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All-woman newspaper in Jordan powers social change in local communities

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Away from Amman, 25 women journalists and reporters work on a publication in Zarqa reporting on several issues under tight deadlines. Compared to Amman, Zarqa is more conservative, tied by cultural values that might hinder the work of women. However, the journalists of Hona Zarqa constitute a symphony with melodies breaking cultural barriers that would otherwise stop women in Zarqa from working in a field like media.

As I flip the pages of Hona Zarqa, I can't recognize the gender of the writers from the topics. With my Arabic, I can guess from the names that they are women. Indeed, the stories reported are not expected to be works of women in a city like Zarqa.

Going through history of journalism, the women's angle would mean more domestic family- or fashion-related topics. Therefore, what I read is not what I expected. News and investigative reporting occupy most of Hona Zarqa despite the limited resources. "I work in a women-only media outlet," says Kamla Abu Selha. "And we need support."

Although the publication is not identified as a feminist or women's rights one, its mission is women's empowerment through media. They hire only women, who most of the time, are not experienced journalists and have no media background.

Through training and work, they have become experienced and multi-tasking journalists: writing, photographing and even editing their own video and audio reports. I met the editor-in-chief and project manager, Etaf Roudan, and a number of Hona Zarqa's women journalists.

While the team is made of women who had no journalism background prior to joining Hona Zarqa, Roudan is an established journalist and reporter working at Al-Balad Radio in Amman that dedicates a time every week to the audio reports of Hona Zarqa’s team. Her passion for women empowerment has led her to take the leadership role in Hona Zarqa.

"I am sorry for being late," says Roudan who has picked me up after being lost while on my way to Al-Balad Radio. "I left my child sick." Juggling her work and family while struggling to keep Hona Zarqa working despite the limited resources, Roudan's smile reflects her determination.

The publication is meant to achieve three goals: empowerment, employment and arming the women with skills. She mentions that the training they receive gives them the opportunity to become effective citizen journalists. But they are far beyond citizen journalists. "If a woman writes an article and has a byline, she is going to be an influential figure in the society," says Roudan. "And this has been proven by the project."

Zarqa Governorate is the second-largest governorate by population in Jordan, Amman being the first. Like other places in the country, the diminishing gender gap in the education does not reflect the reality in the workforce. Unlike Amman, women in Zarqa face more challenges. At the time when the publication was established, it was uncommon to spot a woman from Zarqa working as a journalist or a reporter. Most of those who have chosen a media career left for Amman where the cultural and traditional barriers that stop women from taking such roles are less. This gives Hona Al-Zarqa another role: to break the barriers and gender role stereotypes in the society.

Convincing families of the journalists was not easy at the beginning. "I recall one of the fathers who was very reluctant to accept his daughter's choice to join the team," says Roudan. "He later said he is happy and proud of his daughter after reading her name on the published article." The piece that Roudan and the father refer to is about municipal politics and has a rippling effect in Zarqa.

Kamla Abu Selha is one of the freelance journalists working at Hona Zarqa.In addition to that, she works at Dhulail municipality. Dhulail is one of the towns of Zarqa. Roudan mentions to me that the two journalists in Dhulail have been successful in brining positive changes to their town due to their coverage of municipal politics that are related to providing services to the citizens. But reporting in a remote conservative town has its difficulties that are different from being at the city.

Abu Selha was introduced to Hona Zarqa through a workshop and later she got equipped with the skills that make her ready to be a journalist. "At the beginning, they [the community] portray women journalists in a bad way," says Abu Selha. "They used to tell me: 'you are a woman and journalist, that's bad. How can you pursue this career?'" However, the long-time activist Abu Selha, was not bothered by the stereotypes put by people. Her family supported her decision to be a journalist and now she sees the fruit of her determination. "They call me when there is an event and my stories get attention," says Abu Selha.

Abu Selha introduces me to other members of the team; every woman has a unique story behind her decision to be a journalist, but they all share the same fierce passion to contribute to their communities and bring positive changes in Zarqa. In a region where gender roles occupy a huge part in identifying what a woman can and can't do, women have adapted in a different way that perhaps is different than those in other parts of the world where the gender gap is small.

For instance, women in developing countries are most affected by problems like water shortage or lack of services and so on. "They are detail-oriented," says Roudan. Since a woman is more affected by issues like water shortage, poverty, services or the condition of children in schools, they are more capable to write about those problems.

They know the problem, write about it and try to find solutions. The different municipalities in Zarqa have been responsive to the published articles and reports. In addition to that, local reports produced by the journalists at Hona Zarqa are successful in capturing the attention of national and regional media such as Ro'aya TV and Al-Jazeera News. "This makes us happy," says Roudan.

Fida Al-A'aboushi is another member of the team who says that one of the roles of the newspaper is to make the voice of the citizens heard. "The citizens of Zarqa were not critical of the performance of the municipalities," says Al-A'aboushi. "But now they have changed." She finds that the change is due to the courage of the women who write about the issues, influencing other people to do the same.

Another journalist, Abeer A'azem, is the coordinator of the project who previously worked as a teacher. "We don't have news. We have detailed reports with a variety of sources to establish professionalism and objectivity," says A'azem. "We are ready to work even in radio stations. We are all ready." As I have a conversation with the women, they fill each other with the information as they talk to me. They distribute the papers by themselves, which makes them far more visible in their communities.

Taghreed Al-Tamimi has always wanted to study journalism, but as soon as she completed high school, she got married. Writing and reporting for Hona Zarqa is an opportunity for her to fulfill her dream. As I talk to her, she mentions that she is going back to school to study media. Other women in the room smile while some say "mabrook," which means congratulations in Arabic. She is a mother of five, and her eldest daughter is studying engineering. "Working in media has given me life again; reborn," says Al-Tamimi. "I have transformed from being only a mother to being a totally different person."

Hona Zarqa has changed lives of the women working in the team and those around them. But they remain working under limited resources, which puts them at the risk of losing the publication. Currently, the women do most of their work at home with no permanent office. As I met them, the funding program through the European Union is coming to an end. However, the team is determined to continue their work despite the economic challenges and is looking for other funding sources.

This project was carried out with the aid of a grant from the International Development Research IDRC, Ottawa, Canada.

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