Amid Setbacks, The Solar Mamas Are Undeterred

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Rafea Al Raja of Solar Mamas

The stars of Solar Mamas—now screening for free as part of the #SheDocs Online Film Festival—are still searching for sunshine. Rafea Al Raja and her aunt, Seiha Al Raja (a.k.a. Um Bader) returned to their Jordanian village fired up to install solar electricity panels after their training at Bunker Roy’s Barefoot College in India. In fact, they installed 80 panels in one week, according to director Mona Eldaief. But the funding for their project has evaporated. In addition, Rafea’s husband has been jailed for drug smuggling, Um Bader’s son was caught stealing equipment from the women’s solar electricity project, and her husband has been accused of embezzling money from it, Eldaief said. Rafea fends for her children with little to no income.

Amazingly, in spite of all this, Rafea remains undaunted, Eldaief said. Her sisters have moved to a nearby village to harvest olives, but Rafea has stayed put, determined to find more support for her business and to train and empower the women in her village. Thanks to two recent screenings of Solar Mamas in Jordan, momentum is building, and Mona Eldaief hopes to seize the snowballing awareness to create Community Cinema-style screenings throughout the Middle East with the film. She chatted with us about her updates on the unfolding drama:

I heard you had a recent trip to Jordan. What did you do?

Mona Eldaief, director of Solar Mamas

Mona Eldaief, director of Solar Mamas

There were two screenings organized by UN Women and AAT Network( Aat Network). During those two screenings, Raouf [Dabbas, head of the Friends of Environment Society] managed to invite many influential people and garner a lot of support and interest in the project. Both screenings were very fruitful with people and NGOs who are willing to help. They were both in Amman, the capital, both to full capacity. Rafea was there in person with Raouf and Um Bader.

How are Um Bader and Rafea doing?

Their spirit is incredible. They aren’t quitting. Rafea never gives up hope and that’s what keeps me fighting for her. Some of her sisters have moved to a rural village pick vegetables and olives for a living, but she’s not giving up on this project. She wants to empower herself and other women. She went there for a reason. She fought against society and her husband for a reason and she’s not giving up.

Um Bader is kind of a sidekick, she’s very cute. I found out some terrible things afterwards. She’s a victim of abuse, and it’s written all over her heart and soul. Her husband divorced her and she’s displaced. She needs this job to boost her confidence, not to mention for the income. Her husband divorced her because he was selling the equipment with her son and she was guarding it. So he divorced her.

Did you get to see Um Bader’s son? How has Um Bader’s relationship with him changed, if at all?

I have not been the village in several months. Her relationship with her son has changed. It’s being a mother in law, it has nothing to do with this project per se. He was probably bragging to his friends that he was going to get a salary like this. The plight of women there is horrendous. The more I learn, the more I don’t want to know, and I want to help the women. They sell off their teenage girls even if they’re doing well in school. They get them pregnant with 6 to 14 kids. Rafea has 5 daughters…they can’t go to the store with their daughters, they need a chaperone. I mean, come on!

How long will Rafea’s husband be in jail? How is her family making ends meet in the meantime?

Oh my goodness, according to her, he’ll get out in Ramadan, which I think is in July. In three or four months. I think they’re getting a little salary from FES. Rafea did pick olives with her kids for a few days.

One thing I worried about with the film’s broadcast was the men in the village. How are they going to feel about her being with her veil off in India, dancing around? But what happened was the opposite. Her mother and father and all the women in the village were so proud of her and inspired to work with her. That aired in November on MBC 4 there. Instead of just hearing how her husband is nasty to her, they witnessed and felt it. She’s also surviving on handouts from the brother’s family.

There’s a local grocery store that’s very kind, and they let the food bills run up to 150 dinar, and she pays back 75 eventually. And then they start over. So it’s on the charity and kindness of others, basically.

You mentioned that you weren’t comfortable with certain sections of The Jordan Times article about Solar Mamas. What were those passages?

When [the reporter] writes that their lives have been torn to shreds because of the project, that’s not true. It’s just that their lives haven’t changed as they expected so far. [Um Bader’s] son did in fact take equipment and sell it on the black market. He was not trained in solar engineering, but in rainwater harvesting and the manufacturing of solar cookers. Rafea’s husband was very jealous of Rafea. He didn’t want money from the project—he just didn’t want her to be the one earning money. He wanted to prove he was the man and the breadwinner. Um Bader’s son was a newlywed, and needed to buy furniture and all the lovely obligations on Arab men when they get married.

