Jordan’s women plumbers fix pipes as men leave puddles

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Trainee plumbers fix a sink in a program run by German Development Agency GIZ. (GIZ photo)
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Israa Ababneh, 27, is one of a growing number of women in Jordan taking up plumbing. (An photo by Olivia Cuthbert)
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A plumber trained by German Development Agency GIZ is busy at work.
Updated 14 September 2017

Jordan’s women plumbers fix pipes as men leave puddles

LONDON: Israa Ababneh was skeptical when her uncle signed her up for a plumbing course at a vocational center in North Jordan.
“At first I thought what am I doing here? It’s just for men and it’s hard.”
But she stuck it out for three days and mastered the basics before moving onto practical skills.
“That’s when we started to have fun, learning how to cut iron pipes, connect them and fix leakages behind a wall.”
The 27-year-old is one of a growing number of women taking up plumbing in Jordan, raising eyebrows in local communities where social norms prevent many women from working, particularly in roles traditionally occupied by men.
Some 81 percent of women in Jordan are unemployed, according to a report by UNHCR.
The country ranks 134th out of 142 in terms of women’s economic contribution, according to a 2016 study by the Jordan Strategy Forum.
At first, Ababneh and the other female plumbers she works with found these patriarchal attitudes prohibitive — particularly when people refused them work because they were women.
“They used to laugh and say we couldn’t do it. It was like a challenge.”
Now, she said, clients call specifically seeking female plumbers.
“A man just mends the faucet and leaves a mess but when a woman does it she fixes the problem and leaves it clean.”
Women plumbers can also gain access that is off limits to men, carrying out work in households where male family members are not present.
This means leaks can be fixed faster with less water lost – a big benefit for a country where water availability is among the lowest in the world.
Jordan has an annual water supply of just 150 cubic meters per person, well below the official UN threshold for “absolute scarcity” set at 500 cubic meters.
“Water is a highly sensitive issue in Jordan,” said Bjorn Zimprich, project manager at German Development Agency GIZ, which initiated the Water Wise Women’s Initiative to train female plumbers in the country.
“There have been a lot of awareness campaigns and people know that water is scarce but with regards to behavioral impact there is limited impact.”
Most Jordanian households subsist on just one water tank a week so fixing a burst pipe quickly can make all the difference for families dependent on limited supplies.
With between 40 and 50 percent of Jordan’s water lost through its aging distribution network, due in large part to leakages and theft, there is an urgent need for more efficient maintenance.
Conservation is a key concern on the training program, which aims to raise awareness surrounding water scarcity among local and refugee communities across Jordan.
“People from Syria, Iraq and Palestine are all living in this country and sharing the water,” said Ababneh, pointing to the additional pressure on Jordan’s limited resources created by a refugee crisis.
“We go into schools and tell them how to stop leakages and advise households on using water-saving devices,” says Ababneh, who is now part of a professional female plumbing cooperative.
The women work in pairs, with different teams responding to calls around the country.
Plumber Ala Abu Heja, 32, hopes that this could help pave the way for more diversity in Jordan’s labor force.
“Before, a female plumber is not something people here would accept.
Now we’re seeing some females working in electricity, plumbing and mechanics so these initiatives will influence the entrance of women into other occupations traditionally dominated by men.”
More than 160 women have now graduated from the program, which runs separate sessions for male trainees.
Nargis Al-Mahmoud, 23, arrived in Jordan in 2013 after bombs destroyed her home in Dar’aa, Syria. With little means of generating an income in Jordan, her husband signed up for the course.
“He was really struggling to understand the theoretical part but reading his notebook one time I said, are you kidding? This is something I can do.”
The daughter of a handyman, Al-Mahmoud already knew her way around a toolbox and she enrolled in the program, eager to pursue a career in plumbing. “The first time I went to a house they started to make fun of me and I ran out crying. It was really bad. I told my husband and he said just stay at home, we don’t need this.
But Al-Mahmoud was determined to put her new skills to use. “I didn’t do all this training just to sit at home,” she said. After fixing a few things for free to showcase her skills, Al-Mahmoud’s client base began to grow and she is now working alongside her husband to expand their budding family business.
For Abu Heja, the opportunity to earn and contribute to the household budget has had a personal as well as a financial impact. “I now have a source of income and a greater sense of self-respect,” she said, a feeling shared by many graduates of the program. “In the past, we felt shy and restricted, but now we’re working, we feel we can go wherever we like and do what we want. It’s really built our confidence in a way that we never thought it would.”


