Introduction

Zeinab Al-Momani believes that only women themselves can demand their full economic, social and political participation and they can do this best when organized. As a result, she has founded the first agricultural union for and by women in the Arab world. By liberating rural women, Zeinab believes it will affect children, men, and other women to create a more just and successful region.

Zeinab has organized the Arab region’s first farmers’ union for poor marginalized women, thus giving them a voice. Through the union and a number of agricultural cooperatives, she has eased the limitations faced by marginalized women in rural Jordan, organizing them into cooperatives and unions and providing women with access to economic and social opportunities. Through the union and cooperatives, these marginalized rural women are trained, exposed to different experiences, and empowered so that together they could voice their needs and concerns and participate in decision-making processes.

Aware of the oppression and poverty that rural women in Jordan and throughout the Middle East are subjected to, Zeinab designed a plan, starting with the village of Sakhrah-Ajloun, to organize women into a union to leverage their collective power and enable them to obtain their rights as to promote economic, cultural and social development. In a region where women are not allowed to control their resources nor land and have never been included in male dominated agricultural unions, Zeinab’s initiatives have contributed to solving social problems in marginalized regions and are gradually bringing about a change in culture by raising awareness among men on women’s contribution to the household.

In the Arab world, CSOs concerned with women’s empowerment have managed to empower women socially, culturally and economically but have not organized women into self sustaining organizations. Zeinab’s associations are the only institutions that truly contribute to women’s development in a sustainable and participatory manner, equipping women with self-sustaining tools and skills. Zeinab’s model is simple and could be replicated throughout the Levant and the greater Arab region in the next five years.

Women in the Arab world are subjected to a number of social, economic, and institutional or legal constraints that result from a lack of opportunities coupled with limited participation in the decision-making process. The obstacles that hinder women in Arab countries from achieving economic independence are traditional gender-ideology, reduced access to education, and lack of support from existing institutional and legal frameworks. Conservative social norms and values are even more pronounced in rural areas, inhibiting many women here from working outside the home.

 

Women in rural areas are captive to a culture where a woman’s role is limited to the domestic sphere and farm work, thus preventing them from leaving the house to seek work independently or to gain access to education. Although women in rural communities play a significant role in agricultural production and in household food security, female agricultural laborers receive two-thirds to one half of the wages earned by men for performing the same task. As a result of governmental neglect for rural areas, there are generally few other possibilities for making a living, and existing ones are mostly occupied by men.

 

Women in the Arab world are mostly excluded from decision-making processes at all levels, from the household to the government. Even though women contribute to household income, they are rarely consulted on issues such as loan and credit applications and management or on other financial matters. The Arab countries have the lowest global employment rate of women in non-agricultural sectors at 28 percent. In the labor market women work lower and simpler jobs and occupy a marginal number of positions in legislative, senior official or managerial roles.

 

Women in the Arab World also have limited access to credit which stands in the way of starting up their own activities. Women are marginalized when it comes to borrowing from either the state or private lenders, and have limited special credit facilities to recur to. They possess little financial literacy and lack the mobility and interaction necessary to access credit facilities. Also, due to limited landownership, women do not possess the required collateral to obtain loans and lending institutions view them as high credit risks. The only means women can resort to is to obtain credit informally, generally from family members.

 

Most attempts to improve the conditions of rural women in the region often remain small-scale, localized and hostage to existing gender-stereotypes. In general, most endeavors have been limited to the elimination of illiteracy, and the improvement of education, health and family planning services, as well as training and funding of traditional small-scale income-generating activities. Programs targeting rural women’s advancement vary considerably among the countries of the region in both number and scope. Some countries, such as Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia and Turkey, have well-established and well-funded units with clear-cut objectives regarding their role in advancing the status of rural women. The majority of countries, however, have only a few programs with vague and/or limited mandates, and suffer considerably from poor funding and limited access to appropriate human and technical resources.

 

In Jordan, most citizen organizations targeting women in rural areas are typically charitable top-down institutions, with objectives geared to education, health, and family planning. A number of organizations have been active in promoting small-scale income-generating activities for women but remain limited in scope and impact as they have not adopted comprehensive approaches. Moreover, such initiatives have relied on traditional female skills such as sewing, weaving, cheese-making and poultry-rearing. Few projects have aimed at providing women with credit and up-to-date technology (e.g., biogas technology, mechanization, entrepreneurial and managerial skills, and so on) to improve their productivity and thereby increase economic gains.

