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Demand for female tour guides is soaring in this country so what's holding them back?

The rainbow-coloured Silk Tomb is part of a series of royal tombs inside Petra.
The rainbow-coloured Silk Tomb is part of a series of royal tombs inside Petra. Copyright Jennifer Malloy
Copyright Jennifer Malloy
By Jennifer Malloy
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‘Islam does not have to limit you’: Meet the female guides changing the face of tourism in Jordan.


Cinnamon-hued canyon walls tower over the trail that leads to the back door of Petra, a tunnel-like pathway whittled into the burnished landscape of Wadi Musa.

When I emerge from the rocky cocoon of the canyon and witness the ancient city for the first time, I’m mesmerised by the immensity of the Monastery and the muted rainbow exteriors of otherwise dark and dank tombs.

As I wander through the vast valley unfolding before me, I absorb the stories of the Nabataeans that reverberate throughout the site. Ancient aqueducts speak of the once-nomadic Arab tribe’s defeat at the hands of the Roman Empire, and hollowed out caves echo the lives of the families who once made their home here. That first glimpse of the Treasury - intricately carved into biscuity sandstone - etches history into my mind.

But it’s the woman in front of me now, at the front entrance to the Rose City, whom I can’t seem to tear my gaze from. She’s vivacious and confident. She wears the badge that identifies her as a 'Classic Guide' - offering day tours of historical and cultural sites - with pride. In my eyes, she’s the modern wonder of this wavering world.

More and more women are travelling solo to Jordan.
More and more women are travelling solo to Jordan.Jennifer Malloy

Female tour guides have to carve out a space in conservative Jordan

Fatima Al Nawafleh has been providing day-trips in Petra for the past four years. “Islam does not have to limit you,” she says in reference to the full hijab she dons every day before heading out to work. “I do this job because I have the ability and the dignity.”

Al Nawafleh is one of the few female guides carving out space for herself in Jordan’s male-dominated tourism industry. It’s not religion that is holding women back from pursuing this profession, but the conservative belief that they should hold more traditional roles within the home.

What is even more unusual in Jordan is the presence of female adventure guides. There is continued resistance among families towards their daughters spending their days hiking and their nights camping in remote and rough spaces away from the safety of home. Things 'classic guides', like Al Nawafleh, do not do.

However, women in Jordan are becoming increasingly motivated to leave behind the expectations of society, and expanding demand for female-led travel has blazed a trail for them to explore and share the wild and wonderful outdoor spaces, historical monuments and unique experiences that the country has to offer.

The desire for female-led travel is on the rise in Jordan.
The desire for female-led travel is on the rise in Jordan.Experience Jordan

Demand for female-led travel is on the rise in Jordan

This desire for female-led and female-only travel in Jordan led Ayman Abd Alkareem, co-founder and CEO of Experience Jordan, to begin designing and organising trips for women, led by women.

He began by seeking out and recruiting Jordanian women to become certified guides. Initially, the company only had one female adventure guide working for them. It now works with six female adventure guides - and is struggling to keep up with demand.

“Women in Jordan are cautious when it comes to sleeping outside their home or staying out late,” says Abd Alkareem. “They are worried about their culture, their community, and they don’t know if they can sustain this kind of living indefinitely.”

But cultural walls are beginning to crumble. As the visibility of female guides increases worldwide, the role has become more normalised in Jordan in recent years.

Female tour groups are also helping to bridge cultural divides by giving visibility and privileged access to a part of society that’s often hidden behind closed doors.

“[Women-only] groups can experience and learn about female-led projects that are owned and managed by local women, giving them access to their house or kitchen and opening up about their culture or daily life. This is something we found can only be done with women-only groups,” says Abd Alkareem.

In fact, if travelling in a male or mixed-gender group, especially in more remote areas of Jordan, you may not see many women at all. This highlights even further the importance of female guides and the significant cultural, if somewhat hidden, presence of women here.

Wafa’a El Khativ in front of Ed-Deir, also known as the Monastery, in Petra. | Hiking through Wadi Ghuweir.
Wafa’a El Khativ in front of Ed-Deir, also known as the Monastery, in Petra. | Hiking through Wadi Ghuweir.Jennifer Malloy | Experience Jordan

Female tour guides must still battle the ‘male ego’ in remote communities

Leading my own group tour through Petra is Wafa’a El Khativ. She is one of the intrepid women working with Experience Jordan and carving out space for herself in an industry that hasn’t always welcomed female guides.

“It’s mostly men that are doing this work,” she tells me as we navigate the shin-deep water that flows freely through Wadi Ghuweir, a 17-kilometre one-way hike we are undertaking to Feynan Eco-Lodge, located in the heart of the Dana Reserve.

The Lodge employs local women who live in the area to bake bread, make candles and soap, and teach leather workshops (there is also an opportunity to spend the day with a female shepherd) - but their role stops short of assisting female tour leaders.


El Khativ says the local guides that tour companies like Experience Jordan hire - to accompany the group and the main guide on hikes - are all male. “It’s the male ego in certain [remote] communities that is the issue,” she says. “They only want to work with men, and there are no [locally-based] female guides that we can hire.”

Sunset in Wadi Rum.
Sunset in Wadi Rum.Jennifer Malloy

El Khativ doesn’t let this attitude, or the lack of other female guides, deter her from pursuing her dreams of adventure. But she does admit that her work, camping and hiking with tour groups in the wild Wadis of Jordan, can be quite challenging - even with the support and acceptance of this career choice by her family. “Mothers still look for a classic or traditional life for their daughters,” she says. “To work as a teacher or nurse, to get married and to have children.”

For now, even though El Khativ does desire to balance a family with guiding one-day, her work comes first. The joy she finds in it is obvious through our time spent with her.

The stress of her past days working in an office is not evident here: her face glows with satisfaction as she helps the group make their way across a precarious ledge on the Jordan Trail. Her humour has us laughing around the fire of the Bedouin camp where we camp one night, and her infectious dance moves have us all on our feet - on our last evening together - under the vast starlit skies of Wadi Rum.

Jennifer Malloy was hosted by the Jordan Tourism Board and a guest of Experience Jordan and Feynan Eco-Lodge.

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