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Education or Marriage?

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 14, 2005 2 min read

Principal Sana Al-Oteibi is determined to increase the share of girls at Um Abhara School who graduate from the high school. She’s a Palestinian immigrant from Kuwait, an outsider who is challenging longtime traditions in the village of Um Abhara. Officially part of Amman, the village has traditions more typical of rural areas of Jordan. In this community, most women are homemakers, and the men are olive farmers or military retirees. Some of the women can’t read or write.

Sana Al-Oteibi wants to increase the number of girls graduating from her K-12 school.

It’s quite common in Um Abhara for girls to marry as teenagers and quit school after marriage because, Al-Oteibi says through an interpreter, “it’s forbidden” for a girl to continue schooling after her marriage, according to the customs of the village.

Even if Jordanian women do get an education, most cannot bank on using it in the marketplace at this juncture.

Muna Mu’taman, the managing director for general education and student affairs for the Jordanian Ministry of Education and one of the highest-ranking women there, says only about 16 percent of Jordanian women work outside the home.

It’s not that Jordanian women aren’t getting a formal education. Girls and boys are enrolled equally at all levels of schooling; 47 percent of public-university students are women.

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Deliberate Course

According to Mu’taman, girls score higher than boys on Jordan’s 12th grade national exam and on international tests.

But much of that will be for naught if the girls don’t stay in school or use their education as adults.

Al-Oteibi says only 25 of the 46 girls who came into the 600-student school as 9th graders are now seniors. And four of the seniors are engaged to be married. If they finish the school year and pass Jordan’s national 12th grade exam, it will be easier for them to go to university at some point later, she tells them as a way of keeping the girls in school.

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Al-Oteibi has shared with the students what an education has meant to her. When she was 25, her husband was killed in a car accident, and she was left to support her 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. “Look at me,” she says that she tells the girls. “If I didn’t have an education, what would I have done?”

The principal believes younger girls these days have higher expectations. During a reporter’s visit to a 7th grade class, all the girls say they plan to attend university to become doctors, lawyers, or teachers. Girls in four other schools express similar expectations.

Women and girls across Jordan have different opinions about how religion affects their lives and careers. In Jerash, about 30 miles north of Amman, for instance, several teenage girls at the Jerash Secondary School say it would be inappropriate for a Muslim woman to travel to other countries for work.

But when Lana Abzakh, a physics teacher in the Iskan Al-Jamea Secondary Comprehensive School in Amman, is asked if women are restricted under Islam to travel, she is offended. She has just journeyed to Cyprus to train teachers.

But she acknowledges that attitudes about the role of women are more progressive in Amman, the capital, than elsewhere in the country.

For instance, when she gave a workshop for teachers in Jerash, some men were initially uncomfortable being taught by a woman, Abzakh says. “One man said, ‘We are not used to a woman controlling us,’ ” she recounts. “Here in Amman, I train so many men; they never say such things.”

At her school, which enrolls the children of many professionals and is located near the University of Jordan, the girls don’t drop out of school to get married.

Muna Mu’taman and Lana Abzakh were interviewed in English. Yasmine Mousa provided Arabic-English interpretation for interviews with other sources.


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