ZARQA, Jordan (AP) — It is graduation day, and Maryam Mutlaq is celebrating her transformation from stay-at-home mom to licensed plumber.
The training took 18 months. Now, Mutlaq and her 29 course mates — all veiled, most middle-aged — take turns presenting a business plan at the March ceremony.
Mutlaq, 41, speaks with a clear, strong voice and stands out for her detailed vision. She will open a storefront plumbing business, she tells the other women. From there she plans to sell pipes and other spare parts, and book house calls. She's even picked out a name, Challenge, and a location in an up-and-coming neighborhood in this otherwise drab, impoverished city of more than 1 million people.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of profiles of Arab women fighting for change in different countries and areas of life.
It has been a challenge just to come this far in an ultra-conservative community where many women don't work outside the home at all. Even Mutlaq's children, who cheer her on from the audience today, fiercely opposed her choice at first. The coming months will determine if she can overcome the odds and turn her bold dream into a real-life business.
For now, in the afterglow of the graduation, she is brimming with optimism.
"We will break down the barriers that have been put up, that say we aren't capable of doing things as women," she says. "There is also a barrier of fear within us that has to be broken."
Mutlaq's choice of career is rare for the Arab world, where traditional gender roles make men the main breadwinners and confine most women to certain jobs — teachers, nurses, low-level government clerks. Five years ago, the Arab Spring brought the hope of more opportunities for women. Yet that promise has not panned out, analysts and activists say, and in some cases spreading violence has even led to a backlash.
The Arab region scores lowest in the world in the percentage of women who work outside the home— half the global average of about 50 percent. Jordan in turn scores far below the regional average for female labor force participation, with just over 14 percent.
If Mutlaq succeeds, she will join several dozen licensed women plumbers in the nation. But Zarqa is one of toughest places in Jordan, and perhaps even in the region, for women trying to tear down barriers.
This gritty industrial city has absorbed waves of war refugees over the decades, first Palestinians, then Iraqis, then about 150,000 Syrians. Each influx of desperate newcomers has kept unemployment high, now at more than 24 percent, or double the nation's official average. Zarqa's despair also makes it a breeding ground for fundamentalist or militant views of Islam, which offer little room for women in the workplace.
"Society is very conservative and is getting more and more conservative due to the general situation in the country and the region," says Zarqa Mayor Emad Momani. "We are far from seeing women in non-traditional jobs like plumbers or truck drivers."
Mutlaq got involved in 2014 in the plumbers' project, funded by the Millennium Challenge Corp., a U.S. government aid agency, to improve water delivery in Zarqa by preventing leakage. Jordan is one of the world's driest countries.
The project takes into account a traditional consideration: It would be easier for female plumbers to conduct home visits. Under strict rules of gender separation, a male plumber wouldn't be allowed to enter when a housewife is home alone, without a male relative as chaperone.
Recruitment was difficult, and Mutlaq was initially skeptical. But her husband Samir, who works in a flower shop, thought it was worth a try. He wanted her to have a life outside the family as the children were growing up. The family, struggling from month to month, could also use a second income.
Her four children didn't feel the same way. Sami, 19, feared that the neighbors would gossip. Lara, 12, was so embarrassed that she begged her mother to take off her green plumber's work vest during a parent-teacher meeting at school. Mutlaq kept it on to show her daughter that she's proud of herself.
Mutlaq discovered during training that she loved handling tools and fixing things. Even when she was off the clock, she started carrying a few tools in her gray purse, in case a neighbor or relative needed a bit of plumbing "first aid."
After a few months, she was assigned to a contractor and began going out on house calls as an assistant. She taught housewives to fix leaking pipes and clean water tanks on a regular basis. And she saw herself as a role model, especially for her daughters.
Her advice? "I always tell them a woman must challenge herself, but not exceed the red lines of society," she says.
By graduation day in March, Mutlaq's children have come around. Sami is glad his mother can contribute to the family finances. Fatmeh, 22, even joins the community outreach program for a few months.
After the ceremony, Mutlaq's family helps her carry to the car the day's biggest prize — a 40-piece professional plumbers' tool kit for each graduate. They drive to their small home on a dusty, potholed side street of Zarqa, where Lara excitedly unpacks the kit in the living room. She lays a drill, work gloves and wrenches on the floor.
Two weeks later, the kit takes pride of place on a table in the living room. This morning, Mutlaq is getting ready for work.
She tidies the kitchen, washes dishes and boils a small cup of strong Turkish coffee. Then she puts on her work clothes, pulling a baseball cap over her headscarf and the green vest over a loose, long-sleeved T-shirt and pants.
The day's assignment involves replacing faucets and installing water tanks in several schools. The first stop is Lara's school, which is run-down and overcrowded, with a shift for girls in the morning and boys in the afternoon.
