We don’t usually see the Kingdom of Jordan make headlines or flash across cable news in the United States. In fact, the Kingdom’s importance to the United States at times is understated. But in the midst of protests, conflict and oppression in the Middle East, Jordan is a stabilizing influence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a stalwart partner in the fight against extremism in the region and a lynchpin U.S. ally.
Jordan’s stability by no means is assured. Although resource-poor and surrounded by instability and violence, it has remained remarkably stable and is doing an admirable job grappling with challenges in the region and inside its own borders. Despite this progress, there is work to be done. To seek a path of economic and political vitality, women in Jordan must be empowered and have a stake in the country’s future. In recent years, the conservative Kingdom has taken enormously positive steps to encourage women to hold leadership positions, run for office and work outside the home. It is vital that these efforts are extended even further to bring more women into the decision-making fold.
Jordanian women long have been underrepresented in economic and political life, yet an estimated 95 percent of women in Jordan are literate. Also, more women attend university than men, yet fewer than 16 percent of Jordanian women have a job or are looking for one.
Jordanian women are also underrepresented in politics, despite electoral gender quotas. The parliament has 130 members, and 20 of them are women (15 by quota). This carries disadvantages for the stability of the political system. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, women who are appointed or elected to public offices increase a nation’s legitimacy and lift public confidence in the system. When women’s voices are included in public discourse, the level of the debate is raised.
Underrepresentation isn’t just a problem for Jordanian women, it’s a problem for Jordan’s economic viability and culture for this generation and the next. We know that economic growth will not create gender equality. Gender equality comes from empowering women to be educated, participate in the workforce and hold positions of leadership within the Kingdom.
The answer, of course, is continued empowerment of women to run for office, to hold leadership positions and to start businesses. As Margaret Thatcher famously remarked, “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”
On a recent trip to Jordan hosted by the International Republican Institute (IRI), I had the opportunity to meet a group of Jordanian women who are bucking tradition to become leaders in their communities. These women are among the 120 recent graduates of IRI’s “Empower” initiative, a program that works with women from economically distressed, rural areas to bolster their skills and self-confidence so they are better equipped to engage in political and civic life.
Graduates of the Empower program made great sacrifices and overcome educational, financial and cultural obstacles to complete the program. I was inspired by these women who gained the courage and confidence to step forward as though they had nothing to lose.
Falha Al-Athamneh, a mother of five from Mreigha in southern Jordan, said she always wanted to become a voice for her community and fight for what is worthwhile, but she was afraid to speak up and of how people might react. Falha told me that the training helped her to find the courage to participate in the local elections and run for office.
Intisar Abu Hweidi graduated from the Empower program and went on to be the first woman to serve as moderator of a town hall meeting in her city.
Fakhriyeh Al Zeinatisan said the skills she learned from the training program emboldened her to open a small store in her district.
Rana Ngheimesh is now the director of DarAl-‘Ata’a Association for Social Development and plans to run for office during the next municipal elections.
It is clear that many Jordanian women have the talent and desire to succeed in any field they choose but fewer have the skills, confidence or opportunity to engage in their community beyond traditional familial roles. My message to these inspiring new graduates was simple: Never take “no” for an answer and don’t ever, ever give up. However, the government and civil society organizations have a crucial role to play in helping these women to participate in public life so that they can translate ambition into action and sustained inclusion.
In order to build economically competitive societies capable of overcoming challenges such as poverty, or taking advantage of the benefits of globalization, it is vital that countries take steps to realize the full potential of their people by empowering women to be equal partners in the country’s future. If the women I encountered in Jordan are any indication, the return on investment will be enormous.
Gail Gitcho is president of First Tuesday, a political consulting firm. She is a board member of the International Republican Institute’s Women’s Democracy Network. She has participated in international electoral activities with the IRI, including political party training and election-observation missions. She spent many years on Capitol Hill and working for presidential campaigns, including as Mitt Romney’s communications director in 2012.