Ahel coaches and educates activist campaigns throughout the Arab World. This not only makes it possible to achieve political results, but strengthens the commitment of the entire community, experiences Nareeman Shawahin, who as one of the campaign leaders for the ‘Stand with the Teachers’ campaign has organised teachers across Jordan and achieved political changes.
By Mathilde Nordenlund
Nareeman Shawahin had never seen herself as an activist or a leader.
She was a teacher at a private school in Irbid in the northern part of Jordan and was happy with her job.
But, in 2015, an experience changed that.
She had worked at the same school for six years, and along the way, like all teachers, she had earned a pension, part of which her school had contributed.
“At least I thought so until a friend of mine recommended I go in and check my social security status. But when the man at the social security office looked me up, he said there was no file under my name at all. There were no savings. I should have saved many years together through my employment at the school but there was nothing and I felt so betrayed.”
She says that she drove home from there as if on autopilot, and only when she got home did she realise that she had been crying all the way.
“But I was also angry. I felt oppressed. The school had robbed me of my rights and I couldn’t wait until the next day when I would go up to my boss at the school and demand my rights, in front of all the other teachers. I had worked and believed that it was a good school and that of course I was guaranteed my rights, but I wanted to tell him that he had cheated me. It was a moment of power for me – the first time I felt that kind of strength to speak up.”
A collective injustice
Nareeman Shawahin had previously experienced poor conditions in employment at other schools and seen her colleagues being treated in the same way. Overtime and temporary hours without pay, schools that paid less than the minimum wage, teachers who were pressured to resign during the summer holidays or if they became pregnant.
Ahel og KVINFO
Since the beginning of 2020, the Jordanian organisation Ahel has been collaborating with KVINFO.
Ahel work with human rights at the grassroots level and have been working to support collective action and campaigns since 2011.
Part of their mission is to “support those pursuing change in the Arab world in organizing their power and leadership to achieve justice in their causes”.
Ahel’s work takes place in three tracks:
- They accompany and coach campaigns in their collective action
- They teach campaign leaders participatory leadership and community organising methods
- They connect activist leaders across the Arab world with each other in a network
The partnership orients itself towards vulnerable community groups and focuses on strengthening the participants’ thoughts and ideas about their belonging in society and their ability to change it.
The collaboration is financed by the Danish-Arab Partnership Program under the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
But this experience was different. It ignited a courage in her that she had not experienced before and gave her a strong motivation to try to change it.
When, shortly afterwards, at a workshop on rights in the labour market, she heard stories from 35 other teachers who were similar to her own, it became the starting point for an actual campaign.
“Those teachers had experiences that looked like mine. I felt it was a collective injustice and thought we had to demand our rights. After the workshop, there were three of us who agreed that we wanted to organise and do something about it so that it did not happen to more people. And there began the building of our first team, where we quickly became seven teachers.”
The campaign later came to be known in Jordan as qom ma`al muallem – the ‘Stand with the teachers ‘ campaign.
We wouldn’t have thought so big
In the beginning, Nareeman Shawahin and the other teachers focused especially on understanding the extent of the problems and getting in touch with other teachers, but it was difficult. There was, for example, no overall overview of teachers employed in the private sector.
It was in this early phase that they were first accompanied and coached by Ahel’s team and given the tools and know-how to define their goals and strategy and to see which tools they could use to achieve their goals.
For example, they set about building a national database of contact information for teachers in the private sector themselves.
”It was something I would never have thought of doing myself if I hadn’t learned the methods behind organising a campaign. Without it, we wouldn’t have thought so big; we would not have seen how great a resource such a database would be for our work,” says Nareeman.
The new campaign group also learned how to use their personal experiences and stories as teachers in the campaign’s public narrative and in their internal work and unity, she says.
When they learned more about the community organising methodology while being coached by Ahel, and how they could manage collective leadership in the campaign, they gained faith that they could achieve something together.
“I felt weak alone, but together with the others there was a feeling of working collectively. We were stronger and these methods strengthened the team and were part of what made our organisation and campaign sustainable and resilient for many years to come, I think,” says Nareeman.
Already within the first year, ‘Stand with the Teachers’ achieved one of their first goals: unified contracts ensuring the same rights.
“The contracts existed, but there was no mandate from the government for the school management to use them. So this pressure led to an official mandate, and at the same time it created awareness about it among the teachers, so they started demanding it,” says Nareeman.
From here, one of the next goals of the campaign became to ensure that teachers received their salaries via electronic bank transfers and not in cash – to avoid fraud and underpayment.