These are just normal things that happen in a patriarchal society. You can’t eradicate poverty overnight and there is no simple solution. You have many layers of problems. You’re dealing with women’s empowerment problems in a patriarchal society. You can’t expect women to come back and take charge. These are some of the complications they face.

With Rafea’s husband, there was a six month period when they were waiting for solar electrical equipment, and he took that opportunity to make himself a man. A drug dealer said, “Hey, I’ll give you a few thousand dinar if you smuggle these drugs.” He felt threatened that his wife would provide instead. He stepped up to become the breadwinner in a really stupid, stupid way.

These women solar electrified 80 homes in that village within a week. But here’s where the problem came. They’re supposed to supply a sustainable energy source, but the power lines are stolen from other houses. When the bill from that house comes, that can’t afford to pay it. Instead of paying the monthly electric bill, each house is supposed to put money into a community-based organization. It costs less than if they paid for electricity themselves and it provides the women with a monthly salary. That’s what was supposed to happen. Each house is paying 40 dinar per month or they have no electricity, but they would pay 5 dinar and have maintenance as well. They solar electrified 80 homes, and unfortunately [Um Bader’s] husband took a flat rate from each house or nothing. From that money, he pocketed most of it, handed it out to his sons, and gave the women the change. He stole the income!

These are all matters where you unfortunately have to have a really proper NGO handhold at first so the women can self-empower and teach the men this is valuable for the prosperity of their village.

Has Rafea continued to serve as an advocate in her village for women’s empowerment?

She has to a certain extent through the film being shown there. Since the screenings in Jordan, she’s gotten tons of press. Of course, there’s jealousy as there would be in any small town. Each one of them received 100 dinar from a ceremony in parliament, recognition from the Arab International Women’s Forum, The Jordan Times, and two radio interviews. She’s a great inspiration. It’s a very personal film, and when the neighbors saw this film, it inspires them even more.

How did the Friends of Environment Society lose its money?

The women’s project was not supported locally in Jordan. Raouf Dabbas was the advisor to the Ministry of Environment. He contacted Bunker Roy and is an advocate for alternative energy. What happened, he went through 10 to 12 ministers above him. Every time they brought in a new minister he had to convince them of the project. At the time of time of the film, the government wasn’t providing funding, so he made the government look better than they were. There was a lot of posturing and picture ops. He has since left the Ministry of Environment, and he founded this organization of the Friends of the Environment Society. They are now the ones in control of making the project work, and they can’t get financial support on the ground in Jordan yet, but the screenings in Jordan have provoked a lot of potential support.

Is it too late to save the FES? What can readers do if they feel like chipping in?

The FES is not in trouble. They have tons of other projects going on. It’s [also] the NGO that is now responsible for making the women’s project work. Ideally, the women set up the business, and it’s run by the community itself. But they need help to make that happen. They need to set up a training center to train other women in the region and set up solar electricity in other villages and maintain a solid income. It’s the community-based organization for the women that needs help.

I’ve crossed my boundaries as a filmmaker because I was passionate about Rafea and people like her. FES is in the process of developing an English website with a donate button, but in the meantime, I can give you this email where we’re keeping a list for people who want to help: barefootengineers@gmail.com.

If people want to help other women around the world besides Rafea, you can always go to the Barefoot College webpage.

What film projects are you working on now?

[Solar Mamas] has been nonstop. I have a reputation that I make a film and I never leave it. This one needs help, and it’s such a powerful tool for change. And I solidified this even more after the screenings in Jordan. I need to develop some sort of Community Cinema in the Middle East and build an engagement campaign in small towns in Jordan. We want to do an outreach campaign to other rural women along with showing the film. If they’re so inspired, we will partner with a local NGO on the ground, for example in Egypt, so they can have an opportunity like Rafea’s to microfinance their project. I definitely want to follow on the roads of women’s empowerment in the Middle East because it’s desperately needed now more than ever.

Solar Mamas is screening free online as part of the #SheDocs Online Film Festival through March 31.

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