How Jordan’s first female solar engineer challenged Bedouin traditions

September 7, 2022

Ivona Petrova

Traditional Bedouin culture is a patriarchal one. Men are the leaders and decision-makers of the community and women are not allowed to travel without a male relative. In Jordan, polygamy is legal and practiced amongst Bedouins, and the women often take care of their children alone. For women, education is discouraged. According to Bedouin culture, they are expected to take care of the household, children, and livestock instead.

Rafea is an illiterate Bedouin woman from the north-eastern desert of Jordan. Unemployed and with only a few years of school, she lives in a tent with her four daughters in a small rural village. 

"A girl is not allowed to continue school past the age of ten - It’s considered shameful," Says Rafea while doing the house chores, "Is it not shameful that the youth of these girls is wasted without work? Without an education or purpose in life?"

Saddened by this reality and what it means for her four young girls, she hopes for a better life for the women in the village. Around two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population are women and globally there are more women living in extreme poverty than men.

When the opportunity to get an education presents itself, Rafea makes a bold decision to go to Barefoot College in India . The programmes are aimed mostly at women and include teaching them sustainable livelihoods, and giving them empowering knowledge and entrepreneur skills. Along with 25 other uneducated women from around the globe, Rafea and her aunt will undertake a six-month programme designed to help women in remote, poverty-ridden areas by training them as solar engineers. This program gives them the skill and knowledge to bring sustainable energy and employment back to their local community. 

Barefoot college was established by Bunker Roy in 1972 with the mission to make marginalized communities sustainable and self-sufficient. Since it opened its doors, Barefoot College has directly impacted millions of people across 96 countries.

For women living in poverty, this opportunity is life-changing. Learning how to provide access to clean energy and water for their communities can significantly improve their lives. Education is a proven way to give women and girls more economic mobility. They become more likely to be able to provide for themselves and their family, which has a rippling effect on the economic growth of their communities. On an individual level, employability inspires more confidence and financial independence and leaves women less vulnerable to exploitation, poverty, and domestic abuse.

Rafea sees the programme as her chance to provide for her girls, but shortly after it starts, she is forced to return to Jordan. Rafea’s husband demands she return home, or he will divorce her and take her children away. At home she is met with further resistance from her family and community, who insist she stays:

"With or without your permission, I want to work. I want to succeed. I want to change the situation in this village."

Rafea won't be swayed from her decision to return to Barefoot college, learn how to make a living and change the role of women in her culture. 

Solar Mamas is a story of struggle, determination, and hope. It is the story of Jordan’s first female solar engineer. 

The film will feature in The Energy Show– Sun, Solar and Human Power exhibition at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam from 3 September 2022 until 5 March 2023. The exhibition explores new experiences and solar ethics, revolving around different possibilities around solar energy. 

Solar Mamas is part of THE WHY Foundation’s ‘Film of the Month’ this September, available for free on our YouTube channel.

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