Written by Afaf A. Khoshman
Last May, an anonymous group of Jordanian activists publicly issued what they titled “The Privacy Statement”. This statement primarily called for civil society and public support for a legal framework that would protect the privacy of all members of society, especially women. The statement was issued in the backdrop of a leaked recording that allegedly revealed a powerful official in the Jordan Royal Guard blackmailing and sexually assaulting a woman. The leak and subsequent discussions have illuminated the vulnerability of women in Jordanian society, and the resonance of the case is a testament to the prevalence of this issue. The female victim—despite being blackmailed and repeatedly threatened—was surprisingly regarded as the main offender since women are not supposed to talk to unfamiliar men in the first place, although in the case of this particular woman the details were not fully revealed and the public based their opinions—widely expressed on social media platforms—on conjecture and assumption.
The activists’ statement, which calls for legal repercussions in similar instances of breached privacy and public disclosure, was circulated in the name of Jordanian men and women concerned with the lack of privacy protections in Jordanian society and the harsh reality of women’s victimhood. The lack of a ‘recognizable’ human rights organization or similar body endorsing the statement reflects a crisis in the general climate of Jordanian civil society, and women’s activism in particular. This crisis is not only apparent in a lack of public support for the protection of women from blackmail, but also a lack of agreement among civil society and political parties on common ground for their priorities, agenda and definitions of women’s rights.
The beginning of women’s rights movement in Jordan can be traced to the 1940s, as women from more privileged families engaged in providing social services, such as relief efforts for refugees and disadvantaged communities (al-Tal 1988). From the 1950s onward, a more rights-based agenda started to emerge in the country inspired by liberation movements and pan-Arabism. Documents retrieved from Emily Bisharat, the first Jordanian female lawyer and first president of the Arab Women’s Union, make clear that serious deliberations took place around issues such as women participation in politics, polygamy, and arbitrary divorce.1 Bisharat and other activists’ efforts did not only contribute to more acceptance in changes to gender roles in Jordanian society, but also led to intensified efforts to gain political rights, in particular women’s suffrage, which was finally granted in 1974.2
Between the 1970s and 1990s, the Jordanian women’s rights movement was strongly influenced by UN initiatives in women’s rights. Examples include the UN’s International Women’s Decade (1975-1985), the endorsement of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1979, and the Beijing Conference in 1995. In Jordan, a number of organizations embraced the spirit of these projects. Some operated under the patronage of members of the royal family like Princess Basma, chair of the Jordanian National Committee for Women (JNCW), while others were already established organizations that were able to operate and issue demands for political rights after the return of democratic life in Jordan in 1989. These organizations include the Jordanian Women's Union (JWU) (first established in 1974 and then reformed in 1988), the Arab Women’s Organization (AWO), and the General Federation for Jordanian Women (GFJW) (established in 1982). According to Ibtesam Atyiat, a specialist in the history of women’s rights movements in Jordan, programs that adopted a universal human rights framework, especially CEDAW and the Beijing Platform for Action, were mainly fostered by funding from the European Union and USAID (2012, 144).
These developments led to a greater focus on issues such as crimes of honor, violence against women, women’s political participation, and the advancement of women’s issues in the national political agenda after being disregarded by the male-dominated political culture. In the 1990s, discourses on the protection of women and women’s rights were put forward to the public and the number of organizations that advocate women’s rights increased dramatically.3
What is lacking?
