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A Cacophony of Voices: The Positions of Women in Jordan


June 23, 2013

Written by Lavinia Steinfort, International Relations ACHRS

The students are trickling in and the first and foremost feminist professor of the University of Jordan resolutely opens the debate. Like other weeks, a short story will be discussed; this week covers 'A Girl called Apple'.

The story is about a 40-year-old Bedouin woman who refuses to display the flag on the tent, which would show the passing travelers that someone in the household, indeed herself, is available for marriage. It is not about apples or flags but traditions in society that commoditize women. The students, male and female insightfully make the comparison with Jordanian society. Most students overtly oppose these traditions and confirm the urgent need for change. Few students try to challenge this critical stance towards tradition with cultural relativism. The professor responds by saying that dehumanizing traditions must change because they culminate in discrimination and marginalization. The story ends with Apple, after decades of resistance, deliberately putting the flag up. After all, she is not against marriage but against this oppressive tradition. A couple of students rise up and call Apple a loser for giving in. The professor says one has to be sensitive to these small steps since change cannot happen overnight. Her stance clearly tries to strike a balance between those students who can for now only agree in thought, and those who are already able to act accordingly.                                         

The position of women in Jordan is varied and hard to pinpoint precisely. The great dispersion in financial capital, geographic location and social upbringing creates a diverse population with miscellaneous views on women. Since my arrival in Jordan nine months ago I was told that the women have the choice to veil themselves or can go around without. On the bus a young veiled woman told me she started wearing the niqab a few years ago because she feels more comfortable in it. Over the past few years, support for the Muslim Brotherhood increased substantially. Simultaneously, women (mainly upper class) are more public, outspoken and active then they were a decade ago. In the seventies, however, hair, T-shirts and miniskirts were no curiosity. Since then, the perceived 'Islamization' from below may have functioned as a way to give many Jordanian people a set of societal morals that are perceived as religious. This change evolved after the fall of Nasser and his pan-Arabic, secular ideology in 1970 and later on because of the Iranian revolution of 1979. On the one hand, public opinion depicts women as obedient and dutiful. On the other hand, many males and females agree that women are already empowered; two views that can often go hand in hand. The girl who decides to wear the niqab seems to express this ambivalent sentiment in exercising her freedom, by choosing to cover herself in the most modest way she can.

Jordan has had a Women's Union since 1945 and women received the right to vote in 1974. From 2004 to 2009, CEDAW[1] was signed[2], a women's shelter and a family reconciliation house were established, and the Family Protection Law for handling cases of domestic abuse came into effect (Husseini 2010: 1) It is important to understand that Jordanian law is heavily influenced by tribal traditions and originates from the Napoleonic code and Islamic law. Shari’a law rules over the personal status of women, including heritance, marriage and divorce (Ibid.: 3). According to Shari’a women are entitled to an equal share of the inheritance, though in practice a woman receives only half of what a man inherits. Nevertheless, a woman can use it for herself in contrast to men who have to support all dependent family members with it. Either way it is not uncommon to see women pressured into abstaining from demanding their share. To marry, a woman should be at least 18 years old, but in reality 14-year-olds are still getting married. Muslim men are allowed to practice polygamy, if they can prove their ability to support all their wives financially. However, in 2002 only 0.03% of male Muslims were married with four wives, 0,9% 'had' three spouses, compared to 8,1% who were married to two women (Ibid.: 9). Due to so called 'conservative' and 'liberal' trends it is hard to say if these percentages dropped or increased. In addition, men can marry women of any faith, whilst female Muslims are limited to marrying within the religion. Similarly, when women marry a non-Jordanian their children do not have the civil rights to work, to have access to education and health services of the government, and have to pay yearly residency fees of 400 JD. Regarding divorce, both men and women can divorce arbitrarily without any reason, but for a woman it implies that she has to return her dowry and all rights to financial support. Otherwise, women have to choose between a limited set of reasons or prove that they have been victims of domestic abuse by providing two male witnesses.

Domestic abuse is another issue which, together with honor killings, resulted in gender-directed arrest and detention. If women are considered to be threatened by their families they are ‘protected’ through imprisonment. It has been reported that at any moment about 25 women are incarcerated, some for over 10 years. They can be bailed out, but for a fee of more than 5000 JD and only by a male warden. To come back to honor killings, according to the Jordanian penal code charges of rape can be dropped if the perpetrator agrees to marry the victim, without need for her consent. The aggressor only serves two months to three years in jail if the murder is committed in a ‘moment of rage’, because of an unlawful or dangerous act by the victim. Moreover, if the victim and perpetrator are part of the same family charges are more like to be dropped, and sentences reduced. About 20 honor killings are committed annually in Jordan. The inequality, dependency and vulnerability of women directly relates to the protection women need according to Jordanian law and society. Until the age of 40, single women like Apple are, by law, of limited legal capacity and must have a male custodian that acts on behalf of the woman's interest. In case these women object to the guardian’s decision she loses her right to financial support (Ibid.: 8). Gender-discriminatory laws are ultimately hard to challenge, in part because gender is not addressed in the Constitution.

