It is a hot day in October, somewhere in Amman, the five-million-inhabitants capital of Jordan. Editor-in-chief of Margriet, a Dutch magazine, Leontine meets Sawsan Abdelaziz Radwan (39) who started her own company in a suburb with the help of CARE.Read more
Sawsan greets me warmly and a seems a bit shy. She presses my hand and looks at me inquisitively. Her husband, behind her, kindly nods to me. I know that it is not common here for a man give an unknown woman a hand, so I nod back in a friendly manner. I am being led into a small one, cosy space, where beautiful Jordanian robes are hanging on the wall. In the middle of the table lie wallets, bracelets and other homemade jewellery. I’m offered some water and a dollhouse-like cup of tea and taste a perfume-like, for me new, tea flavour.
There are four women around the table, beautifully dressed in the long dresses. They wear headscarves and have nice make up. They smile at me, I smile back. I ask the interpreter, who came along, to thank them for their hospitality. I mean, I’m here invading from a distant country, for an interview. I want them to feel comfortable during the interview. Sawsan exudes a calm authority. "Is Sawsan your boss?" I ask the women. "Yeeees!" They all call out, while laughing. "Sawsan is our boss, because she has the most experience of all of us! " In the distance, I hear the singing of a minaret, the invitation for the Islamic prayer. I ask if they want to do their prayer, they answer that they often pray together and that they now postpone it until a later moment. Sawsan tells me about her life. "When I was six years old, my father died. My mother stayed behind with eight children, six boys and two girls. I was one of the youngest and was brought up by my brothers. My mother was busy, she made as much money as possible with her homemade clothing. That was not common at all, because usually the men earn the money here. My mother thought us: Make sure that as a woman, you earn your own income, because you never know where life takes you. My brothers had to, just like the girls, support in everything, we all had our own task. My mother was an example for me, from a young age I watched as she sewed and embroidered, and that's how she taught me. "
Sawsan got married at the age of 22, to Omar, a cousin who is much older. The marriage was arranged by her parents. "I knew him from when I was little and I thought it was fine to marry him". They had three children, Bashar (15), Sumaya (13) and Saif (11). After a job in the army, Omar was obliged to retire at young age and this was when the problems started. Sawsan: "It took six months before we received money. Being able to survive without an income, was an absolute all time low for our family. Omar’s pension was a little relief, yet it was not enough to make ends meet. We were poor. That's why I started to pick up my old hobby, needlework and sewing, to increase the income." Sawsan's cell phone often rings, she answers, listens and answers calmly. Her business must continue, even when there is a visitor. She smiles apologetically and says: "At a community centre I heard that I could take classes to increase my skills. From then onwards I went to every course! Even if I did not have money for the bus. I wanted to learn as much as possible. And I encouraged the women around me to go to the training sessions as well. I thought that was very important."
photo: Eva van Barneveld
Sawsan quickly developed herself. The breakthrough of her little shop came when she started to participate in a so-called Village Savings and Loans Association, an opportunity that CARE offers worldwide for women to start an independent business. Sawsan, together with other women, learned to save money together to be able to invest.
"CARE gave me training in marketing and finance. After that I had to show that I had a good plan for my company, focused on independence, for me and other women. CARE had confidence in my plan and my knowledge and gave me a one-off amount to be able to buy materials, fabrics and sewing machines, and to rent a space." She proudly looks around. "This was a very shabby house, but we all turned it into this beautiful workshop." The space is barely four by four meters, but it is a complete studio and store. Where not only Sawsan works, but also the four others. And what about her husband, what does Omar think about it? I ask him himself, he looks at me shyly, but his eyes gleam : "I am proud of her. I love what she does! "
It is not common, I know. The women in Jordan must overcome many other obstacles besides the traditional division of tasks between men and woman. There is a shortage of public transport and a shortage of childcare. Which means that after women finish their education – all women receive education in Jordan – they often stay home. In many areas in Jordan the woman never ends up in a managing position and she will never be the breadwinner. Sawsan says, laughing: "I'm lucky with Omar. He helps in the company, with the finances and with the orders. The children help as well. Just like the old days with my mother at home." What did the neighbourhood think?- I want to know-, that she as a woman established a company? The women around the table start laughing. Sawsan: "They did not like it! There were men hanging around our workshop, suspicious, a bit hostile. Do you know what we did then? We threw water at them. Like that, throw water over it. Well, then they disappeared. And slowly but surely our confidence grew. Now we even get requests from the people in the neighbourhood itself. And people come by to offer coffee and cookies."
Sawsans company is a success. There is a lot of demand for her products. I congratulate her on what she has built and achieved. She thanks me and says very seriously: "All women should have a chance to work. I now try to teach as many women as possible what I have learned. You must always be independent as a woman, because you never know what life will bring you. "
When I ask the four women what they think is important for a woman, they emphasize independence as well. All four of them have had to overcome challenges. There is a divorced woman with four children under ten years old, a single woman with a heart condition, a woman with eight children who really needs the work to make ends meet and a woman with a daughter who suffers from cancer and has high medical costs. Mufeeda (41), one of the women, says: "I do not know if this statement also exists in your country, but we always say: a fight that does not break you makesyou stronger. "Sawsan nods and adds:" If you have a goal in your life, persevere and believe in yourself, you can do everything! "
photo: Eva van Barneveld