That said, agreement on common agenda for women’s rights is lacking. This is in part because while there is a shared discourse among several political platforms, each has a different strategic goal. Required by law to register as organizations dedicated for ‘public work’, many women organizations struggle to accomplish their political and rights-based agenda as opposed to other organizations dedicated to charity work and family services. For instance, The Human Forum for Women’s Rights (est. 1995) and mainly focuses on conducting research on violence against women needed to enter into alliance with other organizations to gain political recognition despite its strong founding credentials (Atyiat 2003, 108) . Meanwhile, campaigns such as the National Campaign to Eliminate Honor Crimes shifted away from traditional organizational methods and endeavored to build its campaign through a broader grassroots outreach. The Campaign has achieved significant legislative gains. While it was unable to achieve the revocation of the controversial articles 340 (exempts men for honor killing in cases of adultery) and 98 (allows offenses to honor as a mitigating circumstance in sentencing) of the penal code, the Campaign was successful in efforts to remove article 308—allowing for rapists to marry victims against the wishes of the victim—in 2017. The signature gathering efforts Campaign Crimes, among other initiatives such as those led by Mizan Law Group (1998-present), showed what civil society initiatives can accomplish in protecting vulnerable women if its broad-based engagement enjoys a popular support. Earlier this August, the first women’s shelter to protect victims of domestic violence was established in Amman.4
Beyond the organizational impediments these intiaitves and organizations face, the government has been reticent in assuming a pioneering role in the protection women. According to Hani Jahshan, forensic pathologist and activist, in Jordan there is a local political will to provide more protection to women, but this will is not matched with an executive body (the government) that is functional and is active on different sectors of society.5 While civil society organizations attempt to fill this vacuum, issues like the statement for privacy showed that there is a need for a more influential political body to advocate a strong legal framework. Such a framework will be the only mean to protect women against a small but destructive class of predatory individuals who take advantage of male inculpability. As the signatories to the statement note, tribal social mores play a pivotal role in protecting male members of society and a culture framework that regards women as the property of their families.
Considering the long struggle, with its setbacks and achievements, not all issues pertaining to women rights in Jordan have received attention in proportion to their urgency. Political rights are different from protection rights, and while the former are important, the daily life of women shows how a lack of protection affects all the other aspects of a women’s life, including the work place, which in sequence affects women’s participation in workforce.6 Addressing the issue of women’s security involves redressing imbalances of male privilege and the absolute authority of male testimony, a cultural shift that will not come easily and attempts will yield consequences. During the late 1980s, the most vocal figure in women’s activism in Jordan at the time, Tujan Faisal, was excommunicated by the state clerics because she wrote an article defending the rights of Jordanian women and criticized the Islamists’ view—supported and benefited from the tribal view— of women and their inherent capacities (Atiyat 2003). Things have changed since then, and the last 20 years in particular have witnessed more momentum in the efforts for the abolition of laws that deny women equal protection and hopefully major women organizations will unite over an inclusive framework over what constitutes violations to women’s protection, welfare and freedom.
Since fall 2017, Afaf Khoshman (Alkhashman) has been enrolled in the PhD program in education and anthropology at Teachers College, Columbia University where she is focused on education in local communities in Jordan. Afaf also has a masters degrees in Arab studies from Georgetown University and a masters degrees in translation from the University of Jordan.
1 Bisharat, Emily. 2004. Personal Memoirs Collected by the Emily Bisharat Center for Documentation. Amman: Jordanian Women's Union.
2 Pratt, Nicola. A History of Women’s Activism in Jordan: 1946-1989. 5/26/2015. Retrieved from: https://www.7iber.com/society/a-history-of-womens-activism-in-jordan-1946-1989/
3 According to Atyiat 2012, the number increased to 39 in 1990s after it was only few in 1980s.
4 Prieto ,Ana V. Ibáñez Women groups hail opening of shelter for abused women. 8/2/2018. Retrieved from: http://www.jordantimes.com/news/local/women-groups-hail-opening-shelter-abused-women
5 Nimiri, Nadine. In Jordan, Women still accept violence. 11/28/2015. Retrieved from: https://raseef22.com/life/2015/11/28/%D9%81%D9%8A%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B1%D8%AF%D9%86%D8%8C
6 Kay Magistad, Mary. Why do so few women work (for pay) in Jordan? 3/8/2017. Retrieved from: https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-03-08/why-do-so-few-women-work-pay-jordan.
Books and chapters cited:
al-Tal, Suhair. Muqadimat hawla qadiyat al-mar̓a w-al-haraka al-nisa̓iya f-il-Urdun. Beirut: al-Mu̓asasa al-̒Arabiya li-l-Dirasat wa-l-Nashr, 1988.
Atiyat, Ibtesam. “Harvests of the Golden Decades: Contemporary Women's Activism in Jordan”. In: Mapping Arab Women's Movements: A Century of Transformations from Within. Pernille Arenfeldt and Nawar Al-Hassan Golley(Eds). Cairo 2012.
Atiyat, Ibtesam. The Women's Movement in Jordan: Activism, Discourses and Strategies. Freie Universität Berlin, 2003.