Teachers afraid to join
After the initial successes, however, the campaign experienced other problems. They wanted to expand beyond the Irbid area and involve teachers from across the country, but as the campaign became known, many teachers also became afraid that they would lose their jobs if they supported or joined.
Nareeman and her team saw teachers who were having problems at their school but were pressured by their family not to contact the campaign for fear of losing their income.
“‘What if you don’t get paid the minimum wage today – if you become part of it, you might not get paid at all,’ they said. We wanted to show that we were not troublemakers; that our cause was also theirs, but it was difficult. And here it made an enormous difference that Ahel prepared a training course especially for our campaign in the ‘popular education’ method.
The whole idea is to gather in conversational circles without hierarchy, and share stories with each other. They began to hold ‘ popular education’ circles in public places, and this made it equally possible to engage more teachers.
“There was room to talk about one’s experiences without being afraid. And with this way of meeting, many teachers showed up, some came without telling anyone, not even their parents, that they were coming,” says Nareeman.
At this time, the campaign was primarily in the Irbid area of northern Jordan, but the circles of conversation meant that many new groups of teachers heard about it and started organising in their schools, also in other areas of Jordan.
This was because teachers started joining the conversation circles from schools several hours away, tells Nareeman .
“After the meetings, they went back to their school and demanded that their rights be respected. They did it together, and there were examples of them all being allowed to stay at school. So it also proved to others that you can demand better rights and keep your job at the same time,” she says.
Leadership felt right
In order to continue to develop the campaign, Nareeman and several other leaders from the campaign, also participated in a longer training course at Ahel, namely the ‘ Organizing and Leading Collective Action for Change’.
Nareeman tells that after they had been working on the campaign for a few years and as the first lead coordinator, she sometimes struggled with how to lead. She found that the responsibility of setting the tone, leading the team and being responsible for making it all work weighed heavily on her.
At that point, the course became a turning point. She had known about and worked with the principles of community organising, also in the first years, but after the course, she understood it on a different level and reflected on herself in a new way, she says.
“It ignited a leadership style in me that I didn’t think I had. Before, I didn’t see myself as part of a community, a collective. This leadership not only felt right; it also felt like that opportunity came at just the right place. And I’m sure that the course is what made our team define a team spirit and a culture that all our further work has built on.”
Power back to the people
Ahel has accompanied and coached campaigns in Jordan and the rest of the Arab World for almost twelve years.
The MENA-region refers to a group of countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Their goal is to help the campaigns achieve their political or social goals. But at least as important in their approach is precisely the goal of engaging the people and communities who normally cannot gain influence and demand their rights, says Reem Manna, director of coaching campaigns in the organization.
“In the MENA region, we do not have a strong tradition of collective action and collective work, because we do not have any real political parties, no student political work or the like. This kind of collective work has been targeted by politicians for many years and has become weak, especially here in Jordan for example. So if you only focus on change as doing political advocacy for the small, specialised political environment, a large group of people will remain weak,” says Reem.
Many people in the region do not have the skills or tools to create and lead change, she explains.
“And that is why we believe in community organising and in supporting campaigns and movements. Without it, change will not happen. It is about giving power back to the people.”
Reem underlines that their approach is based on the idea that you can be braver together than if you are alone. Precisely because there is not a strong tradition of activism and campaign work in the region, you cannot just tell the communities that they should start creating change if they experience something unfair, she emphasises.
It is difficult, it will not always succeed the first few times, and therefore it is necessary to learn some concrete tools.
“Society is not used to being organszed, to having an organised system. Often there is a set of rules, there is a law, but the whole system is broken. So we focus on bringing organisation and collective work back into society.”
According to Reem, community organising and collective leadership are also important to ensure that the campaigns do not fall apart as soon as they achieve their first, political goal – for example to get legislation changed. Because change does not always come from that.
Often the new laws and regulations must be followed very closely afterwards to ensure that they are actually implemented. Here, the campaigns can play an important role by putting pressure on the political system, she believes, and therefore it is important that they are well organised and resilient so that they can continue.
For the same reason, they also let the different campaigns meet each other a few times a year. To learn from each other’s mistakes and successes – but also to experience that they are not alone and that there are others who are working for change, even if it takes a long time.
“We gather all the campaigns together, for them to learn from each other, not from us, not from an expert. That is an inspiration. That’s a way of keeping their motivation.”