Zeinab designed a strategy centered on three axes to combat poverty from all its dimensions: Social, economic and institutional. Zeinab is empowering rural women and enhancing their economic, social and cultural development by enabling them to start up their own income generation activities and combating the cultural hurdles that inhibit them from working, accessing capital, getting training and marketing their products.

Aware of the limited income generation activities in Ajloun, Zeinab founded in the year 2003 the Sakhrah Women’s Society Cooperative. She chose to establish a cooperative instead of a more conventional income generating project since cooperatives’ profits are distributed equally to all members, enabling them to establish their own income generating projects. The effort started out by organizing small projects that focus on simple activities such as harvesting and drying vegetables, cleaning grains and packaging crops, and a dairy production unit and a needlework workshop. The cooperative then started offering revolving loans to members so they could start their own income generating projects.

Today, five years later, seven cooperatives have been established, growing from 35 to 170 members and granting over 800 revolving loans. As the cooperatives started to expand, Zeinab established the Specific Union for Female Farmers in Jordan in 2007. The union now serves 450 members and seeks to assist female agricultural laborers in confronting unemployment, poverty and the exploitation and violence they are continuously subjected to as farm laborers and women. The union now has 450 women as members, has helped many women deal with legal constraints and assisted them in reclaiming and rehabilitating agricultural land.

Zeinab has also worked on easing women’s access to capital and land, first by advocating for the amendment of the law for the Jordanian Farmers’ Union which requires land ownership as a condition for joining the union. Thanks to her efforts, the law now accepts land rental as a sufficient condition for joining unions. Furthermore, Zeinab has raised awareness among women on their constitutional rights and their rights to land ownership. Now, instead of relinquishing land ownership to a male relative and thus forgoing any chance to use the land, women are getting rental rights from their male relatives and are able to join the Jordanian Farmers’ Union. Zeinab’s efforts have resulted in an increase in women farmers in the union from 1 percent to 8 percent.

With respect to reducing the social constraints prohibiting women from achieving their full potential, Zeinab is raising women’s awareness about family planning to improve reproductive health and decrease the burden of child dependency. She has also established a day care center for union members’ children, thus curtailing husbands’ opposition to their work. To ease husbands’ opposition to women’s work, Zeinab also organizes awareness workshops where she highlights the positive contribution that women’s income generation activities will bring to the household; she also allows family members to obtain loans through member unions. Through this, women gain more respect within their households.

Currently, Zeinab is raising awareness among women on the importance of actively participating in the farmers’ union’s elections both as voters and as candidates for board membership. Zeinab is also raising awareness among women on the importance of retaining their right to inherited land instead of forgoing a great source of stability and income to their male relatives.

Throughout her journey, Zeinab has overcome a number of hurdles, most of which stemmed from her being a women living in a traditional rural area of an Arab country. She has constantly faced scarcity in funding coupled with increased demand for employment in the area. In addition to spending much of her time trying to locate funding for Union Members’ income generating projects Zeinab is ensuring the sustainability of women’s income generating projects by providing training, capacity building and marketing activities to union member.

Zeinab also intends to increase the size and geographical scope of her activities by doubling the number of union beneficiaries and by supporting the establishment of more projects and cooperatives in Ajloun while spreading her model across all rural areas in Jordan and in neighboring countries such as Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. In order to scale-up and spread her idea, Zeinab plans in the next three years to launch a media campaign, highlighting success stories and how they encouraged more women to start their own projects.

Her future expansion plans include using the internet to network farmer women across the region in an attempt to link Arab farmer women and replicate her model for cooperatives in the different countries. She has recently partnered with the International Fund for Agricultural Development and dreams of establishing an Arab Women Farmers’ Union.

Zeinab grew up in the small village of Sakhra in the Ajloun governorate in Jordan. Growing up, she was especially active in scouts and ranked first in a number of sports at the governorate and national levels. Although she wanted to go to university, Zeinab was already married at 19 with little money and a child.

 

A very practical problem solver, Zeinab knew as a young mother that she could not further her studies unless her child was cared for, so she started a nursery school in her town. To staff the nursery she distributed fliers and had an unexpectedly huge response. After realizing that massive numbers of women wanted to work, the nursery grew into a kindergarten and then into a school.

 

After the school could not provide for any more employment opportunities, Zeinab wanted to continue to fight poverty by reducing unemployment in more effective ways. To do this, she established the first Women’s Agricultural Cooperative and the first Female Farmers union in the Arab world.

In 2008, Zeinab’s endeavors were recognized as she was named both a Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur and Synergos Leader. Earlier, her school’s success was recognized with the King Abdullah II Bin Al-Hussein Award for Self-Employment and Leadership.