With ev­ery turn of wrench, woman break­ing bar­ri­ers

Pipe dream turns real

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

ZARQA, Jor­dan: It is grad­u­a­tion day, and Maryam Mut­laq is cel­e­brat­ing her trans­for­ma­tion from stay-ath­ome mom to li­censed plumber. Mut­laq, 41, de­scribes her busi­ness plan in a clear, strong voice to the other grad­u­ates, all veiled women. She plans to open a plumb­ing store and sell pipes and spare parts. She’s even picked out a name, Chal­lenge, and a lo­ca­tion in an up-and-com­ing neigh­bor­hood.

It has been a chal­lenge just to come this far in an ultra-con­ser­va­tive com­mu­nity where many women don’t work at all out­side the home. The com­ing months will de­ter­mine if, against the odds, she can turn her bold dream into a real-life busi­ness. For now, she is brim­ming with op­ti­mism. “We will break down the bar­ri­ers that have been put up, that say we aren’t ca­pa­ble of do­ing things as women,” she says.

Mut­laq’s choice is rare for the Arab world, where tra­di­tional gen­der roles make men the main bread­win­ners and con­fine many women to jobs such as teach­ing and nurs­ing. Five years ago, the Arab Spring brought the hope of more op­por­tu­ni­ties for women. Yet that prom­ise has not panned out, an­a­lysts and ac­tivists say. Only about a quar­ter of women in the Arab world work out­side the home, the low­est per­cent­age in the world.

Jor­dan in turn scores far be­low the re­gional av­er­age of fe­male la­bor force par­tic­i­pa­tion, with just over 14 per­cent. Un­em­ploy­ment is a sep­a­rate mea­sure, with higher rates for women than men in most of the re­gion. Fe­male CEOs and en­trepreneurs have emerged across the re­gion, but they still con­sti­tute a small group.

The In­ter­na­tional La­bor Or­ga­ni­za­tion cal­cu­lates that with more job equal­ity, Jor­dan’s econ­omy would grow by 5 per­cent, or al­most $2 bil­lion. But Zarqa, a gritty in­dus­trial city with a high un­em­ploy­ment rate, is one of tough­est places in Jor­dan, and per­haps even in the re­gion, for women trying to tear down bar­ri­ers. “So­ci­ety is very con­ser­va­tive and is get­ting more and more con­ser­va­tive,” says Zarqa Mayor Emad Mo­mani. “We are far from see­ing women in non-tra­di­tional jobs like plumbers or truck drivers.”

Mut­laq got in­volved in 2014 in the plumbers’ project, funded by the Mil­len­nium Chal­lenge Corp., a U.S. govern­ment aid agency, to save wa­ter by pre­vent­ing leak­age. Un­der strict rules of gen­der sep­a­ra­tion, it’s eas­ier for fe­male plumbers to con­duct home vis­its, be­cause male plumbers can­not enter homes where house­wives are alone. Mut­laq was ini­tially skep­ti­cal, but her hus­band Samir, who works in a flower shop, thought it was worth a try. The fam­ily, strug­gling from month to month, could also use a sec­ond in­come.

Her four chil­dren fiercely op­posed the idea. The youngest, Lara, 12, was so em­bar­rassed that she begged her mother to take off her green plumber’s work vest dur­ing a par­ent-teacher meet­ing. Mut­laq kept it on to show her daugh­ter that she’s proud of her­self. Mut­laq dis­cov­ered dur­ing train­ing that she loved han­dling tools and fix­ing things. Even when she was off the clock, she car­ried a few tools in her gray purse, in case a neigh­bor or rel­a­tive needed a bit of plumb­ing “first aid.” Af­ter a few months, she started go­ing on house calls as as­sis­tant to a con­trac­tor.

By grad­u­a­tion day in March, Mut­laq’s chil­dren have come around. Sami, 19, is glad his mother can con­trib­ute to the fam­ily fi­nances. Fat­meh, 22, even joins the com­mu­nity out­reach pro­gram for a few months. And Lara ex­cit­edly un­packs Mut­laq’s grad­u­a­tion prize - a 40-piece pro­fes­sional plumbers’ tool kit - in the fam­ily liv­ing room. Two weeks later, Mut­laq is get­ting ready for work. She pulls a baseball cap over her head­scarf and the green vest over a loose, long-sleeved T-shirt and pants.

The first stop for the day is Lara’s school, where Mut­laq be­gins to re­move an old faucet in the girls’ toi­lets. Her fel­low plumber, Ibrahim As­mar, says she does well on ev­ery­thing that doesn’t re­quire heavy lift­ing. She can do 70 per­cent of the tasks ex­pected of a plumber, he says. Lara is ea­ger to see her mother in full work gear and em­braces her in the hall­way. She says she now likes ev­ery­thing about her mother’s job, and es­pe­cially the tools. She wants to work in Mut­laq’s shop and take a salary.

But Mut­laq still faces plenty of crit­i­cism. Her old­est brother is a hold-out, telling her women have no busi­ness be­ing plumbers. At the lo­cal mosque down the street from Mut­laq’s house, preacher Akram al-Boureini says roles are clear in Is­lam: Men pro­vide for the fam­ily and women raise chil­dren at home. Plumb­ing is “suit­able only for men, not for women,” he says. If women take over jobs in­tended for men, “we face un­em­ploy­ment and moral cor­rup­tion.”

By the end of March, the plumb­ing project is wind­ing down. Mut­laq is start­ing to worry about the fu­ture. She has pinned all her hopes on get­ting a grant. “I’m scared that I will end up sit­ting at home,” she says. Small jobs for rel­a­tives and neigh­bors don’t pay off. She can’t charge much in her low-in­come neigh­bor­hood and is ex­pected to give discounts to rel­a­tives. She has the ex­tra cost of tak­ing taxis to as­sign­ments be­cause she doesn’t drive, and her hus­band needs the fam­ily car for his job.

Back home, Mut­laq flips through her work book - a white notepad list­ing her re­cent as­sign­ments - to un­der­score the point. She’s charged be­tween 5 and 10 di­nars ($7 to $14) per home visit, barely worth her time. Such ob­sta­cles are fa­mil­iar to Jor­dan’s first fe­male plumber, 53-year-old Khawla Sheikh, who earned her li­cense in 2006. “So many peo­ple did not sup­port me,” she says. “The only ones were my hus­band and my fam­ily.”

Sheikh formed a co­op­er­a­tive of 18 fe­male plumbers last year to help women with dif­fi­cul­ties like launch­ing their own busi­ness with no car or start-up funds. The women go on house calls in pairs, for safety. In late May, Mut­laq is anx­ious. She needs a grant. At a meet­ing hosted by an in­ter­na­tional aid group, 12 other women are handed checks of 300 di­nars ($425) each. Mut­laq gets noth­ing. She is an­gry and de­jected, and even thinks of sell­ing her tool kit. “It was a big dream, but it’s been de­stroyed,” she says.

But by early July, she has bounced back. She ap­plies for a grant from USAID, a US govern­ment agency, and ex­pects to hear by the fall. In the mean­time, she’s rent­ing out some of her tools, do­ing small plumb­ing jobs and go­ing on as­sign­ments with one of her broth­ers, also a plumber. She still wants to open a busi­ness one day, but says the jour­ney has al­ready been worth­while. “This was the chance of a life­time,” she says. “The way I look at life has changed. The way I look at my­self has changed, too.” — AP

ZARQA, Jor­dan: In this March 21, 2016 photo, Jor­da­nian plumber Maryam Mut­laq, 41, poses for a pic­ture at a school. — AP

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