ZARQA, Jordan – It is graduation day, and Maryam Mutlaq is celebrating her transformation from stay-at-home mom to licensed plumber.
Mutlaq, 41, describes her business plan in a clear, strong voice to the other graduates, all veiled women. She plans to open a plumbing store and sell pipes and spare parts. She's even picked out a name, Challenge, and a location in an up-and-coming neighborhood.
It has been a challenge just to come this far in an ultra-conservative community where many women don't work at all outside the home. The coming months will determine if, against the odds, she can turn her bold dream into a real-life business. For now, she is brimming with optimism.
"We will break down the barriers that have been put up, that say we aren't capable of doing things as women," she says.
Mutlaq's choice is rare for the Arab world, where traditional gender roles make men the main breadwinners and confine many women to jobs such as teaching and nursing. Five years ago, the Arab Spring brought the hope of more opportunities for women. Yet that promise has not panned out, analysts and activists say.
Only about a quarter of women in the Arab world work outside the home, the lowest percentage in the world.
Jordan in turn scores far below the regional average of female labor force participation, with just over 14 percent. Unemployment is a separate measure, with higher rates for women than men in most of the region.
Female CEOs and entrepreneurs have emerged across the region, but they still constitute a small group.
The International Labor Organization calculates that with more job equality, Jordan's economy would grow by 5 percent, or almost $2 billion. But Zarqa, a gritty industrial city with a high unemployment rate, is one of toughest places in Jordan, and perhaps even in the region, for women trying to tear down barriers.
"Society is very conservative and is getting more and more conservative," says Zarqa Mayor Emad Momani. "We are far from seeing women in non-traditional jobs like plumbers or truck drivers."
Mutlaq got involved in 2014 in the plumbers' project, funded by the Millennium Challenge Corp., a U.S. government aid agency, to save water by preventing leakage. Under strict rules of gender separation, it's easier for female plumbers to conduct home visits, because male plumbers cannot enter homes where housewives are alone.
Mutlaq was initially skeptical, but her husband Samir, who works in a flower shop, thought it was worth a try. The family, struggling from month to month, could also use a second income.
Her four children fiercely opposed the idea. The youngest, Lara, 12, was so embarrassed that she begged her mother to take off her green plumber's work vest during a parent-teacher meeting. Mutlaq kept it on to show her daughter that she's proud of herself.
Mutlaq discovered during training that she loved handling tools and fixing things. Even when she was off the clock, she carried a few tools in her gray purse, in case a neighbor or relative needed a bit of plumbing "first aid." After a few months, she started going on house calls as assistant to a contractor.
By graduation day in March, Mutlaq's children have come around. Sami, 19, is glad his mother can contribute to the family finances. Fatmeh, 22, even joins the community outreach program for a few months. And Lara excitedly unpacks Mutlaq's graduation prize — a 40-piece professional plumbers' tool kit — in the family living room.
Two weeks later, Mutlaq is getting ready for work. She pulls a baseball cap over her headscarf and the green vest over a loose, long-sleeved T-shirt and pants.
The first stop for the day is Lara's school, where Mutlaq begins to remove an old faucet in the girls' toilets. Her fellow plumber, Ibrahim Asmar, says she does well on everything that doesn't require heavy lifting. She can do 70 percent of the tasks expected of a plumber, he says.
Lara is eager to see her mother in full work gear and embraces her in the hallway. She says she now likes everything about her mother's job, and especially the tools. She wants to work in Mutlaq's shop and take a salary.
But Mutlaq still faces plenty of criticism. Her oldest brother is a hold-out, telling her women have no business being plumbers.
At the local mosque down the street from Mutlaq's house, preacher Akram al-Boureini says roles are clear in Islam: Men provide for the family and women raise children at home. Plumbing is "suitable only for men, not for women," he says. If women take over jobs intended for men, "we face unemployment and moral corruption."
By the end of March, the plumbing project is winding down. Mutlaq is starting to worry about the future. She has pinned all her hopes on getting a grant.
"I'm scared that I will end up sitting at home," she says.
Small jobs for relatives and neighbors don't pay off. She can't charge much in her low-income neighborhood and is expected to give discounts to relatives. She has the extra cost of taking taxis to assignments because she doesn't drive, and her husband needs the family car for his job.
Back home, Mutlaq flips through her work book — a white notepad listing her recent assignments — to underscore the point. She's charged between 5 and 10 dinars ($7 to $14) per home visit, barely worth her time.
Such obstacles are familiar to Jordan's first female plumber, 53-year-old Khawla Sheikh, who earned her license in 2006.
"So many people did not support me," she says. "The only ones were my husband and my family."
Sheikh formed a cooperative of 18 female plumbers last year to help women with difficulties like launching their own business with no car or start-up funds. The women go on house calls in pairs, for safety.
In late May, Mutlaq is anxious. She needs a grant.
At a meeting hosted by an international aid group, 12 other women are handed checks of 300 dinars ($425) each. Mutlaq gets nothing. She is angry and dejected, and even thinks of selling her tool kit.
"It was a big dream, but it's been destroyed," she says.
But by early July, she has bounced back. She applies for a grant from USAID, a U.S. government agency, and expects to hear by the fall. In the meantime, she's renting out some of her tools, doing small plumbing jobs and going on assignments with one of her brothers, also a plumber.
She still wants to open a business one day, but says the journey has already been worthwhile.
"This was the chance of a lifetime," she says. "The way I look at life has changed. The way I look at myself has changed, too."