By Suzanna Goussous
Jordan Times, Amman.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Beautiful article on the strength and courage of a woman in the middle east who had to fight gender stereotypes in her quest to support her family after her husband left. While Um Mohammad may not have set out to be one of the millions of women in business worldwide, she is a shining example of what can result from the economic empowerment of women.
As a woman living in one of Jordan’s oldest cities, where people still hold on to the traditional image of women, Um Mohammad has broken the stereotypes and challenged social norms to reach her goal.
Born in September 1968, Fatima Zou’bi, who prefers to be called Um Mohammad Amayreh, said she started her project as a host for tourists when her children were young.
After over 30 years of marriage, Um Mohammad’s husband left his family, leaving her with five children between the age of 7 and 12 and no money on the table.
Um Mohammad, who got married at a young age just like most of the women in Salt and left school after the seventh grade, became the sole bread winner.
“I started writing my life story in an open book; I didn’t close it, because if you close it, there must be something wrong. I challenged social norms and struggled until I accomplished my goal,” she told The Jordan Times in a recent interview.
“At first, I referred to myself as Fatima Zou’bi, but then, I didn’t want to separate myself and my story from my sons, so I started introducing myself as Um Mohammad Amayreh — this project is for me and my children.”
Before she started to host tourist groups for lunch, Um Mohammad tried approaching associations and organizations to receive financial aid, but she was told she “doesn’t look like a woman who needs aid”.
The Salt resident then started selling traditional dishes by delivering them to her neighbours and relatives.
“Starting from my small circle was the secret to my success. I said I have to make it; I didn’t have another choice. I started taking orders and cooking for houses. I refused to work in other people’s houses, and I worked from mine.”
She added: “My house is my kingdom while I’m working. It is the place that has helped me survive and build a life when I was left with scattered thoughts.”
Um Mohammad said her career in tourism started when one day, two young girls working with tourists came to visit her and said: “Um Mohammad, you have a treasure in your house… It is your own hands.”
They suggested that she should start hosting tourists for lunch when they visit sites in Salt.
“I went home and told my sons about the project. They didn’t accept it at first, since we live in an area where people are not used to seeing women working and receiving strangers in their houses.”
But Um Mohammad told her children she wants to go beyond the limitations imposed on women, “so they can one day tell my success story and say that I sacrificed for my children after their father left them”.
When she hosted the first tourist group for lunch in 2012, Um Mohammad told her neighbours, so they can “see for themselves”, enabling her to “move forward without limitations”.
“After hosting the group, my son approached me and said, ‘Mom, this is the first and last group’. I said: ‘No, Tareq, it is the first, but no one knows when the last one would be’.”
Two days later, another group visited her house. She cooked traditional Jordanian food for them and since then, tourist groups have been visiting her house as part of the schedule of their trips to Salt, some 35km northwest of Amman.
Um Mohammad has so far received Japanese, French, American, Chinese, Mexican, Arab, and even Jordanian tourists.
“No matter what your circumstances are, don’t ever sit there crying about your present and ask for help… Work. A hand that doesn’t work doesn’t deserve any positive outcome,” she said.
She is currently working with the Salt Revival Organisation to host tourists.
“I started from scratch. I had nothing left for my children. But now, I have refurnished my house and I held a wedding for my son.”
Um Mohammad has also enrolled one of her sons into university; he is now in his first year.
“I will keep fighting the idea of limiting a woman’s productivity because she is a woman; women are equal to men. She can work and continue her studies.”
She added that many women have become ministers, Parliament members, doctors, and engineers, noting that stay-at-home mothers can also achieve their dreams even if they didn’t have the chance to complete their education.
“The number of tourists visiting my house isn’t important. Even if they were only two and the income wasn’t high, what matters is that they visit my city,” the working mother said.
“What matters to me most is that they can see Salt — the coexistence between Muslims and Christians, that they are introduced to our culture, try our traditional food, and eventually get go back to their countries with good stories about us.”
Before any group arrives, Um Mohammad asks about the type of food they prefer and prepares traditional dishes accordingly.
She sometimes employs more people, including her sons, to help when hosting more than one group on the same day.
An investor has offered Um Mohammad to start a restaurant and host more tourists, but she refused. “I’m not a product to be sold. I have my own house and this is my territory.”
Um Mohammad, whose guests have included embassy officials, said her project aims to promote coexistence and acceptance of foreigners.
She has participated in festivals and open markets around the Kingdom to sell her homemade dishes and products.
“If your husband appears to be a bad person, don’t just sit there. Life is beautiful and you are responsible for your children. Don’t weep, be hopeful for tomorrow. Be thankful and life will repay you.”