Feminism in Jordan: The Activism of Layla Naffa

Growing up in an educated, progressive and open-minded household in Amman, the Capital of Jordan, Ms. Naffa describes her upbringing as “enlightened”. With equality supporting parents, she was given the same educational opportunities as her brothers. Her family supported her right to higher education even when women at the time were not expected to finish middle school. This environment has therefore heavily influenced her political awareness, as she was also further inspired by the activism of her older sister, Emily Naffa, and another well-known activist, Emily Bisharat, who in 1954 together had presented a list of demands to the Jordanian Government that was for women rights in general, with a great focus on the right to vote. This kind of freedom was not seen among her peers at the time, as it was not common for women to be involved in political, societal or unionist work and she did not take those freedoms for granted, but used them to their full extent. She participated in rallies, engaged in educating others, and worked on a long activism path that led her to her position as “Director of Programmes at the Arab Women Organization”.

Describing herself as a “Political and Feminist Activist”, Ms. Naffa finds that her education was a key factor in putting her on the first step in societal work. She studied English at a very young age, giving her a great command of the language as well as widening her view of the world. She remembers vividly acting in Shakespearian plays, studying the Renaissance and the age of Enlightenment. Getting a Bachelor in English Literature allowed her to expand her horizons further by introducing her to the international scene, where women’s rights were more deeply recognised. This has also enabled her to follow in the footsteps of other women’s rights champions such as the previously mentioned Emily Bisharat and Emily Naffa by getting into proper political activism through attending university, which also came with its own risks. Close to her graduation, she was almost expelled for her work but was saved at the last moment by the Dean of the University of Jordan. These impediments never slowed down her resolve, but even greatly increased her passion to achieve proper equality. And thanks to those who came before her, there was already a base that allowed her to further build upon.

Ms. Naffa finds her inspiration to wake up every day and continue working in her dream of being a part of the feminist movement in Jordan, achievable only by reaching every woman in the country. She, therefore, focuses mainly on working with women in the countryside and rural areas, who have less opportunities than the ones who live in major cities. To the women of Jordan, she says “I call upon women of Jordan to support the struggle for gender equality and women’s rights to push forward for better conditions in equal pay, social protection and reaching decision making positions. We need young women to join the struggle as we are facing more difficult times due to the rise of the extreme Islamists who are pulling us back to the times of suppression of women, in particular.”

Speaking about bringing Jordan into the new age, she firmly believes in women economic empowerment. “The participation of women in the job market has greatly contributed to its advancement and growth”. Considering that the percentage of women of all educated people in Jordan is 52% compared to that of men which is 48%, she firmly believes that achieving equality in the Job market is also possible. By developing the countryside and the farming communities in Jordan, she gives the people there the opportunity to become self-reliant and completely independent. She proudly talks about the social work of the Arab Women Organisation “AWO” “We give trainings all around the country, with a special focus on the more rural areas. Working with young women and showing them their true potential is very rewarding. We are working with schools as well to educate the newer generations and build what has been coined by the United Nations (Generation Equality) to hopefully reach a day when women would be completely incorporated into society and gender discrimination no longer exists”. She is also happy about the participation of a lot of men in this journey and to them she says: “I call upon men in Jordan to support the emancipation process of women to enable them to better participate in the political, economic and social development for the benefit of all.”

Throughout the history of Jordan, huge milestones have been reached in regards to women’s rights, including but not limited to: the right to vote, the right to be represented in local municipalities, the right to be represented in the parliament, equal opportunities in education and equal pay between men and women doing the same job. However, Ms. Naffa sees that progress has slowed down and a lot of work lies ahead. Yet, hope for a brighter future for women in Jordan is not completely dissipated, as she can clearly witness the positive change society is going through. “Our next step is to give women the right to pass their citizenship to their children”. Even with a lot of bureaucratic hindrance, she believes this goal is achievable. Although the next step might seem high and difficult, it is not impossible. She ended our interview on a positive and hopeful note, with a message to the decision makers in Jordan “We need to create a dialogue between the policy makers in Jordan, women activists and leaders to overcome the barriers that are standing in the way of progress related to gender equality and women’s rights.”

Writer’s note: A great thank you goes to Ms. Naffa for the time she has given me for this wonderful interview. And special thanks go to Ms. Enaya Goussous from the Arab Women Organisation for her help in facilitating this interview.

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