Mutlaq works with a male plumber, Ibrahim Asmar. They head to the girls' toilets. Mutlaq takes charge, telling Asmar which part of the assignment she intends to do, and begins removing an old faucet above a sink.
Asmar praises her performance. He explains she's doing well on everything that doesn't require heavy lifting, such as hoisting water tanks onto rooftops. She can do 70 percent of the tasks expected of a plumber, he says.
He worked with women for the first time several years ago when his company partnered with a Russian firm that employed female plumbers. "They were great," he says.
Lara is eager to see her mother at the school in full work gear, embracing her in the hallway during break. She says she now likes everything about her mother's job, but especially the tools. She wants to work in Mutlaq's shop and take a salary.
But Mutlaq still faces plenty of criticism. Her oldest brother is a hold-out, telling his sister at family gatherings that she shouldn't be a plumber. There is also opposition in her neighborhood.
Preacher Akram al-Boureini, 61, standing outside the local mosque down the street from Mutlaq's house, says roles are clear in Islam: Men provide for the family and women stay at home and raise children.
Plumbing is "suitable only for men, not for women," he says. If women take over jobs intended for men, "we face unemployment and moral corruption."
However, economists say women like Mutlaq could be a life-saver for Jordan, which is buckling under the fallout from conflicts in neighboring Iraq and Syria.
The International Labor Organization calculates that Jordan's economy could grow by 5 percent, or almost $2 billion, if job opportunities were distributed more evenly between women and men. Across the region, equal opportunity would lead economies to grow by 47 percent over a decade, according to a 2015 study cited by the ILO.
"I think for policy makers, it is really time to recognize and value the work of women, to use the immense female talent available in the region," says Emanuela Pozzan, gender specialist at the regional office of the ILO.
It's the end of March. Today Mutlaq is talking to teachers and students about saving water and cleaning tanks. The project that gave her steady employment is winding down, and she is starting to worry about the future.
She has pinned all her hopes on getting a grant, calculating she will need at least 4,000 dinars ($5,700) to open her storefront plumbing business. "I'm scared that I will end up sitting at home," she says.
Mutlaq believes going into business is her only option, because contractors will prefer male plumbers and not hire her.
Small jobs for relatives and neighbors don't pay off. She can't charge much in her low-income neighborhood and is expected to give discounts to relatives. She has to take taxis to assignments, further cutting into profits, because she doesn't drive.
Back home, Mutlaq flips through her work book — a white notepad listing her recent jobs — to underscore the point. She has charged between 5 and 10 dinars ($7 to $14) per home visit, barely worth her time.
Such struggles are familiar to 53-year-old Khawla Sheikh, one of Jordan's first female plumbers. In 2004, with her children grown, Sheikh signed up for a U.S.-funded plumbing course. She earned her license and gained work experience by tagging along with male plumbers employed by her husband.
"So many people did not support me," she says. "The only ones were my husband and my family."
Since then, she has been teaching plumbing courses for women, along with working as a plumber. Sheikh formed a cooperative of 18 female plumbers last year to help women with difficulties like launching their own business with no car or start-up money. The women go on house calls in pairs, for safety, with Sheikh often driving and acting as mentor.
Women in the region who want to work are often deterred by lack of child care, low salaries and a gender pay gap of 28 percent in health care and close to 25 percent in education.
Setting up a business can be a way out, says Nawzat al-Qudsi, a senior executive at Jordan Ahli Bank, who heads a program that provides start-up funds, advice and loans to women entrepreneurs. A small group of female entrepreneurs and chief executives has emerged across the region.
"If a woman becomes independent financially, she will have a say at home, at work, and even in politics," al-Qudsi says. "Eventually, she will go to parliament and she will be able to change the laws."
In late May, Mutlaq is invited to a meeting for members of her plumber course, hosted by an international aid group. She is anxious. She calls Samira Smirat, her mentor in the program, almost daily to find out if she will receive a grant.
At the meeting, 12 women are handed checks of 300 dinars ($425) each. Mutlaq and the rest get nothing.
Two days later, speaking in her living room, Mutlaq looks both angry and dejected. Smirat is also shocked, because she expected Mutlaq to be among the top candidates for a grant.
"It was a big dream, but it's been destroyed," Mutlaq says.
She thinks of giving up plumbing and even selling her tool kit. Her husband is also bitter.
She spends a month at home, but by early July, she has bounced back. She applies for a grant from USAID, a U.S. government agency, and expects to hear back by the fall.
In the meantime, she's renting out some of her tools, doing small plumbing jobs and going on assignments with one of her brothers, also a plumber. He is proud of his sister.
Mutlaq says she hopes to encourage other women to get out of the house and break what she calls the culture of shame. Even though her business is not yet open, she says her journey so far has already been worthwhile.
"This was the chance of a lifetime," she says. "The way I look at life has changed. The way I look at myself has changed, too."
Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Khetam Malkawi in Amman, Jordan, contributed reporting.