Khawla al-Sheikh, a plumber and a certified trainer, poses in the basement of her home, where she gives training courses in plumbing to other women, in Amman, Jordan, Feb. 23, 2017. (photo by REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)
AMMAN, Jordan — A number of Jordanian and Syrian women are defying social norms by working outside the home. On top of that, a few of them have ventured into a profession that has long been the sole preserve of men — plumbing.
In the city of Irbid, 62 miles north of Amman, five path-breaking Jordanian and Syrian women wear the blue uniform of the trade, having established the first female plumbing company in 2016. The Syrians found their way to plumbing in an effort to provide for their families, who fled to Jordan during the civil war raging in their home country since 2011. The conflict, unsurprisingly, has dealt a blow to their savings. Meanwhile, bad economic conditions, unemployment and poverty drove the Jordanian women to the trade.
Safa Sukariya, fleeing war in Syria, settled in 2013 in Irbid, leaving behind a Damascus accessories shop, her only source of income. Without a job or other income, Sukariya began looking for work that could provide for her and her three kids.
Sukariya told Al-Monitor that she began plumbing two months after attending a grant-based training course in 2015 sponsored by the German Center for International Cooperation in partnership with the Hakama Vocational Training Institute. “Society did not initially accept the idea, but over time people began to tolerate the existence of a workshop for women who live alone, especially Syrians who have lost their husbands in the war,” Sukariya said.
The results of the Population and Housing Census for 2015 recorded the number of Jordanian families headed by women at 249,241, or 12.8%. Most such families lived in urban areas. The same census revealed 42,749 Syrian refugee families headed by women, or 16.9% of the total.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report “Jordanian and Syrian Refugee Women’s Labour Force, 2016,” 81% of women in Jordan are unemployed. Among those employed, the rate stands at 20% for Jordanians and 6% for Syrian refugees. The report concluded, “Syrian refugee women’s significantly lower employment rates seem to be related to negative impacts of displacement rather than differing attitudes towards employment.”
“Women who work in the plumbing profession are struggling to make ends meet, pay their house rent and buy basic personal necessities after losing their husbands in the war,” said Sukariya, who founded the shop where she works with another Syrian woman and three Jordanian women. The shop is the sole source of income for all of them.
Khawla al-Sheikh was the first Jordanian woman to take up plumbing as a profession, in 2004, after she and 16 other women attended a vocational training course sponsored by the US Agency for International Development. In defiance of society, she was the only one of the trainees who went on to work in the field after her training.
Sheikh spoke to Al-Monitor about the importance of women having a presence in the sector. “This profession needs women more than men,” she explained. “In our communities, male strangers are not allowed to enter a house when no other man is there.”
She further stated, “The community did not initially accept the idea of having a woman practice this profession, but people are starting to get over the idea, and they ask for female plumbers. And plumbers earn a good income.”
Having experienced success as a plumber, Sheikh established the Plumbing and Energy COOP Society in 2015 in Amman to train Jordanian women to work as plumbers. The society today includes 19 women of different nationalities who have all after their training.
Due to Jordan’s tribal character, which perpetuates a negative outlook on women working, it remains complicated for Jordanian women to earn money as plumbers, despite the harsh economic conditions plaguing the country and the declining contribution by women to the labor market.
The Population and Housing Census conducted by the Department of Statistics in 2016 showed that the rate of Jordanian women in the labor market declined over the past 10 years. In 2016, they accounted for 13.4% of laborers, or a total of around 243,545, compared to 14.7% in 2007. The census also revealed that Jordanian women on average begin withdrawing from the labor market at the age of 30 even if they have a high level of education. Low salaries and long hours are among the reasons cited.
Ahmed Awad, head of the Phenix Center for Economics and Informatics Studies, told Al-Monitor, “Cultural and societal factors [per se] are the ones that affect the work of women the least.”
Rather, he explained, “A position paper prepared by the center in 2016 showed that inappropriate working conditions were the biggest challenge facing women. These include the lack of transportation, difficult work environments and lack of nurseries for working mothers, although Article 72 of the Jordanian Labor Code compels institutions to provide nurseries for working women.”
Awad added, “Women are offered low wages compared to men. According to the Department of Statistics, the average monthly wage for public sector employees amounts to 412 Jordanian dinars [$580], compared to 338 Jordanian dinars [$476] for private sector employees, with a gap in favor of males amounting to 63 Jordanian dinars [$88] and 69 Jordanian dinars [$97], respectively.”
Women in Jordan are trying to break the social barrier built between women and the professions that men have traditionally monopolized. Meanwhile, Jordanian women’s economic contribution, which totals 15% of gross domestic product, according to the Economic and Social Council, remains among the lowest in the world. According to a study conducted by the Jordan Strategy Forum in 2016, Jordan ranked 134th among 142 countries in terms of the women’s economic contribution.