Hijabs Included: Strong Women Working for Microfinance in Jordan
By Amy Kyleen Lute – KF15, Jordan
“I just don’t like how they treat women over there,” said the large man who sat next to me on the airplane on my return home after Kiva Fellows training in San Francisco and before leaving for my field placement in Amman, Jordan. His sentiment is a common one expressed by Americans when speaking about the Middle East. Sometimes I nod and don’t get into it, other times I say something along the lines of, “That hasn’t been my experience but from talking to other women who have spent time in the Middle East, it really differs by person.”
Although there are certainly issues, as there are in the United States and many parts of the world, surrounding women and their place in country, companies, relationships, and family, I prefer to tell stories that provide an alternate perspective to the continuous media coverage of Arab, and more specifically Muslim, women’s oppression and abuse in the region.
Every Sunday through Thursday (the regular work week in the Arab world since Friday is the celebrated holy day), I come to work in a taxi to the office of National Microfinance Bank, a Kiva Field Partner in Jordan, located on the outskirts of Amman. After I walk in and greet the receptionist – “Sabah al khair” – I go to my desk situated in a room with two other women, Maha and Tamara.
Maha is responsible for Kiva procedures at the bank: making sure the loan officers give her appropriate, clear pictures and truthful, interesting information about the clients that are to be posted in Kiva’s website (to view the products of her labor go to:http://www.kiva.org/lend?partner_id=185). She also is in charge of the bank’s call center, fielding comments from clients all over the country. Efficient and gleeful, she is great at what she does. (Keep in mind I am slightly biased; her family had me over for “wara’ dual’i” – stuffed grape leaves – and they were amazing!)
If you a veteran Kiva lender, you may have stumbled across (as my mom and I did when deciding who to lend to for her Mother’s Day present, a Kiva gift certificate:http://www.kiva.org/gifts) a Kiva borrower, usually a woman, who has chosen not to be pictured citing cultural preferences. Maha and I have been trying to think of other ways to connect the women borrowers to the Kiva community. After I suggested a potential sound bite, she laughed and said, “The loan officers will think I am crazy!” Explaining in more detail she told me these women usually fall into different categories. Some just don’t like to have their picture taken (maybe they haven’t gone to the salon recently), some don’t want to have it taken for religious reasons and some women’s families do not agree with them having their pictures taken. Maha on the other hand, “loves getting her picture taken,” she says, verified by her Facebook, glamour shot.
The other woman I share the office with is Tamara. Having gone to the US for high school and university, Tamara knows quite well the ways of the West. In charge of marketing for the bank, she was quiet my few days here until we went to the field with a few other employees earlier this week. On our way – imagine 5 people stuffed in a car driving all around Jordan to branch offices in Mufraq and Irbid eating falafel sandwiches – Tamara almost immediately got into a discussion with one of the men about the situation of women in Jordan, their choice to veil, and their authority in relationships. As I frantically tried to keep up with the Arabic, especially given the sensitive subject matter, she occasionally threw me a phrase or sentence in English to summarize. Though the two were disagreeing strongly with each other, Tamara felt no need to be act subdued or cover her opinions. Her ability to articulate and deliver her ideas to, at least one, non-receptive audience member (The other man in the car had very different beliefs than the one who was arguing with her) was impressive. That strength and enthusiasm only continued to grow in my eyes throughout the day as she took me aside during one of the meetings with the branch managers to discuss my thoughts on employee services, branding and marketing strategies, and a new idea she has to create an online market for goods made by NMB clients. Clearly very invested and talented, she contributes in her honesty and skill to the workings and success of the bank.
As just two examples (of, admittedly, not the most average Jordanian women), it is very clear to me in my limited time spent at NMB that women are valued in their work and their persons. Whether it is in briefing a male branch manager of a conservative area on a new program the bank is implemented and dealing with his discontent surrounding the new policy, or in maintaining relationships with the rest of the office staff including all levels of management and service, these women have skill and creativity, responsibility and dedication. They are valued for their contributions and personalities in this professional community.
As I was setting up my meeting with the Risk Manager of the bank for Sunday morning to discuss progress and future plans, he looked at Maha and me and said, “Our first priority is to make sure Maha is happy. This is the most important thing.” The three of us laughed and he left with a smile on his face.
Maha, Tamara and I went to the climbing gym this weekend. Talk about strong!
For more information on National Microfinance Bank please visit:http://www.kiva.org/partners/185.