While Jordanian women are some of the most educated in the world, entry into the workforce remains a challenge. With some estimates of literacy rate for women at 99%, it remains baffling that female employment in Jordan remains at 22%, while male’s employment rate is estimated to be 87%. Early childhood care, access to public transportation, and discrimination are attributed with creating major barriars to employment for Jordanian women. Even amongst college-educated women, marriage and a domestic life are socially seen as the most respectable and financially logical solutions. Legislative barriers, such as the ‘Personal Status Law’, under which men may inherit twice as much as women, or the refusal to grant full citizenship rights to the children of Jordanian women (but not men) who have married foreigners, compound societal expectations of women to perpetuate barriers to economic participation.
Yet women like Rula Quaqas have been determined to make a change. After receiving tenor at the University of Jordan, she founded the university’s first Women’s Studies Center. She argued for an education style that enabled students to think critically and challenge the status quo, including gender norms.
Starting her teaching at the University of Jordan in the English Department, she did not want to make waves: “I took my time with what I did — in a very subtle way — I took all of the courses offered in the department and started introducing women writers. All of the playwrights are men, what about women playwrights?” However, just this inclusion of female authors was seen as threatening to her male peers, who told her they could “kick her out” for these actions. After receiving tenor, she strove to introduce feminist studies into the coursework offered at the University. She was met with opposition on the basis that feminism is seen to be associated with western, radical, secular thought.
With one of her feminist studies classes, she produced the following video to raise awareness about street harassment in Jordan. University administrators and some of her fellow faculty members said the video harmed the image and reputation of the institution. Ironically, she was repudiated for showing offensive language, language that is hurled at women daily in Jordan. You can watch the video that sparked the controversy below,
Speaking about this video, Professor Quaqas said, “Women do not want to be seen as a piece of meat but as a soul — as a mind, as a heart.” Rula Quaqas’ brand of feminism highlights the right to privacy as an issue; “I feel all of these eyes constantly piercing me, penetrating me, for something I believe in,” she said. The right to feel comfortable walking down the street, to hold one owns personal beliefs, is a major issue for Quaqas.
That video resulted in her demotion from dean of faculty of foreign studies. Professor Quaqas lamented that others who supported her work and her video, did not publicly express their beliefs. Quawas reported that some said to her - ‘we’re not as free as you are,’ to which she responded “but nobody is free.”
Speaking on Jordanian society, but comments that could be equally applied to certain aspects of American culture, Rula Quaqas remarked:
“‘Deep within, we’re not happy,’ some said. And my response was that our society wants us to wear masks, making our social-self stronger than the inner-self. When you keep on wearing the same mask, you become that mask. You mute yourself. It is very pernicious.”
Rula Quaqas recently passed away, but is remembered by her friend, Hani Bargouthi, as a woman who, “lived her life without shame, without doubt, without pause... she always questioned authority, and taught her students the same."
It is important to remember and honor the sacrifices made by women before us. Women like Rula Quaqas spoke up, when many were afraid to. She created awareness for the experiences felt by many women at the expense of her own personal career, yet still perservered. After receiving her demotion, she continued to teach abroad, earned a fulbright scholarship, and was nominated as a State Department’s International Women of Courage Award in 2013.
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To listen to Rula Quagas speak about feminism and the strength of women, please watch the following link: