“They are bad people, the tribes who work in Petra,” my guide in Wadi Rum said to me when I told him I was heading to Petra the next day. “They have forgotten themselves and their values. Just look at the way they treat their women, they work outside selling things to tourists or working at the park. For us, this is a great shame. Women, they are sacred. They should be taken care of and protected, you should provide for them and keep them safe. To make them work like that? They do not know who they are anymore.”

These comments embody particular cultural views that are not infrequently found in Jordan about women’s roles in society. While they are not representative of all, or even most, Jordanians, Arabs, or Muslims, this sentiment does exist and is not uncommon to hear. Working throughout Jordan, I had often heard from those holding such views that that the tribes in Petra were different in the way “their women” interacted with the public.

It is certainly true that women seem to be more visible in Petra than in other Jordanian governorates, outside the capital city of Amman. Stalls run by women line the streets of the ancient Nabataean city, and women work in various capacities on archaeological digs throughout the park. Women also hold several leadership positions in the Petra Archaeological Park offices, such as the Director of Cultural Resource Management, Tahani Al Salhi.

In my own work for USAID’s Sustainable Cultural Heritage Through Engagement of Local Communities Project, or USAID SCHEP, I have seen women in Petra take on important leadership roles.

USAID SCHEP seeks to foster economic and community development through conservation and education surrounding cultural heritage. The project is active in six communities throughout Jordan. Of these six, the Temple of the Winged in Petra (TWL) is the only one led by women and comes the closest to achieving gender parity in terms of total staff numbers. Conservation at TWL has so far created 800 jobs and 400 training opportunities, and 60% of those employment and educational opportunities have gone to women.

SCHEP is partners in this project with Sela, a local non-profit that does vocational training in cultural heritage and resource management. Sela’s founder Eman Abdesalam is herself a single mother. In addition to Eman, TWL boasts a female project director, and female specialists in documentation, pottery, and conservation.

Rare Economic Opportunities for Women

“There is money here now,” Khatima, one of the women working on TWL told me. “Before, we did not know how much there would be or when or if it would come. But now we do.” Khatima has twelve children and thirty-six grandchildren who depend on her and she beams whenever she talks about being able to provide for them. Stories like Eman and Khatima’s are rare bright spots when one looks at women’s role in Jordan’s economy.

Women’s contribution to Jordan’s economy was roughly the same in 2014 as it was in 1996, a grim 12.6%. In 2013, the World Bank put Jordan’s total female labor force participation rate at 22%, just a fourth of the male rate of 87%. In 2016, Jordan ranked 142nd 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.

Across the MENA region, women outside of urban areas are less likely to work outside the home; 93% of those who do work are employed in the agriculture sector. Other options for employment outside the capital are industrial or tourism related. For cultural reasons, these jobs are largely viewed as unsuitable for women. Indeed, women make up just 6% of the tourism workforce. The statistics gathered by SCHEP have similarly shown low female participation outside of Petra.

One possible reason for Petra’s exceptional nature may be the high number of tourists that visit the area. Research and anecdotal evidence shows that tourism can change the social, political, cultural, and environmental realities of host communities. Interactions between peoples of different backgrounds and cultures naturally results in some form of knowledge exchange. The more long-term this exposure is, the greater the effect, for better or worse. Communities surrounding Petra, which is the largest tourist attraction in Jordan, have hosted an average of 350,000 tourists each year since 1985. Other communities in which SCHEP works have had nowhere near this level of interaction with foreigners. As such, their members may not feel pressure to change their behaviors in order to accommodate alternate cultural norms brought by tourists and other foreigners, like archaeologists or development workers.

Value Neutral Development

The entire Middle East is haunted by the ghosts of development projects past, which sought to impose “Western” values at all costs. Known as the “3-D approach”, far too many projects have failed because their primary goal was supporting foreign ideologies or military missions, rather than creating jobs or increasing education. In an effort to avoid this pitfall, SCHEP has worked to make sure our programs, trainings, and activities are in line with the unique social and cultural dynamics of the communities where we work. As Michael Hobbes wrote on the challenges facing development projects in a landmark piece for the New Republic, “development projects thrive or tank according to the specific dynamics of the place in which they’re applied.”

At the same time, value neutral projects can serve to perpetuate unequal social structures. By creating all-male work environments, value neutral projects support members of the local community who believe women should not work. In buttressing existing social structures, these projects sometimes find themselves tacitly supporting patriarchal structures.

Indeed, some of SCHEP’s projects outside of Petra do not have female employees because women in these communities do not work. Others have women employees, who are working in roles that are seen as more appropriate for their gender. One of our on-the-ground employees who lives in a village in Jordan laughed when I asked her if she wanted to take a more hands-on role, the way Eman had in Petra. “It is different there (Petra) – the people, the families,” was all she said when I asked her why she turned down the offer.

Defining Our Role

It is unrealistic to assume any development project will leave no footprint. No matter how much SCHEP tries to work within local norms, our very presence will have some impact outside the temples we restore, the signs we install, or the jobs we create. The exact impact and the extent to which that impact is intentional remains a question not just for us, but also for development projects across the world.

Social engineering from the-outside-in rarely achieves its desired effect and often produces unintended backlash or consequences that harm the groups it endeavors to help. Yet, surely, there is a competing responsibility to address inequality or other forms of social injustice – keeping in mind that how we define these norms is often not universal and may not necessarily be the only ethically or morally correct approach.

As a foreign woman working in Jordan, I feel this tension on a very personal level. I do not believe these are “backward” communities needing to be “corrected” or “helpless” women needing to be “saved.” But, I do wonder about the best way to leverage my own privilege as a tool to create opportunities for the people with whom I work.

I asked Eman about all this and she just patted my hand and offered me a cigarette, “Ajaneb [foreigners] always have to make everything so complicated.”

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