November 9, 2015 Special Dispatch No. 6213

Jordanian Columnists Use First Lady Michelle Obama's Planned Visit To Jordan To Spotlight Impediments To Women's Progress, Say 'Let Girls Learn' Initiative Misses The Mark

November 9, 2015
Jordan | Special Dispatch No. 6213

U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama was scheduled to visit the Kingdom of Jordan in early November, in addition to Qatar, as part of a two-country Mideast trip aimed at encouraging girls' education, as part of her Let Girls Learn initiative.[1] The First Lady had planned to visit a school in Jordan that was built with financial support from USAID and to praise the Kingdom's commitment to the education of all children living in the country. In the end the trip to Jordan was cancelled due to inclement weather,[2] but news of it had already elicited reactions in the Jordanian press. On the one hand, columnists wondered whether the First Lady was unaware that girls' school enrollment rate in Jordan was already higher than that of boys; and on the other hand, they noted that there were other impediments to girls' education and success, both official and cultural, that the First Lady would not be addressing.

The following are excerpts from some of the articles: 

Michelle Obama (Image:, October 29, 2015)

"The Jordanians Have Been Promoting Girl' Education For Decades"; "Some Of The Official Policies In Our Country... Are What Prevents Jordanian Women From Attaining Global Celebrity"

In a November 3 column in the independent Al-Sawsana daily titled "Mrs. Michelle Obama: Welcome, But..." Dr. Ahmad 'Uwaidi Al-'Abadi wrote that the First Lady's initiative missed the mark in terms of what was needed to truly improve girls' education in the Kingdom. According to Al-'Abadi, the various sectors of Jordanian society are already committed to girls' education, and it is only government policy that prevents Jordanian women from achieving their true potential:

"'The White House announced that the American First Lady, Michelle Obama, will visit Qatar and Jordan at the beginning of November 2015 in order to promote the enrollment of girls in education, as part of a campaign she began several years ago'...  It is one of our Jordanian customs, as a hospitable people, to welcome a guest. We have many poems and songs on this topic. We say [to you]: Welcome! [But] we also say: The Jordanians have been promoting girl' education for decades, and we have helped them go as far as they can in level of education and in specializations - even though official policy has not always matched Jordanian social progress in this domain, as in other domains.

"Jordanian women are among the most educated, cultured and qualified in the world, and [the situation here] is similar to that in major countries such as America, Britain, Europe, Japan, and Russia. This is because we are a people who consider girls' education a sacred matter and part of our Islamic creed, and not just a social or political obligation or a psychological need - though someone overseas who does not know the true situation in Jordan and who reads the wording of the news item [i.e., the White House announcement] cited above will think that Mrs. Michelle [Obama] is visiting a society that battles to keep girls ignorant and forbids their education. That is not the situation here.

"We say to the First Lady, in welcoming her: If you have a chance to become acquainted with the facts on the ground, outside of the organized program, you will see how advanced, progressive, open, cultured, and modern Jordanians are, and how they offer social opportunities to Jordanian women to achieve what women only achieve [elsewhere] in [countries like] America, Europe, Japan, and Russia. But some of the official policies in our country - and not social or tribal policies - are what prevent young Jordanian women from reaching global celebrity... Jordanian women of Mrs. Michelle's generation and older are among the best and most expert doctors, engineers, authors, poets, mothers, lawyers, judges, nurses, creative artists, scientists, and teachers. Many of them graduated from [universities] in Britain, America, Germany, Spain, France, Austria, and other countries of the civilized world, exactly like [Jordanian] men."

"There Are Jordanian Women From The Tribes Who Are Proficient In Four Or Five Languages... This Is Something That Western Women Have Not Achieved, Including Those Who Have Become Ministers Or First Ladies"

"There are Jordanian women from the tribes who are proficient in four or five languages, or even more. This is something that Western women have not achieved, including those who have become ministers or first ladies in their countries. Aside from Allah, our girls do not owe this to [anyone or] anything except the encouragement and support of their family members in the Jordanian tribes and to their own endeavors. As for the current generation, they have set out to study in Jordanian, Arab, Western, and Eastern universities in various specialties... just like the men and equal to them. In Jordan there is no tribal or social rejection of girls' education, whether in the country or overseas.

