Walks of Life: Eight Women in Jordan

By Ronay, Vivian | The World and I, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Walks of Life: Eight Women in Jordan


Ronay, Vivian, The World and I


Vivian Ronay is a freelance photojournalist based in Washington, D.C.

When a photojournalist follows a story, particularly in a city not her own, she often travels within the bubble of a specialized topic of interest. And so it has happened with my many visits to Jordan in pursuit of the ongoing changes in the Bedul Bedouin's transitions to modern life in Petra. My visit in the spring of 2003 also brought me to Amman. There I attempted to explore life in a modern Arab city, particularly as it is experienced by professional women of various ages and walks of life.

I will profile the women according to approximate stages in their lives. What became apparent as I searched for professional women is that there are few average, middle-class families in Amman. This story took me to the upper classes of Amman's society, because that is where the professional women of all ages are situated.

Maysam Ibrahim Bisharat is a 19-year-old fine arts student at Reading University in England. She drove us to a horse club where she trains for riding competitions. Maysam comes from an affluent, educated Christian Arab family; her mother studied in Italy and her father in California. English is spoken at home. She writes poetry in English and showed me her self-published book of poems and drawings. Walking down the street in any Western city, she, like all the women I met, would fit in easily. Maysam is a stylish and beautiful young woman who started riding when she was seven. She has traveled with the Jordanian national team as well as on her own for competitions. She says she paints, plays the piano, and is a salsa dancer. She has been dancing for five years and considers her ability to be of professional standard.

Maysam told me how important it is to understand different cultures as well as "our own history." She mentioned how attached she was to "our king." Because Arabic poetry and literature are well known, she is contemplating changing her major from fine arts to creative writing and coming to the United States to study. She is also starting to write poetry in Arabic, which she says is much harder for her than in English.

A successful journalist

Mahasen al-Eman is the classic, cigarette-smoking newspaper editor from central casting. She has been a journalist for twenty-seven years and in 1994 was the first woman to become chief editor for the weekly Al Belad newspaper. Born in Jerusalem and educated in Pakistan, she is married to a retired Jordanian army officer. She has two daughters. Women in the Arab world keep their own last names, but Mahasen has taken her husband's name to honor his support for her professional life.

In the beginning of her career, she says, it was very difficult for her. There was a great deal of jealousy from her male colleagues. In the news business in the United States, American women were rising through the ranks and encountering similar difficulties. In the United States, however, women had the federal government's muscle and antidiscrimination laws in place. Perhaps the globalization of Western culture has made the path of women who have followed in Mahasen's footsteps ultimately easier.

In 1999 Mahasen left her position at the weekly and started the Arab Women's Media Center to help train Jordanian women for journalism careers. Her privately owned and operated center is located in central Amman and also has a Web site. She leads workshops all over Jordan because her effort is to educate young women for professional life. To pursue a journalistic career in Jordan one has to know computer skills, and therefore they are taught to women in her center.

She is working hard to foster democracy through the free press. She says that the government controls the press in Jordan. I asked Mahasen about access to the Internet, which is seemingly very open, and she explained that the elite do have free access; they are not a threat to the government. …

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