As the Arab Spring slides into what Goulding (2011) suggested could be a ‘Feminist Fall’, the Arab Middle East continues to be characterised by social uprisings and political instability, speculation about future ownership of its boundless energy resources, and the overriding impression of a homogeneous people with a common culture initiating the next stage in its long and complex history. What is masked by this image, and rarely discussed, is an unsettled reality of long-term, multi-generational displacement that is shared by millions of adults and children of various origins living as refugees or ‘displaced persons’ in the wider Middle East.
In my view, one consequence of the Arab Spring has been to further exclude such marginalised groups. By focusing on unifying mainstream populations, both reformists and the political establishments they challenge have contributed to pushing the agendas of the region’s long-term displaced even further into the wings. In particular, women in these populations who are already confined within the boundaries of their homes have become more invisible, since they are already socially, economically and politically excluded from the mainstream in their host societies.
While entrepreneurship as a catalyst for social change has been widely discussed, this has rarely been within the Arab context. To this extent, my research has concentrated on displaced Palestinian women residing in the poor suburbs of East Amman - Jordan, who are tackling their social exclusion and desperate poverty by establishing informal, unregistered enterprises within the boundaries of their homes. In doing so, I have focused on understanding the relationship between empowerment and women’s home-based entrepreneurship, as well as the impact that such activity has on the families and communities in which they operate.
The home-based enterprises of the 43 women in my study engaged in the production of hand-made, traditional Palestinian embroidery, which has become an icon of Palestinian-ness (MIFTAH, 2003); one participant said, ‘The buyers of these products feel very good when they make their purchases because they think they are keeping the Palestinian heritage alive; they don’t realise how much they are helping us and our families here’. The participants were acutely aware of the precariousness of their socio-political status as well as their vulnerability as displaced persons.
For the home-based women entrepreneurs in my study, the momentous wave of the Arab Spring has passed them by; they observe the demonstrations that occur in Jordan and other places in the Middle East but they do not participate because ‘there is no place for us on either side’ says Maha – 47 year old participant. Riham – another participant, aged 38 added, ‘The authorities have always ignored us, but nobody else cares about us either. Do you hear any of the current leaders in the Arab world talking about the Palestinians stranded like us?’
Yet within the confines of the domestic setting, these women are fighters for social change. Dalal, was 8 years old when her family fled to Amman in 1968. Although she had attended school before arriving in Amman, she was unable to continue, because she had to look after her six younger siblings while her father worked as a gardener and her mother as a cleaner in an affluent Jordanian household in the suburbs. She remembered those early years as a time of ‘insecurity, fear and sadness, as well as anxiety and impatience to go home. We really believed that the situation would calm down and we’d return within weeks or months. But here we are: still here’.
Her life changed dramatically when her neighbour in the refugee camp, Umm Maher, taught her embroidery so she could contribute to Umm Maher’s micro-business. By the time she was 18, Dalal was adamant about securing paying clients of her own; ‘This was not an easy task for an 18-year old girl who had never left the boundaries of the refugee camp on her own’, said Dalal ‘but I had to do it, and there were so many young women embroidering at home, like me. I had to do it for all of us. We did not want to work like our mothers as cleaners or cooks or laundry women. I had to find a solution.’
Dalal sought and, obtained the support of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for marketing her embroidery products in 1970, but her parents became worried about their daughter’s independence and ‘decided to get me married quickly’. Fortunately, says Dalal, the man they chose worked as a truck driver and was away from home a great deal; when he was there, said Dalal, ‘he spent most of his time sleeping and showed very little interest in my embroidery. He didn’t ask, and I didn’t say’. She got a contract from a woman-owned small firm in central Amman, and since 1975, Dalal’s business grew to such an extent that she has been subcontracting other women in the camp while managing her household and five children.
‘We came here as refugees’, continued Dalal, with a pragmatism born from decades of hard struggle, ‘but I know we’re not going back. My children were born here, and this is the only home they know. I want them to belong here, but also to be proud of their heritage. My business is all about that heritage. When my customers buy one of my products, they’re also taking a piece of me – of who I am.’ What her customers do not know, is that Dalal invests at least 15 per cent of her annual profits into her local community which has been abandoned by international and national agencies.
Whatever the political reverberations of the Arab Spring in Jordan, and the political turmoil in the region, the traditional embroidery sector continues to be profitable. Thus far, through their home-based enterprises, these women have created unique pathways for social change while they remain on the outermost margins of any potential for political change afforded by the Arab Spring. While it appears there is no place for them on either side, and despite their invisibility, their impact on their local communities and beyond, is unquestionable.
Haya Al-Dajani, Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia