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Market Scene : Palestinian Women Weave Better Life : Their embroidery brings in income and elevates their status in the macho society.


AMMAN, Jordan — In the Middle East, the thaub , a colorfully embroidered, long-sleeved gown, symbolizes the traditions of old Palestine. Here in Jordan today, the same embroidery is changing some Palestinian ways.

Women in poor areas of Amman and other Jordanian cities and villages are busily stitching to earn extra income for their families, applying embroidered panels to jackets, handbags, headbands, quilts and other handicrafts geared to the high-fashion trade.

Unemployed husbands in this macho society find themselves catering to the new breadwinners. "Now, he is responsible to keep the children off his wife's work," explained Hana Mitri Shahin, a project director for Save the Children.

"It has really improved the self-esteem of women," Shahin added. "They tell us their mothers-in-law treat them with much more respect."

In a country where the poverty line is estimated at 70 Jordanian dinars a month--about $110--women who raise a family and also bring in up to 60 dinars monthly with their embroidery have elevated their status and authority. And some women, Shahin pointed out, hold onto their earnings, taking a share of income control away from their husbands.

There are hundreds of self-help projects in the Palestinian world--on the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in refugee camps and towns in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan--but the Save the Children programs here have carved a unique role with aggressive marketing, stylish fashions and sound financial planning for their embroidery and weaving products, said Rebecca Salti, a Manila, Utah, native who heads the STC field office in Amman.

The two main STC income-generation programs--Jordan River Enterprises, which exploits the embroidery skills of Palestinians, and Bani Hamida, a rug-weaving project for Bedouin women--are putting money in the pockets of more than 1,500 women. The handicrafts are sold, mainly to foreigners, in STC showrooms here.

"What we do," Salti explained, "is go into a community in need and say, 'We're here to give you work.' We ask the ladies what they do. We do a baseline survey.

"I don't believe in bricks and mortar. I believe in people," said the plain-spoken American, who has lived here for 16 years and previously worked with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency and World Bank on Palestinian aid programs.

Four years ago, Salti and her energetic, Western-trained staff (Shahin, for instance, came to Save the Children from the Marriott hotel chain) targeted two Amman neighborhoods for their Jordan River program--Natheef, a depressed area in the center of the city with a population of 8,500, and Mahatta, a slum providing humble housing to 3,800 Palestinian refugees.

Now, 845 women are taking part in the Palestinian program and another 730 in the Bedouin weaving project, said Salti, whose instant recall of statistics reflects a habit of voluntary agency workers who must justify their expenses to head offices half a world away. The programs focus on six products--quilts, leather and canvas handbags, picture frames, dolls, food and olive oil soap.

All but the last two highlight the distinctive Palestinian embroidery, a tight cross-stitch of geometric and floral patterns that most every young woman learns at her mother's knee. In years past, a Palestinian woman's hometown could be identified by the pattern of embroidery on her thaub. The distinctive signature has faded in the Palestinian diaspora but will adorn the bodice of gowns on the collector dolls produced by Jordan River Enterprises.

In Natheef, the work is centered in a two-story building that once housed a health clinic. Women from the neighborhood come in to pick up materials, patterns and special instructions from skilled supervisors, then bundle them home. This is piece work, and the payoff lies in the embroiderer's skills. Salti said final prices reflect more than 70% value added. Participants have earned about $140,000 in the last four years.

In a neighborhood where there was little work for anyone--unemployment in Natheef is estimated at 37%--the women are eager for more.

"Yes, we have complaints," said Shahin, the project director. "They say, 'You are not giving us enough work.' " Every dinar helps in Jordan these days. "When one woman got her first 1.5 dinars for embroidery, she went right out and bought a chicken for her family," Shahin recalled.

Some embroiderers stand out. Tufaa Musalem, a tall, self-confident woman with an easy smile, is respected as an improviser, working without a pattern and regularly turning out new designs. She says she has 20 thaubs in her closet, where most women would have two at most.

Save the Children mixes health care with income, providing on-site checkups and meals for the children of its embroiderers, part of a program to improve overall well-being in the Palestinian community. In a workshop kitchen, older women prepare Arabic treats for sale in Amman markets and as snacks for the program participants. And they cater.

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