Whether you are on your first trip to Jordan or a frequent visitor, meeting the local people makes for unique and memorable experiences. This was certainly true on our 11-day International Food, Wine, and Travel Writer Association (IFWTWA) tour hosted by the Jordan Tourism Board.
Rather than simply checking off a bucket list of sites—the most significant travel memories are the moments we share with people. There is no better way to get to know this fascinating country than by immersing oneself in its culture. The Jordanian people are known for their warmth and hospitality, making it easy for visitors to forge connections through food, immersive experiences, and home visits.
What most surprised and delighted me was breaking the barriers of traditional tourism and discovering a sisterhood within this inspiring desert nation. We were granted access to a side of life seldom experienced by visitors that presented us with a more intimate and deeper understanding of Jordanian women.
Women’s Roles in Jordan
Throughout history in Jordan, traditional mores and conservative interpretations of Islam often have limited women’s options in pursuing business careers. Additional constraints include the high cost of preschool care, the expense of domestic helpers, and the fact that public transportation does not exist. These constraints have contributed to women overcoming such obstacles by creating informal businesses at home.
Women Are an Untapped Resource
Gender inequalities in Jordan today stem from traditional gender roles embedded in Jordanian culture that discourage women from working. Despite their comparatively high education levels, unemployment in Jordan for women is around 27% and is even higher in rural areas, according to a 2021 World Bank report. However, Social Enterprises allow women and girls to become powerful forces for positive change in their communities.
Read on to discover three local experiences that are supporting and empowering women in Jordan.
Galsoum’s Kitchen in Umm Quais
Two hours north of Amman is Umm Qais, the ruins of the Decapolis City of Gadara. After touring the ancient ruins with our local guide, Ahmad Alomari, we enjoyed the rich experience of a home-cooked lunch at Galsoum’s Kitchen.
With a big smile, our host, Galsoum Al-Sayyah, welcomed us into her home. The room had a large low table in the center with comfortable floor cushions surrounding it. We relaxed around the table and shared stories with Ahmad about life in Umm Qais when he was a child. At the same time, Galsoum flitted back and forth to the kitchen, preparing last-minute details of our delicious feast of traditional tastes of Northern Jordan. The centerpiece on the dining table was Maqmoura, a layered chicken dish that is typically served for special occasions. It was prepared in a large round metal pan with high sides, assembled with many layers of dough, then flipped over onto a metal tray, baked, and presented at the table with great fanfare. The flavorful feast, including a delectable dessert and hibiscus tea, was all locally sourced and prepared fresh by our host.
Traditional Bread is Empowering Women
Galsoum started by baking traditional bread in her kitchen and selling it locally. Then, she branched out into making home-cooked traditional meals welcoming travelers to her home. She has turned her cooking skills into a successful catering business, hosting cooking classes, and creating epicurean feasts for visitors like us. She employs local women to help her, and she is proud to contribute to the support of her family and her children’s education.
Because of Galsoum’s entrepreneurial endeavor, she has led other local women to embark on similar ventures, inspiring others in the area to prepare meals for tourists as she has done. She contributed her recipe for Maqmoura to a cookbook entitled “Empowering Women through Cooking: Stories and Recipes from Jordan.”
Beit Souf: a Social Enterprise Success Story
The most popular travel destinations in northern Jordan are the ancient Roman ruins of Jerash. In the town of Souf, near the archeological site, Beit Khairat Souf, is a multi-faceted social enterprise offering an eco-restaurant and gathering place that serves as a community hub.
Hatia Bani Mustafa met us at the gated opening of a house that dates to 1881. Following the house’s history and tradition, a local family donated the house to serve the community. The central courtyard with a trellised-covered outdoor eating area was festive, with tables covered with colorful textiles, pottery, and tableware. We enjoyed an extraordinary family style meal of multiple traditional dis hes and homemade flatbread prepared in the kitchen by local women. Hatia shared with us the mission of Beit Khairat Souf. Then, she led us the shop where women can sell homemade products like jam, pickled vegetables, and dried herbs.
The social enterprise provides employment for women and sources organic ingredients from local farms in the region. It aims to create a platform for local women in Souf to support themselves financially, facilitating learning to earning pathways in the North of Jordan.
Cultural Experiences Empowering Women in Central Jordan and Amman
Although we were in Jordan for 11 days, we were on a very tight schedule and needed more time to visit all the places we wanted to see. One of those places was a women’s cooperative enterprise, Iraq Al Amir Women’s Cooperative Society, near Amman. In addition to hands-on cooking classes, they offer innovative workshops, including handmade paper production, pottery, and weaving.
Founded in 1993, Iraq Al-Amir Women’s Cooperative has empowered skilled craftswomen in Jordan. The artisans are primarily single women from rural communities, many of whom have worked with the Cooperative since its beginnings.
The goal of the Cooperative is to raise awareness and support the participating women in achieving financial independence. The program raises their standard of living by increasing their income, preserving local heritage, and empowering women.
Located west of Amman in the village of Iraq Al-Amir, local women manage and run the Cooperative, providing handicraft training for more than 150 women throughout the towns of Wadi Seer. By teaching the local women how to create various heritage products, the Cooperative has created job opportunities for several women artisans who now market their creations in a local gift shop or online.
The talented women achieve economic independence through this dignified work. More than half now provide financial support to their families. Without the Cooperative, many women would have remained secluded at home, relying on fathers and brothers. In addition to newfound self-worth, women also take on leadership roles and participate in decision-making to better their communities.
While I genuinely was awed by the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Petra, the ancient cities of Madaba and Jerash, and the spectacular Wadi Rum desert, I was, in the end, more impressed and humbled by the women we met in Jordan.
As I reflect on our Jordanian experiences of women supporting women. I am reminded of this fitting quote by poet Maya Angelou.
“Each time a woman stands up for herself, she stands up for all women.”
To learn more about Jordan, check out one of these articles: