Women and Career in the Middle East

The Middle East can be a place of contradictions, it is where a blurry site of religion and tradition can be. Through the past decade it has gone through tremendous changes, and is still struggling to make amends with modernity without losing its identity and heritage.

What is it like growing up as a girl in this region. First, I need to highlight it is not all the same for everyone, social influences differ from one family to another, and from one community to another. But what remains the same is that consensus towards woman’s role in the Middle Eastern society. A girl in the Middle East is overprotected, often it is feared that she will get hurt so protective measures should always be in place to ensure her safety, these fears are unnecessarily real but they are to those who enforce them.

Here are some of the well-established Arab women in media

Some say ‘Motherhood’ is the most distinguished job in the world, which it is. But what about those who have dreams to achieve, something for their own sake, times have changed, economies have developed so did people’s needs and there are those who want to have careers, financial affluence and independence. Why can’t women who want to establish something for their own be given the recognition and legitimacy to fulfill their needs? Gone are the days when girls do not get an education, actually in countries such as Jordan, the percentage of female students attending university education exceeds that of male students. Women today are getting an education and joining the workforce. However, after finishing her degree a choice has to be made, getting married or getting a job, usually by then a couple of marriage proposals has already been received which usually will be managed under parent’s supervision. A big question needs to be answered at that point “should I accept a marriage proposal? (which obviously seems a good one) where he would be, a nice guy, from a good upbringing, educated, unnecessarily wealthy, but you know, can afford to have a wife and family”, or “should I wait couple of years till after getting a job and somehow be financially independent (usually in the Middle East children don’t leave their parent’s home and live independently until after getting married)”, it’s a Dilemma!

I spoke to ladies who offered their perspectives and opinions about having a career and a job, each has her own and different life experience.

I first spoke to Natasha. She is a physiotherapist from Jordan but currently living with her husband in the U.K along with their daughter.

RAHAF: When did you get married? Right after college or couple of years after?

Natasha: I got married after three months of finishing my undergraduate degree. As a girl living in the Jordanian society, it seemed the right time to get married at the age of twenty-two. I guess I was under the influence of the common Jordanian social ideologies which exerts pressure on girls to get married at young age. My view of marriage at that time was a way to change my life and be more independent. Maybe the fact that I was living in a very conservative society made me feel that I needed this change in my life.

After a year of getting married, I moved to live in the United Kingdom with my husband. It has been eight years now since I moved to the UK. I mixed in the British society and started to observe the social differences between the conservative Middle-Eastern and the open western societies. Women and youngsters, in general, are more independent in the British society; the majority of them leave their parents’ home at a young age and start their own life before they hit their twenties. As they start to live independently, they focus on building their lives and careers. Marriage is not common for British people under the age of thirty, and getting married is seen as a lifetime commitment which does not appeal to everyone. As an open society, youngsters can live with their partners without restrictions and marriage is not seen necessary to achieve this.  I think if I was born and raised in this country, I might have been single or thinking about getting married at my current age of thirty-two.

RAHAF: Were you working when you got married?

Natasha: Yes, as a qualified physiotherapist I used to do home visits to patients in addition to working part-time in a beauty center.

RAHAF: What are your thoughts about getting a job and a career, do you think it’s important, and why?

Of course, it is important to get a job and have a career as a woman in any society.  I strongly believe that it is a personal right for women to go to work and build their own careers. This is particularly important for women in the Middle-Eastern societies because they need to be strong and financially independent to protect themselves from man’s prejudice. Unfortunately, many factors and obstacles make it difficult for women to have a decent job that offers work-life balance in Jordan. Factors such as low salaries, high childcare costs, poor childcare quality, inadequate public transport, rigid working hours, short maternity leave, and the tendency to hire single women to make it harder for married women who have children to go to work.

There are other social and cultural obstacles that add even more burden on women and prevent them from pursuing their dream jobs. Jordanian society is a male dominant society, and women are raised to obey their husbands and the males in their families. Majority of men in Jordan strongly believe that their wives or sisters are better kept at their homes raising their children or helping their mothers, or if they allow them to go to work then there should be restrictions on working hours or there should be minimum contact with other men. Surprisingly, this ideology is also embraced by some women themselves! These women believe that their main job in life is to breed and raise good children, and they are ready to dedicate their whole lives to serve their families sacrificing their own personal desires.

I also spoke to Sara, Sara is single and lives in Jordan, she has a degree in Engineering and has been working for about ten years.

RAHAF: Are you currently working? do you think having a job is important for women and Why?

SARAH: Yes I am, I’m an engineer in the public sector, my work experience is 11 years, recently promoted to a project manager. And of course, I think having a job is important to women. Having a job shaped me into the person I am today. It provided me with a new set of skills, be it professionally or personally. It offers a chance to practice your aptitudes, and improve them. It also presents you with new opportunities to meet new people.

RAHAF: What are the obstacles you faced to advance in your career?

My field of study, was mainly proceeded to be thought is only suitable for men, so when I started working, it was hard to find a place in an environment dominated by men, it took a while to prove myself. But to be brutally honest, advancement is very limited for females, there was recently a position available, that all females were overlooked, because “we don’t know how to be managers”. Gender equality in the work environment is almost none existed.

RAHAF: If you got married would you leave your job? Either way interested to know why?

No, I wouldn’t. Simply because I think marriage should be shared responsibilities, the burden of raising children, and up keeping a home, should not lay on the women alone. So I see no reason to leave my job.

RAHAF: If you got kids would you leave your job?

I wouldn’t. Maybe I’d take a year off but then go back to my work.

My last interview was with Tamara, Tamara has a degree in Engineering and currently married with two kids.

RAHAF: When did you get married? Right after college or couple of years after?

Tamara: I got married within six months of graduating.

RAHAF: Were you working when you got married?

Tamara: I am afraid not.

RAHAF: What are your thoughts about getting a job and a career, do you think it’s important, and why?

Yes, absolutely. A woman should always strive to build a career, if not, at least get a job. It offers many chances and opportunities of shaping and molding the personality. Helps her feel independent, not just financially but socially and personally as well. It develops her time management skills, financial planning skills, and overall polishes her social skills with dealing along with many types of people and personalities. A sense of personal responsibility is rooted (not that none working females don’t have that) but a more rooted one due to her independence.

RAHAF: Why did not work?
After graduation I was caught up with the wedding and getting used to the new married life, after that, with my mother’s health deteriorating and getting pregnant it was put on hold.  Time passed quickly and before I know it, it was almost 3 years, and no work experience. Submitting my CV proved worthless due to that reason (lack of work experience) since it was more efficient to choose fresh graduates with fresh minds and knowledge than a 3 almost 4 years graduate. I opted to start my own business.

Featured Photos Credits:

Muna Abu-Sulayman:

Khadija Ben-Ganna:

Zaina Salbi:

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