Muna Abbas: Representing the unrepresented

In this undated photo, Muna Abbas, the head of Plan International in Jordan at her offices. (Photo: courtesy of Muna Abbas)
AMMAN - Muna Abbas was early in her teaching career when she asked her fourth grade girls to imagine their futures. “How would you imagine your life in 50 years’ time?” she asked, walking around the classroom observing students write on paper.اضافة اعلان

Abbas was expecting the students to focus on topics like space or technology. But there was one response that caught her eye. “In 50 years’ time,” the student wrote. “I will go to (try to) buy a pair of shoes. It will be so expensive that I cannot afford it and I would walk barefoot.”

The class fell silent. The students, sensing something was wrong, looked up to see their teacher with tears rolling down her cheeks.
Spurred on by events like this, Abbas would go on to pursue a higher degree in children’s rights at Lund University in Sweden where, she said, her belief in education as the key to lifting people and communities out of poverty was cemented. She now works as Plan International’s head of mission in Jordan.

“We are the product of our upbringing and our circumstances,” said Abbas. Though she came from a Palestinian refugee family, like the girls she taught at the UNRWA school that day, Abbas’ parents taught and traveled abroad, which shielded her from many of the obstacles facing Palestinians in refugee camps, she said.

During her time as an educator, she began to question the efficacy of our educational systems, particularly in terms of assessments and evaluations. “We need to be more reflective and creative in capturing success,” taking into account the different needs of children, particularly girls, Abbas said.

“We are living in a patriarchal society. And when it comes to changing of policies and laws, I don’t see a real commitment to change.”
It is what motivated Abbas to help Plan International establish their program in Jordan. It is also why she said her work is simultaneously personal and professional.
She strongly believes in the mission of the organization, she said, because it focuses on an often-neglected segment — adolescent girls. Early intervention gives girls the opportunity to be proactive leaders.
As a society, from an early age, “we start to introduce the gender roles and gender norms where boys have certain roles and girls have certain roles. And it comes always to the advantage of boys,” she said.

Muna grew up with two brothers, which allowed her to grasp an understanding of gender from a very young age. She became aware of the roles imposed by society on girls and boys.

“If you’re not represented, you don’t have a voice and you don’t have an influence. You’re off the table automatically.”

It also takes decision makers to create the right environment on the ground through legislation. Then, the cultural change comes, Abbas said, adding that “you will find pushback”. But when “you put the right laws in place, people will join. People will join the march.”
That march has gotten harder lately, according to Abbas. But the change she has seen over the past two decades is visible. She believes the Jordanian civil society carries more influence and includes more diverse faces.

“I can see the level of awareness, the level of courage, the level of eagerness among young people for change. I hope that one day we will see our men and women enjoy their full potential and rights as human beings.”