You can organize yourself out of most challenges
Today, the ‘Stand with the Teachers’ campaign has local branches throughout Jordan and more than 7000 teachers registered in their database. Since its first steps, the campaign has also succeeded in getting the Jordanian Ministry of Education to adopt rules that make it a requirement that all schools pay teachers’ salaries electronically through the banks instead of in cash – to avoid minimum wage fraud.
However, the campaign is still pushing the government to ensure that the law is also applied and that violations are penalised as well as mobilising teachers in private schools to know and ask for their rights.
Nareeman believes that the thorough building of the campaign’s organisation and culture is what has made it so resilient through various challenges.
There were many challenges in the first years, and then came COVID-19. During the COVID-lockdowns, many school managements were, according to Nareeman, ready to tear apart the system of unified contracts for which they had fought so hard.
“But we stuck to the method of community organising, and it made us understand that even though this was a huge challenge, it was not the time to give up. We rethought our strategies and our goals and kept moving forward. You can organise yourself out of most challenges when you have the tools,” says Nareeman.
All through the campaign, they have also been sticking to some of the tools they have learned in order to keep up the motivation. They did not just celebrate the big victories. They also celebrated when they did small actions, such as when they demonstrated peacefully in front of the ministry until they got into a conversation with the minister, and the smaller goals that succeeded. To keep up the inspiration and motivation in the entire campaign.
A strong feminist leader
According to Nareemanall of this experience has changed her, both on a professional and on a personal level.
For example, she had never seen herself being in charge of participating in a large collaborative coalition with other campaigns and organizations working to change various labour rights laws – from maternity leave and childcare rules to equal pay, as she does today when she represents ‘Stand with the teachers’ in the coalition.
“Today I see myself as a feminist. Feminist understood as a strong, feminist leader. I would never have believed that if I go back ten years. I had probably resisted in some way, and I always had an ambition to learn more, but I felt limited. I never thought we would be able to create change on this level.”
Personally, Nareeman has also gained greater faith in herself throughout her journey with Ahel and the campaign, she underlines.
She no longer feels inadequate if she cannot do everything at home at once while working, and she does not doubt her own abilities. At the beginning of the work with the campaign, she herself sometimes had difficulty getting a job as a teacher, and that scared her, but it does not anymore.
“And then it has changed the way I interact with my children. I pass on many of the tools to them. I teach them how important responsibility is and that they can go out and work for what they want,”.
The new leaders
Today, Nareeman is also part of the Athar network on community organising in the Arab world, founded by Ahel, where she meets with other campaigns from across the region to exchange experiences and stand together for common activism. She sees it as a way to give some of what she has learned back to others, and she herself learns along the way.
For the same reason, she has also just started as a teaching fellow on Ahel’s course ‘Leadership, Organising and Feminism’.
“When I look around at this group of young women in the course, I already feel connected to them. We share values and dreams of justice. The justice that means you have rights, that means equality and dignity,”.
She hopes the participants on the course can learn from her experiences and her story. In particular, she will pass on her experiences about how important it is to dare to continue when there are challenges.
“At the same time, this is also another learning journey for myself. And it is an opportunity to follow how these young feminists can see change succeed – maybe quickly, maybe after long struggles, but they will succeed.
Change on many levels
According to Reem, the journey and history of ‘Stand with the Teachers’ is rather typical for the campaigns that the organisation follows in Jordan and the rest of the region.
It has started with a group of people who previously had great difficulty demanding their rights, but by working very systematically with their way of organizing and involving the community, they have achieved results.
But, as with many of the other campaigns, there are also limitations to how quickly they can create change. As with ‘Stand with the Teachers’, it is the implementation of the new rules that takes the longest, everywhere, she says.
“But what is common to all the campaigns is that when they work in this way, we see change on three levels: personally, by the participants in the campaigns building new abilities and a greater belief in themselves; on community level by certain groups starting to work together, organise and make decisions together, and structurally or politically by achieving goals for their cause,” says Reem.
In Reem’s eyes, political change is neither possible nor worth as much on its own. It is by creating change at all three levels that you can really, and in a lasting way, change the balance and bring power back to the people, she believes.
“For example, in Stand up with the teachers campaign, we noticed that in the first years when they met with officials from the ministry, the teachers were silent, when she was speaking, that was the dynamic, all focusing on what she feels, she likes, she thinks. But after the first years, we noticed that the teachers had the courage to say I don’t agree with you – to stand up for what they thought. I see that there is a community power that is not about the cause, but is about the whole idea of bringing power back to people.”