Camel herding in Western Sahara a passion with pedigree

Updated 21 November 2019

Camel herding in Western Sahara a passion with pedigree

  • In the Western Sahara, a local adage holds that he who has no camel, has nothing
  • "Camels can endure everything: sun, wind, sand and lack of water, and if they could talk, you’d easily hear how intelligent they are,” says herder

DAKHLA, Western Sahara: In the Oued Eddahab desert in Western Sahara, Habiboullah Dlimi raises dairy and racing camels just like his ancestors used to — but with a little help from modern technology.
His animals roam free in the desert and are milked as camels always have been, by hand, at dawn and dusk.
When camels “feed on wild plants and walk all day, the milk is much better,” said the 59-year-old herder, rhapsodizing about the benefits of the nutrient-rich drink, known as the “source of life” for nomads.
But Dlimi no longer lives with his flock.
He lives in town with his family. His camels are watched over by hired herders and Dlimi follows GPS coordinates across the desert in a 4X4 vehicle to reach them.
He is reticent when asked about the size of his herd. “That would bring bad luck,” he said.
He prefers to speak of the gentleness and friendliness of the animals he knows like his own children.
“Camels can endure everything: sun, wind, sand and lack of water, and if they could talk, you’d easily hear how intelligent they are,” he said.

A camel is silhouetted against the sunset in the desert near Dakhla in Morocco-administered Western Sahara, on Oct. 13, 2019. (AFP / FADEL SENNA)


"The desert knows me"
Dlimi comes from a long line of desert dwellers from the Ouled Dlimi tribe.
As tradition dictates, he lists his ancestors going back five generations when introducing himself.
“I know the desert and the desert knows me,” he said.
Like elsewhere, the nomads of Western Sahara are settling, following a shift from rural to urban living.
“Young people prefer to stay in town,” Dlimi said, and herders now mostly come from neighboring Mauritania, whose desert north is traversed by caravans of up to a thousand camels.
Even they “often demand to work in areas covered by (mobile phone) network signal,” he added.
The population of the nearby town of Dakhla has tripled to 100,000 in 20 years, with growth driven by fishing, tourism and greenhouse farming encouraged by Morocco.
In this part of Western Sahara, development projects depend entirely on Rabat.
Morocco has controlled 80 percent of the former Spanish colony since the 1970s and wants to maintain it as an autonomous territory under its sovereignty.
The Polisario Front movement fought a war for independence from 1975 to 1991 and wants a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara choose between independence and integration with Morocco.
The United Nations has been trying to negotiate a political compromise for decades.
Like many in his tribe, Dlimi has family members on the other side of the Western Sahara Wall separating the Moroccan controlled areas from the Polisario controlled areas.
He favors loyalty to Morocco while others back independence, he said.
Tribal affiliation trumps politics, though.
“Tribes are tribes, it’s a social organization,” he said. “There are very strong links between us.”
To “preserve the past for the future,” Dlimi started a cultural association to conserve traditions from a time when there were no borders and “families followed the herds and the clouds.”

A camel herder guides his flock in the desert near Dakhla in Morocco-administered Western Sahara on Oct. 13, 2019. (AFP / FADEL SENNA)


The irony
While Dlimi loves the desert, he does have one complaint: “The camel dairy industry is valued everywhere in the world except here.”
Camel milk is trendy with health-conscious consumers and the lean meat is excellent, Dlimi claims.
Today though, it is small livestock farming that is the main agricultural focus, in response to what non-nomadic Moroccans tend to eat.
The 266,000 square kilometers (106,400 square miles) of Western Sahara under Moroccan control hosts some 6,000 herders, 105,000 camels, and 560,000 sheep and goats, according to figures from Rabat.
In other arid countries, including Saudi Arabia, intensive farming of camels has taken off.
But, while Moroccan authorities have undertaken several studies into developing Western Sahara’s camel industry, these have not so far been acted upon.
Regardless, a local adage holds that he who has no camel, has nothing.
“Some say that Saharans are crazy because when they have money they spend it on four feet,” Dlimi jokes.
For him, 20,000 dirhams ($2,000) spent on a camel is a safe investment.
But it is also a consuming passion.
His Facebook page and WhatsApp messages are filled with talk of camel husbandry techniques, research and racing.
Racing “is a pleasure and it pays,” Dlimi said.
Since the United Arab Emirates funded construction of a camel racing track at Tantan, 900 kilometers (560 miles) to the north, racing animals have appreciated in value and can sell for up to 120,000 dirhams, according to Dlimi.
To train his racing camels, Dlimi chases the young animals across the desert in his 4X4.
The technique has made him an eight-time champion in national competitions, he said.
But camels can be stubborn, Dlimi stressed, telling of how he once sold his best champion for a “very good price,” but the animal refused to race once it had changed hands.