Nawafleh (left) and Eman Abdessalaam (right) share their work and diagnosis for the southwest quadrant of the Temple of the Winged Lions, where SCHEP-funded work is concentrated. Photo by Sofia Smith.

Halemah and Eman are an impressive team, but they are certainly not the only women on the Temple of the Winged Lions team. The project employs a gender-blind hiring system and the results are visible to anyone who visits the site. Ageleh Jmeidi and Khatima Jdeilat are the unofficial matriarchs of the project. During a lunch break, the rowdy group working on the site falls silent to hear them speak. They are key figures training new employees and showing visitors what life on an archaeological site is actual like, instructing visitors in how to wash pottery, sew sandbags, or sift through excavation dump piles. Both Ageleh and Khatima are supported by SCHEP through Sela, which works to continually teach them new skills, whether related directly to cultural heritage or in how to give tours and interact with tourists.

Safaa al Rfooah, one of the SCHEP Site Stewards in Busayra, eagerly took notes during the Site Steward Capacity Building Workshop in Petra and was intent on finding ways to incorporate the newly learned skills into her own day-to-day work. “We need more of these,” she noted earnestly and then began listing all of the areas where she wanted to learn more and improve.

Ageleh Jmeidi, Temple of the Winged Lions team member, and Dr. Barbara Porter, ACOR Director, resting at the Temple of the Wiged Lions. Photo by Sofia Smith.

Women across Jordan face barriers to entering the workforce, particularly in the fields of tourism and cultural heritage, where SCHEP is most active. SCHEP’s own Communications Assistant, Shatha Abu Aballi mused, “When I told people I was going to get my Masters in this field they said to me, ‘You’re crazy! What will you do?’ but now…”

Shatha has both a BA and MA in cultural heritage related fields from Hashemite University. She was first introduced to the project via the SCHEP Scholars program, a fund that provided scholarships for high-achieving Jordanian students to attend the prestigious International Conference on the History and Archaeology of Jordan, held in May 2016 in Amman. More than half of the recipients were women.

The accomplishments of these women, in Petra and beyond, are their own. They are women of determination, intelligence, tenacity, and grit. While SCHEP in no way claims their successes, the project is proud to support their efforts, and the efforts of women like them through intensive trainings, workshops, and both technical and logistical support. SCHEP funding, and ACOR’s before it, gave many of the women mentioned in this article the tangible skills that they use on the job every day. SCHEP is committed to continuing this work, bolstering the capacity of Jordan’s many and diverse communities, and the women working within them.


Written by Sofia Smith, USAID SCHEP Communications Officer

This blog article is not official U.S. Government information and does not necessarily represent the views or positions of the U.S. Agency for International Development or the U.S. Government.

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