On a more positive note, Jordanian women contributed 8% to the GDP in 2007 which is now expected to be over 10%. In the same year, 37% of employees in the public sector were female, compared to 12% in the private sector, while in 1990 only 2,6% women participated in the labor market. However unemployment was in 2008 24,4% among women and 10,1% among men. More than 60% of the women occupy social positions, yet the number of female entrepreneurs, administrators and managers is clearly on the rise. Female participation is also reportedly increasing in Islamist organizations. Furthermore, in 2010 Jordan’s courts counted 40 female judges, against 600 males, and in 2007 women held a modest 5,3% of the leading positions in political parties (Ibid: 22). Simultaneously a few quotas were enforced, like the 10% quota in the parliament and the 20% quota in municipality elections in which 215 seats were won by women, 195 through quota and 20 through competition. Jordan had four female Ministers and in the 2013 elections 191 women on the voters list[3]. Both etic and emic[4] perspectives voice the importance of role models, such as politicians, to empower women. With a variety of icons, more and more girls have access to education, illiteracy amid women is vastly decreasing, and 55% of university graduates from 2000-10 were female. Despite these moderate successes, labor participation of women is still impeded by the shortage of higher-educated positions and the approval that females need from their husband. Although, when a woman is already working before the wedding, the husband cannot forbid his spouse to work. This being said, now in 2013 it is getting more common and generally accepted for women to study and work, which is related to both changing beliefs of and about women and increasing living expenses.

To know where the women in the Hashemite Kingdom are heading, last year needs closer examination. The women's movement tried to amend gender-equality to Article 6 of the Constitution, which was promised to them. The feminists wanted to add gender to the stipulation 'there shall be no discrimination between Jordanians as regards to their rights and duties of race, language and religion'. By excluding gender from the Constitution, Jordanian women cannot go to court to insist on their full citizen rights. The movement's request for equal pay between men and women has also been ignored. On top of that Jordanian women have had no part in the Independent Elections Commission and current government. While fights for women’s rights are continuing, conservative beliefs are entrenched in the parliament and on the ground. According to the New York Times[5] the population is too occupied with getting food on the table in times of a worsening economy than to cry out against inequality. But who are these people? The outlook for women who are not middle or higher class in the whole of Jordan remains rather limited, and they are reported to constitute more than 85% of Amman’s female population. That does not mean that change, slow as it is, is not underway, nor that the progress of middle and higher class women is not important, but it signifies that a shrinking economy time and time again will result in the marginalization of women, as well as other minorities. However, amongst other groups the battle for citizenship for the children of women who are married to non-Jordanians continues. Also, the women's movement says to have high hopes that they will achieve the above and ensure 30% of female representation in the political arena[6].  

Despite, but also because of numerous laws, initiatives and gradual developments, patriarchal norms are still present in Amman as well as elsewhere in Jordan. One telling example is that of Ola Thaibar who was a parliamentary candidate for the Southern Badia district in the recent elections. Her husband's family forced him to divorce her when she continued her candidacy against their wishes. Thaibar nonetheless persisted in calling for better labor rights for women and young Jordanians[7]. This candidate had the strength and power to negotiate the patriarchic role play, implying that patriarchy is still in place, especially for the less fortunate women who cannot afford to choose otherwise and for those women who consciously endorse more orthodox beliefs, who still seem to be in the majority. The latter is especially interesting as these women express their empowerment by criticizing women who do not share their reading of Islam. Women of the Islamic Action Front protesting against CEDAW last month illustrates this. Women who voice their disagreement with discriminatory practices and traditions, or at least revived traditions, and who are outspoken on women’s rights are more often perceived as agents of the West. It is a polarized discussion that when played out, is centered in Amman, with doubts if this includes East Amman. However by dichotomizing cultural 'traditionalism' and 'liberalism' I am complicit in the very notion I am concerned about. These simplifying terms carry the seeds of conflict instead of working towards reconciliation. Therefore, it is important to recognize variation and nuance, for example the multiple reasons for wearing the hijab, which is no straightforward choice. A hijab can be worn because you believe in modesty, because you prefer to blend in, because it's beautiful, because you do not have water to wash your hair or because of your political beliefs.

The above is only a glimpse of the different processes that are at stake, which are internalized, endured and contested by women in contrasting and sometimes surprising ways. Without overreacting, being a woman in Jordan can be difficult, or at least challenging. Despite being a well-respected business woman, your male relatives may insist that you are home before 8pm. Still, a high number of domestic workers are subjected to forced labor or even imprisonment by their, most often female, employers. Some families deny their girls the opportunity to continue education when they turn 16, whilst other girls are only allowed to attend higher education elsewhere if they keep in touch with home hourly. It is still common to see the merciless way women judge others who are flirting while wearing a hijab. As a foreigner I am being always asked if I am American, i.e. an agent of the West, or Russian, which connotes prostitution. Is being yelled at in the streets and having cars follow you just something you have to get used to? Just grow a thick skin is what I used to say. I am not in the position to judge nor do I want to be. Yet I believe dialogue has to happen both amongst women and with the rest of society to get an actual understanding of each other’s views, why they differ and what is the aspired goal. This is already happening among the students who were both defending and disapproving the actions of Apple. Although this faction may not be representative for all of Jordan's women, it could be the catalyst when more and more differing groups get in touch, in order to find common ground, grow closer and perhaps harmonize the cacophony of women's duties and rights. As for my part, I should start standing up to those cars that chase me, task them about their behavior and demand more respect.

This article does not presume to speak on behalf of Jordanian women but simply tries to shed light on some of the issues women in Jordan face. I am aware the above is subjective. In case you have anything to add, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and I will upload your comments.



Husseini, R., 2010, 'Jordan' chapter in Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress Amid Resistance. New York: Freedom House.