By RANA F. SWEIS
AMMAN — Through their eight years of marriage the husband of Suzan Qouqas would not allow her to work, even though she had studied to become a pharmacist. A year ago, she found herself divorced, with three children and no career.
At first, Ms. Qouqas, 34, who lives in Amman, found solace in baking desserts and selling them to neighbors and friends.
Then one day Ms. Qouqas stumbled onto a Facebook page called Sitat Byoot, or Women of the Home, an online start-up created two years ago by Saeed Omar, 34, as a marketplace for Arab handicrafts created by women.
Sitat Byoot promotes, sells and delivers worldwide handmade products created by Arab women — and it provides skills training.
Ms. Qouqas decided to learn how to crochet, a form of knitting that produces lacy fabrics, using a hooked needle. Today her skills in crocheting are turning her into a promising entrepreneur.
“I knew I had it in me to create, work and support my children, but I didn’t think I could implement my ideas,” Ms. Qouqas said during an interview.
Ms. Qouqas is one of an increasing number of Jordanian women who, for a few hours each day, escape from family and social constraints into gainful, home-based activities: Some plant, some weave, some work as designers.
For those who do not have access to the Internet, marketing is done primarily by word of mouth. They sell their products to relatives and neighbors: More and more, they make a significant contribution to the household’s income.
Because they work from home — and often alone — they can do so without alarming Jordan’s predominantly conservative society. They still tend to children and chores.
Even in rural districts, still struggling with basic services and chronic unemployment, women of all ages are learning skills that match the needs of their communities. Loans from foreign donors and nongovernmental organizations are being allocated to training and skills development as the cost of living continues to rise.
Over the years, women in Jordan have become judges, lawyers, doctors and ministers, but traditional attitudes toward gender roles have been embedded in the culture. Rising enrollment of women in universities has yet to show through in the broader labor force.
“The challenges for women’s equality still remain in family relationships and the struggle begins from there,” said Layla Naffa, a project director at the Arab Women’s Organization, a nongovernmental organization that was founded in 1970 by a group of Jordanian women activists.
Two-thirds of unemployed university graduates are women, according to the department of statistics. The mismatch between job requirements and skill sets is a major contributing factor to unemployment, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The Sitat Byoot Facebook page created by Mr. Omar for women’s creations already has over 24,000 fans and a link to the store.
“My family is into retail and fashion so I was born into this,” he said. “The handmade industry worldwide is huge and the Arab world is not contributing. I thought let’s solve this problem and make these products appear.”
The online marketing provided by Sitat Byoot has become popular among Jordanian women.
“I already had the passion and commitment to make unique products that cannot be easily found in shops,” said Ms. Qouqas, “but it is very difficult to do it without a platform, so Sitat Byoot has helped in terms of implementation.”
“There is a demand for good quality,” she said of the items she crochets, “and when it is handmade I choose the colors and the threads.”
Other products being crafted by women include designs on glass cups, chocolates and wrappings for them, jewelry, stationery, organic soaps made with olive oil, and school bags.
International organizations are giving loans to locally trained women who are buying their own sewing machines to create school bags, while women in rural areas are being trained to plant and cultivate vegetables in their home to be sold in the market.
Alaa’ Abu Karaki, public relations and projects manager at DVV International, a German adult education association that implements development projects, said: “After the training, the women are eager to apply for loans and to have their own greenhouses. They have commitment, enthusiasm and patience, and they are becoming the leaders in the family.”
But real challenges remain for these women.
For those who live in more conservative and rural districts, just going to training sessions outside the home can cause family feuds. For other women, lack of transportation from rural districts to training centers in Amman is a barrier.
The economic sustainability of these small projects also remains a main concern for both the women and for small businesses like Sitat Byoot.
“We are a small start-up and we don’t have any investors,” said Mr. Omar. “Social impact investors are absent, and so sustainability is a big problem and it is something I worry about a lot.”
For women like Ms. Qouqas, meeting with other women at the training sessions has both inspired her and empowered her.
“I really want to believe that people will realize that this is part of our tradition and that women have talents and have always worked,” she said. “They can contribute a lot to society.”