The Feminist Arab Spring: Jordanian Bedouin Women Call For Better Access to Education

In the deserts of northwest Jordan, outside a cluster of Bedouin tents, Luma Al Khalaf, 34, is sticking flattened dough onto the sides of the Tanoor, a large hollowed-out clay oven that sits deeply rooted in the ground. Once finished, she sits down and gets out a notebook. “Look!” she says, pointing to the script on the page. “I have learnt to write the entire alphabet in just two weeks.” 

Far from the Facebook pages and Twitter accounts of young urbanized Jordanian women, Bedouin women have had to promote their rights without the benefit of technology and in many cases, literacy.

“It is easy for women in the cities, but we don’t have electricity, let alone computers. Most of us can’t read or write,” said Luma.

Despite literacy rates in Jordan being amongst the best in the Arab world — at an impressive 93%  — in addition to UNESCO's announcement that Jordan is 18th worldwide for providing gender equality in education, the main problem lies elsewhere. According to a report published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Bedouin people "have historically been averse to central government, and for hundreds of years tried to maintain a lifestyle of self-governance based on tribal traditions."

As a result of this social differentiation, Bedouin women have not gained from the educational benefits provided by the state and therefore, according to the International Women’s Rights Action Watch, illiteracy rates amongst them can be as high as 85%.

Traditional Bedouin social norms see a woman’s main role in the domestic sphere. Therefore, while young males are encouraged to attend school, at least to a primary level, women rarely receive any such equal opportunity.

“Male domination is legitimized in Bedouin society by two cultural codes primarily affecting the lives of women: the sexual and the collective,” said Sarah Abu Rabia Queder, the first Arab Bedouin woman to receive a doctorate. “The collective code plays an important role in female marginalization. The Bedouin woman is driven to marriage for the sake of the collective rather than for her own personal interest. As such, she is meant to increase the size and power of the group (her extended family).”

Khalida Hawas, 72, is part of the Jordanian Bedouin who reside just outside of Mafraq, a small town in the north of the country. Married at the age of 12, Hawas has been pregnant 17 times in her life and has given birth to 15 children. “Men think our main role is to give birth, but we can do more than this. We want to work to help support our community but also to discover how we are important as individuals. Learning to read and write is the first step to doing this.”

Developments are being made to tackle high illiteracy rates amongst Bedouin women. Female students from Al-Bayt University in Mafraq and the University of Jordan in Amman have set up a volunteering system, where women living in urban centres of Jordan travel to rural villages and teach Bedouin women how to read and write.

“These women have heard the bare minimum of what is going on in the Arab Spring, but even that has inspired them enough to want to do something, to empower themselves, and they know that learning to read and write will allow them to achieve this,” said student and volunteer, Maysoon Alnoami.

Weekly lessons take place in makeshift schools amongst Bedouin tents and cover basic literacy and numeracy.

“I cannot believe it has taken 65 years for me to get the chance to learn to read and write,” said Um Ahmed, a Bedouin woman and mother of nine. “I do not want my granddaughters to go without education. I hope this is something that can be passed down through the women in our family and other families.” 

After lessons are over, the women get together to talk about what changes they want to propose to the village elders. Marriam Al-Ghassab, who heads the meetings, said: “It is difficult to change the way we have always done things in our community and the men do not always respond well to our demands,” which include allowing young Bedouin girls to finish education before their marriage is considered.

While the legal age of marriage in Jordan is 18, these laws mostly fail to be implemented in rural communities. Therefore, girls continue to get married at as young as 12.

The Bedouin woman’s biggest battle is against a mindset that has dominated for hundreds of years. “It's easier to bring down a dictator,” said political analyst Rania Al Malki, “than it is to change the patriarchal society - this is going to take time.”  

Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan said in an interview with CNN: “When it comes to gender parity, the obstacles are very much in terms of the traditions, the mindsets and cultural attitudes. And these, unfortunately, take a long time to change. They need patience and persistence.”

These women are fighting the injustice that takes place in their homes, streets, and villages. The case of Khalida Hawas demanding her right to an education and the women’s weekly meetings represents those of other women protesting on the frontlines in Cairo, Damascus, and Tunis.

“The fact that these women have even developed the confidence to speak up about this is democracy -building at its heart,” said Jude Shobaki, a student volunteer from Al-Bayt University. “These women are adamant that they are going to have a say in the development and future of Bedouin girls.”