"If [Michelle Obama] were to visit any Jordanian house or Bedouin tent without prior notice, and if she were to ask about the daughters of the household, she would not find any of them [tending] the livestock or behind a plow, but only in the schools or universities, or [already possessing] a university [diploma] and unemployed. [She would find that] they speak English, and she would find the mother pursuing advanced studies together with the sons and daughters, or perhaps even with the grandchildren.

"She would find that the dark and unjust portrayal of us and of our daughters is nothing but an organized, unfair, and malicious [campaign], and it is an offense to the truth... We hope that our honored guest will not only encourage education [in Jordan] but also support it by supporting the schools in the Bedouin areas, the villages, and the remote areas, the mobile schools, and the schools on the outskirts of the cities, and by supplying them with the best of modern technology... I hope that the organizers of the First Lady's program give her a chance to meet brilliant representatives of the Jordanian tribal girls, who have advanced from the program to eradicate illiteracy up to B.A. studies in the university, but whom the directives of the [state] educational policy prevent from enrolling in M.A. and Ph.D. programs. It is only the official directives, and not the young women's relatives, that stand as an insurmountable obstacle before those women who desire higher education, under a pretext called the national examination and the high cost of study...

"As for the Jordanian tribes, everyone in them is eager to afford their daughters an education, but they suffer from the difficulty [posed by state] policy that resists the [logical] solution, which is to [provide] supplementary programs... in the courses of higher study, in addition to lowering the tuition fees...[3]

Journalist Basil Al-Rafay'a: The Percentage Of Girls Attending School In Jordan Is Higher Than That Of Boys, But "Our Curricula Still Promote Chauvinism" And "The Laws Still Treat Them As Half-Human"

A similar note was sounded by the Jordanian journalist Basil Al-Rafay'a in an article for the Ammon news website, though, while noting the legal-institutional difficulties he also voiced criticism of the social and cultural environment and its impact on the quality of education for both sexes:

"Welcome to the American First Lady Michelle Obama, who is coming as an esteemed guest to a country that is a friend of her own country, and to a people the majority of whom dream of an entry visa to the United States. Welcome, as you proceed with your Let Girls Learn initiative.

"If what you meant [by this slogan] is girls' enrollment in schools, colleges, and universities, I want to reassure you that the percentage of our girls on the school benches is greater than that of our boys, in accordance with the national strategy for women's affairs. But if you are looking into the quality of the education that Jordanians of both genders receive... we are prepared to give you a lesson [on that], from the beginning, in your honored presence. [We will show you that] our curricula still promote chauvinism, closed-mindedness, and rejection of the other. Our girls still learn [early Arab and Islamic] history and dream of reviving its glories. They know more about Al-Khansa'[4] and Khawla Bint Al-Azwar[5] than you imagine.

"If you come to our country to learn more about [the state] of young women's freedom and the development of their personalities as shaped by national education, I will tell you that young women grow up in their houses, schools, and universities living under various forms of cultural and societal coercion. The laws are not just to them, and still treat them as half-human, violate their rights, and do not protect them from discrimination... The generation that is still in high school committed to memory years ago the golden principle regarding a woman's status in the family: Mom cooks, and Dad reads the paper...

"I do not want to spoil your visit. I will not include here a link to the 2010 Jordanian Personal Status Law, which was written by an individual who died in the year 767 C.E.[6]

"I am very glad you are coming. You will draw the attention of donor countries to [the need] to offer Jordan financial support for the provision of education to the children of the Syrian refugees, and this is a great and noble commission... I wish you a good stay in our country, with its Mediterranean climate. And don't worry about your 'together towards a healthy diet' initiative. Have a mansaf [a traditional Jordanian lamb and yogurt dish] at any of the schools you visit. Forget about the cholesterol, enjoy the different flavors and the variety of aromas. For we too believe in difference and diversity - when it comes to mansaf."[7]  




[2], November 6, 2015.

[3], November 3, 2015.

[4] Al-Khansa Bint 'Amr was a poet in pre-Islamic times who converted to Islam during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. She is considered the "Mother of Martyrs" since, after her four children died in one of the battles of early Islam, she did not mourn them but rather thanked Allah for "honoring her with their deaths."

[5] Khawla Bint Al-Azwar was a female poet and warrior from the Prophet Muhammad's generation who according to some sources participated in the conquest of Syria and who was noted for her martial valor.

[6] The reference is presumably to the famous Islamic jurisprudent Abu Hanifa, eponym of the Hanafi school of law.

[7], November 4, 2015.

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