Jordan’s leading ladies
by Sasha Wood | 31 October 2019
At first the local community was sceptical to say the least… “They said ‘I won’t let my daughter go to this garbage’,” says Iraq Al’Amir Women’s Cooperative’s founding member Yusra Al-Hussami on the difficulties of setting up a women’s cooperative in Jordan 25 years ago.
I’m sitting in the cooperative’s stone Ottoman courtyard sipping potent cardamom coffee from a tiny cup, and Yusra has just joined me for a chat after serving up an incredible lunch of Middle Eastern meze and biryani-style chicken for 30 people.
She tells me that the farming village near the mysterious ancient site of Qasr Al-Abd, around 20k southwest of the capital Amman, was struggling to survive when they struck upon the idea of setting up a business offering local hospitality to visitors. But traditionally men and women don’t work together in Jordan, and women’s place is seen as being in the home.
“Now they are begging for jobs,” says Yusra, who leads a group of women and girls utilizing and learning different skills and crafts at the cooperative including cookery, ceramics, paper-craft, textiles and even soap-making. The open workshops turn out a myriad of artisanal products, including gorgeous glazed dishes made from Italian clay, hand-made cards and finely-woven scarves and rugs.
Hospitality and heritage
The cooperative has a ready-made market in the tourists that are drawn to the palm-studded valley by the remains of a 2000-year-old Hellenistic temple. It was once surrounded by a fountain fed by a local spring, and you can still see the stone-carved big cats – leopards and lions – with jaws that once acted as spouts. It is also among 44 places on the Jordan Trail that integrates local communities into tourism.
With the support of the Queen Noor Foundation (also known as the Noor Al Hussein Foundation), which has done much good work in Jordan thanks to the legacy of former Queen Noor, the ladies opened the co-operative in 1995 and since then it’s gone from strength to strength. By 2001 it had become self sustainable and fully independent, and now has 15 full-time staff alongside trainees.
The foundation purchased a heritage Ottoman farm for renovation which the ladies transformed into a visitor centre of terraces, kitchens and workshops, where they learned ancestral skills such as pottery-making and began training girls to take up roles within the cooperative.
Yusra says Queen Noor has visited the co-operative three times since it opened, and Jordan’s minister for tourism granted them £30,000 to upgrade the kitchens so they could obtain a license to serve food in 2008. Business has really picked up since, with the delicious dishes made with fresh local ingredients from the co-operative’s allotment drawing in hungry travellers as well as locals.
Visitors can now bed down for the night too, at the heritage guesthouse opened within one of the restored traditional Ottoman dwellings.
Now the inspiring ladies of Iraq Al’Amir are leading the way in responsible tourism, creating an enriching and uplifting experience for travellers who want to learn more about local life and support initiatives that are helping communities to blossom.
As well as providing a healthy livelihood for the ladies, Yusra says it has changed relationships between men and women in the community. “Men respect women more and we have more freedoms,” she says. Women are still not allowed to own a house, but with the money from the cooperative she now owns a bakery instead.
There’s also more money for the villagers’ children to go to school, and some can even afford to go to university now. In fact, the project has been so successful that it’s been used as a role model for other organisations.
Yusra says her dream is to buy the cooperative outright and expand the guesthouse within one of the restored Ottoman buildings. “We are dreaming of a bright future,” she says with a wide smile.
Make travel matter
Empowering the local community and simultaneously transcending social boundaries, the cooperative proves tourism can be a force for good.
I visited the cooperative on an Insight Vacations tour as part of the Make Travel Matter initiative from the TreadRight Foundation. The charitable foundation is one of the Travel Corporation’s group of companies that includes Insight Vacations.
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