Lina Attel understands the power stories have to bring about social change – she’s being doing it for over 20 years. As the director and founder of the National Centre for Culture and Arts (NCCA) in Jordan, initiatives spearheaded by Attel have confronted Jordanian youth with issues such as gender based violence, early marriages, reproductive health, human rights and even the plight of Syrian refugees. Attel introduced the idea of Theater in Education to Jordan, an educational process that uses theater and drama as tools for debate and conversation on social issues.
With plays and peformances given to approximately 20 thousand people per year, the NCCA is clearly a voice to be reckoned with in Jordan. Their loudest detractors, Attel says, are radical religious groups in Jordan who consider their pro-human rights approach and cultural work haram, or sinful. Rather than seeing such groups as an obstacle, Attel states “they make us word harder.” Her work, among other things, involves gently introducing a more progressive, open-minded form of Islam to Jordan’s young people.
“Our objective is to present the other narrative about Islam and about our culture and tradition, to negate what they [radical religious groups] are promoting. And I would say that we have been successful, because people are – especially people who are not well exposed – once they hear the other narrative, which is for their own good, we kind of touch on their way of thinking and change their perceptions slightly at times – and at other times, completely,” Attel says.
Attel describes one NCCA training, in which a Jordanian university student approached her and argued that according to Islam, men are expected to dominate in their families. In response, Attel invited two religious leaders – one Christian, the other Muslim – to give a talk to 160 university students on the topic of women’s equality.
“The Muslim sheikh said there is no such thing, he highlighted the values in Islam and the Koran that treats men and women equally. So sometimes you are challenged when people come to you with religious beliefs that you know as an educated person aren’t true. They have been promoted by fanatics but unfortunately get adopted by people. So now it’s like a mission for us, every time there’s something like that we bring in a religious leader, even though we’re working in the arts and using the arts as a tool. We think religious leaders have a role to play in negating these negative and untrue values,” Attel says.
When discussing the challenges faced by women in Jordan, I can’t help but feel glaring similarities to Kosovo: Only around 14% of Jordanian women participate in the workforce, compared to around 20% of women in Kosovo. Women have struggles inheriting in Jordan, similar to Kosovo. The biggest obstacles to women entering the workforce in Jordan, Attel explains, are location, transportation, childcare and of course, conservative attitudes to women working outside of the home.
“We have good laws, but people don’t abide by them…We’re trying to tell women that it’s extremely important for you to work…it’s good for you as an independent human being so no one can demean you or use you because you’re not working,” she says. “Which brings us to poverty, unemployment is a huge challenge and in Jordan with the Syrian refugees also…we have less employment, the economic situation is really deteriorating, because we’re not getting enough aid from concerned organizations to support …With poverty religious extremism has a fertile ground to grow.”
It seems obvious that there are lessons to be learned from how Kosovar and Jordanian women handle very similar sets of problems. When it comes to the issue of representation, Attel is adamant in trying to challenge the problematic and “othering” ways Muslim women are portrayed by the West. This is one of the issues she wants to bring forth during her Femart masterclass.
“I would like to alleviate the stereotyped image of Arab women, and for people to know that in Jordan and other Arab countries women are creative, talented, and hardworking. They are making a difference in laws and in changing things for a better quality of life for all. And [I want to show] that Muslims aren’t all the same and that Islam is a good religion, if you interpret it in accordance with human rights. It’s been hijacked unfortunately. I would like them [the masterclass participants] to go with the feeling, especially women, Muslim women here, that Muslim women are great in the world. We can make a difference and we have a higher responsibility, now more than ever, to show the world that the East – you’re part of Europe so you’re OK – but us as part of the Middle East that is full of conflict and war, that there is hope in the future. Especially since the majority of our population is young, there is hope to revisit our religion and our culture,” Attel says.
Our conversation continues after I’ve stopped recording, with questions such as that of whether the hijab can ever really be simply an issue of personal choice, the prejudices placed upon countries labeled as Muslim, and the ways class and sexism intersect. This conversation will most likely continue, as Attel mentions the possibility of coproductions in the future in Kosovo. “We’re so similar, and yet we don’t know about each other,” she says.