JORDAN: Women's Rights at a Standstill in Jordan

Wednesday, November 7, 2012
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Human Rights

On a warm day late last month a crowd filed into a white tent outside the royal palaces in Amman to hear a much-anticipated speech by King Abdullah II on the country's political future.

“We are failing this generation,” said Abla Abu Elbeh, secretary general of the Jordanian People's Democratic Party and a former member of Parliament.

Although the invitees included various dignitaries — former politicians, tribal leaders, journalists, even Islamists — they included only a few women: and when the men interrupted the speech to chant loyalty slogans, those few seemed to disappear from sight entirely.

In his speech, the king encouraged participation in the elections, which are expected in January, and spoke about street protests, saying calls for overthrowing the regime were “regrettable.” He said that “every individual in this society is part of this regime.” But he failed to mention the current struggle for women's rights in Jordan, which he has mentioned in the past.

Since popular uprisings swept the region, the Jordanian government has stated that political and economic reforms are key to the country's future stability and prosperity. Yet, despite the formation of numerous committees and commissions, there has been little emphasis on women's issues.

Women's rights have played only a limited role in demonstrations. Some female demonstrators have called for children they have had with non-Jordanian husbands to gain citizenship. While some women have been active in street protests, they have mostly focused on calls for broader economic and political changes.

Jordan is a relatively poor country, with almost 14 percent of its population living under the poverty line. As with other countries in the region, unemployment is high, especially among women and youth.

Among Jordanians with advanced degrees, two-thirds of those without jobs are women — despite 55 percent of graduates over the past decade being female, according to the department of statistics.

“We know that throughout history women in Jordan stood against colonialism and defended the homeland. They were out protesting in the streets and played an integral part of building this country, but today we are failing to achieve equality,” said Abla Abu Elbeh, secretary general of the Jordanian People's Democratic Party and a former member of Parliament.

“We are failing this generation, ” she said.

Women remain largely absent from key leadership positions in what could be a crucial period in the country's history. For instance, when a National Dialogue Committee was appointed last year to weigh reforms proposed by the king, only four of its 52 members were women.

“That was a weakness,” Taher Masri, the committee's chairman and president of the Senate, said in an interview in July. “However, we considered ourselves on the side of women and their cause.”

Some Jordanians think the absence of women in government positions since political upheaval began in the region over a year ago is a step backwards. Others say that their absence in high-profile political posts is an understandable result of the way women are traditionally viewed in politics. Jordan's conservative culture, the argument goes, makes it difficult for women to play prominent political roles.

Last autumn, many women and human rights advocates criticized the committee drafting a new constitution for not including the concept of gender equality in a sentence in the document that barred discrimination “on grounds of race, language or religion.”

“We demanded that the word gender be included in Article 6 because based on this, other laws that discriminate against women could be amended as well,” said Ms. Abu Elbeh.

“It was a big loss for Jordanian women, but we discovered that even in Parliament itself there wasn't much support for this among both men and even some women because there is a trend of conservatism, ” she said.

The lower house of Parliament is elected while the upper house is appointed by the king, who also appoints and dismisses prime ministers and cabinets.

Even some government insiders acknowledge that women have been left out.

“The political environment here has not been friendly to those who are socially secluded, including women,” said Malek Twal, head of the Ministry of Political Development.

Six speakers, including Mr. Twal, at a panel last month in Amman that was called “Equality, So When?” spoke about the challenges that continue to hold women back politically.

The discussion pinpointed one shift since the Arab Spring that has not helped women — a rise in religious conservatism.

“Our society is still patriarchal and tribal even inside the political domain. Small tribes sometimes send a woman representative to run for Parliament but they still think it's their domain,” said Layla Naffa, project director at the Arab Women's Organization, a nongovernmental organization that was founded in 1970 by a group of female activists in Jordan.

Even though they choose a female representative, the idea is to stump for bread-and-butter issues rather than female empowerment, she said.

“They don't really want her to represent women's rights, ” Ms. Naffa said.

While female participation in the Jordanian Parliament has increased over the past decade, it still remains low. On average, women hold 16 percent of parliamentary seats worldwide, according to the World Bank. Women in Jordan hold only about 10 percent in Parliament seats through a quota system.

Even though a 1974 law gave women the right to campaign and serve in office, few were elected. The late King Hussein put through legislation requiring a quota for the number of women in Parliament.

A new election law was recently passed that increases the quota for women to 15 seats from 12. But that is still a small proportion of the 140 lower house seats.

The elections committee, which drew up the plans, did not include any women. The new government announced this month by the king — the fifth since the Arab Spring began — also did not include women. As recently as 2004 there were four women in the cabinet.

“We have 100 women judges, we have qualified women but women continue to be absent from key positions since the Arab Spring and this is a worrying development,” said Ms. Abu Elba.

“This is only being talked about in political circles but the people on the street are only concerned with the deteriorating economic conditions, ” she said.

Judging from comments on social media, some Jordanian women don't seem to think a woman or two in the cabinet is an important indicator of gender equality.

“I don't see this as a big deal, it is not a must to have a woman minister!” wrote Christina Twal on Twitter.

Alia Gharaibeh replied: “Actually the women who were appointed have always failed to support women issues.”

Jordanian women aren't alone in being largely shut out of political office.

Women now make up only 2 percent of the current Parliament in Egypt and there are also no women on the Constitutional Committee amending Egypt's Constitution.

“The absence of women in Egyptian political life is tragic. The first Arab women conference was held in Cairo in 1944 and we always looked up to the women there,” said Ms. Abu Elbeh who is planning to run for Parliament in January.

“I am afraid that what is happening to women in Egypt is a prediction of what will happen in Jordan.”