In 1997, the U.S. established several Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZ) in Jordan and Egypt, where labor-intensive production (such as textiles and garments), were manufactured for tax-free export to the U.S., under the condition that the financial operation involved an 8% Israeli input. This neo-liberal initiative, aimed at the normalization of Arab countries with Israel by way of the U.S.’s vision for a single economic zone stretching across the Middle East. Endorsed by Condolezza Rice, the Free Trade Agreement for the QIZ was widely promoted as a peace-making measure in the region.
The incentive to agree to this arrangement was regarded by the Jordanians as an opportunity for the creation of a lot of jobs. Yet the reality is that the majority of the workers in the QIZ were recruited by Asian manufacturers in China, Sri-Lanka and Bangladesh. Among the local workers, half come from Palestinian refugee camps located near the QIZs. The entanglement between the two extra-territorial spaces – refugee camp and free-trade zone – add a different layer to the symbolic significance of the QIZ. Recruited among the poorest and most marginalized segments of the population, the Palestinian refugees find themselves, ironically, tied into an economic agreement that normalizes the very relations that segregates them.
There is a gender dimension that further complicates the configuration. Most of the workers are women who have never been in the labor market before. It is their first introduction to the economic sphere and its social implications. They were suddenly exposed to a male boss and to other women from different milieus, and sometimes even from different cultures, as is the case in the factories where Asian workers are mixed with Jordanian women from villages and women from Palestinian refugee camps. They found themselves working side by side with Filipinas, whom, for instance, come to work in shorts and T-shirts during the summer months. Since most of the factories are producing garments and underwear, e.g. for the U.S. chain store Victoria’s Secret, women workers were also exposed to fashionable garments that awakened their self-consciousness about their appearance and social interaction with others. Wage-earning is also problematic for women in patriarchal family and social structures. These exposures were evidently experienced by women as stimulating, and earned suspicion amongst men. While local laborers could return to their families in villages and camps, migrant Asian workers often lived in closed and over-crowded container cities. Their working and living conditions were extremely precarious.
What follows is an interview with Oroub El-Abed, who conducted a field research funded by the Norwegian Fafo, (the Institute for Applied International Studies, Oslo) in the North of Jordan, in 2008. The study included interviews with women working in Al-Hassan Industrial Zone near Irbid who live in the Kufur Yuba town and Azmi El-Mufti (Al Husun) refugee camp.
Ursula Biemann: Your extensive gender study on the QIZ has been more than inspiring for my current video research on extra-territorial spaces in the Middle East, it has been absolutely fundamental for understanding the social transformation triggered by this massive industrial implantation. I would like to ask you some specific questions that have intrigued me all along. In a tribal Muslim society like Jordan, men and women don’t mix in the public sphere. How does the QIZ deal with the gender issue?
Oroub el Abed: The manufacturing industries tried indeed to accommodate the needs of women in order to attract them to the job opportunities in the QIZ. They offer a conservative and respectable work environment which complies to the social, cultural and religious limitations of women in this society. First and foremost, this requires segregated work spaces and means of transportation for men and women. From the beginning, factories made efforts to build trust with the parents and the community. In response to the serious concern about their daughters working in remote areas, out of sight, the factories often held day-visits for parents to learn more about the work environment, the employer and supervisors of the place where their daughters worked. Buses were mandated by factories’ management to only bring women. The same applies to women in the refugee camps: every morning, dozens of buses queue to pick-up women from the camp and drive them to the factories at the QIZs. Factory owners addressed the issue of distance and proximity by not only providing for gender segregated buses, but also by moving factories to the villages rather than moving the workers to the QIZ. Younis El-Omari factory was established in 2004 at the crossroad of several villages to be near peoples’ homes.
The concern for safeguarding the reputation of working women, created an environment of ‘women only’, where only few men have access (for machine maintenance) and always accompanied by supervisors. This segregation can be described as a “de-sexualisation” of work place communities, the sexual connotations of physical closeness between men and women is de-emphasized in an effort to defuse any threat on their reputation. On the other hand, there are rumors as well as true stories of women who have run away with men from the QIZ. A first contact usually happened at the bus station, during the bus ride, in the city centre or in front of the factory. They exchanged numbers and started arranging times to meet in the city during lunch break. A factory like Massira, that employs Jordanian women workers only, prevents women from going on a mid-day leave, unless they have a good reason.
Women workers felt that men were opposed to a mixed environment not only because of concern for women’s reputations but also, by extension, for the reputation of their entire family. It was a pretext to deploy male power, and their regime of control and domination. They vested ‘mixing’ with all the negative attributes possible, including shame, to deter women from working at the QIZ.
We have to recognize that for women at the QIZ, work represents a complex struggle between conforming to traditional gender roles and negotiating social and economic autonomy of wage-earning. It is economic necessity that pushes women into the labor force, but this shift had emancipatory side effects. It created opportunities for change and a break with traditional barriers.
UB: In what way do you see the situation of those women workers living in the Palestinian camps as particular in the overall constellation? After all the free trade agreement supposes a peace arrangement between Jordan, Israel and Palestine.
OA: The QIZ was at the beginning rejected and banned. The opposition, at the forefront was regarding the mixed-gender environment. But for the Palestinian camp dwellers it was not only the idea of working in a limited space where men and women mix, the problem was also working for an Israeli investment. In 2002, during the Second Intifada and the Israeli destruction of some camps and parts of cities in the West Bank, the families in the camp used to go out in the morning and prevent women from getting on the buses to go to work. It was a way to pressure the government of Israel through businessmen and investors who had stakes in Jordan, and have them lobby to stop the attacks against Palestinian cities. A worker from Al Husan camp described the irony of going to work in the morning at the factory, and come back in the afternoon to participate in protests around the camp in 2002. The feeling of guilt and the need to secure a living were in antagonism.
A Jordanian woman from the refugee camp of Azmi El-Mufti echoed these conflicted sentiments, so on the one hand, the dire living conditions, and the need to make money and find the environment that somehow complies to their cultural and financial needs; on the other hand, learning that she worked for an operation that has joint Israeli investment. When she first started to work at the QIZ, Bakhita received a lot of comments from people, that she was working for the “enemy”. She did not care much since these people could not support her with financial help, meanwhile the factory could!
Money and investment in lucrative businesses for both investors and workers are believed to be a successful tool for normalizing the relationship between Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians. However, Jon Leyne from BBC argued that work at the QIZ had done little to change attitudes in Jordan towards Israel. The peace process was simply privatized by implicating workers who depend on this income, into the political scheme. The conflict is thus faught out in the private sphere.
Montaser Oklah at the Jordanian Ministry of Industry and Trade in an online interview done by Jon Leyne for BBC news in April 2006 commented that, the QIZ is an excellent tool devised by the United States to privatize the peace process. But what he means by that is that it allows people from both sides – the Jordanians, the Israelis as well as the Palestinians – to have a sense of the peace process’s benefits. Because the manufacturing sector boosted exports, investment, and job opportunities in Jordan, he feels that the economic situation built a wall between people’s patriotism and their livelihood strategies.