By Muna Matouq
New feminist movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp may be shaking up the Western world, but in other countries, women still live without the legal protection the West takes for granted.
Jordan is a prime example of this, with one of the worst rankings in the Global Gender Gap Index.
Despite some recent changes to outdated laws, in 2015 Jordan’s position in the index fell to 140 out of 145 countries, its lowest level since the nation was first ranked in 2006. This is partly due to women’s unusually low participation in the workforce.
Only 15 percent of women in Jordan work, and unemployment among women stands at 46 percent. In 2017, the country was ranked 138th for women’s economic participation. The female unemployment rate actually rose in 2017.
This is surprising, since more women than men now attend college. And it is not due to women wanting to stay at home, as common stereotypes might suggest. A report from UN Women in October 2016 found that around 57 percent of women in Jordan who are not working would in fact like to work.
Males are decision-makers in households.
There are many reasons why Jordan lags on this front. The Constitution does not explicitly outlaw job discrimination based on gender. It says the government “shall ensure a state of tranquility and equal opportunities to all Jordanians.”
But male members of households are the decision-makers when it comes to women joining the workforce, according to an article published by the Brookings Institution, a U.S. think tank.
“Moreover, somewhat surprisingly, observations showed that younger men are becoming even more stringent in their role as economic providers and authoritative household members,” the article said.
“A female living in a family headed by the grandfather or the father has greater likelihood to join the workforce than her counterpart living in a family headed by brothers or husband.”
Another reason why women are reluctant to join the workforce is harassment in the workplace. The Jordanian Constitution does not specify what is meant by assault in Article 29 of the Labor Law, and victims are mostly women.
There have been moves to benefit working women. In February, a parliamentary committee adopted an amendment that would require employers to provide daycare centers if their employees had a total of at least 15 children among them. The measure would also give fathers two days of paternity leave.
But Jordan also has a gender pay gap, mostly in the private sector.
“Physical, psychological and emotional harm”
And a major impediment to equality is early marriage or child marriage. In 2016, there were 10,907 cases of early marriage in Jordan – although most of the married girls were Syrian refugees – and 13 percent of them ended in divorce in the same year, according to Sisterhood Is Global Institute – Jordan, an international non-governmental organization.
Last year, the legal minimum age for marriage was raised to 18 for both sexes. But an exception was allowed for girls aged 15 to 18, as long as the age difference is no more than 15 years between the husband and wife and the marriage does not prevent the girl from continuing her education. These marriages must be approved by a judge.
For the most part, poverty is the driving force behind early marriages. A teenage girl is seen as a burden for a poor family, and marriage is seen as an escape for her and a relief for them.
This phenomenon is dangerous, warns feminist and activist Zuleikha Abu Risheh. “Many studies have shown that girls marrying at a young age will be subjected to all forms of physical, psychological and emotional harm. Individuals should be full grown-ups to be responsible enough to carry out their marriage duties,” she told the Jordan Times last year.
Women’s rights are human rights.
Despite numerous obstacles to women’s equality, there have been some positive developments recently, particularly with respect to rape and honor killings.
A law that allowed a rapist to be cleared of his crime by marrying the victim was repealed last year, a major change. Opposition to Article 308, which had originated in the French colonial penal code, was led by Bani Mustafa, the first member of Parliament to propose abolishing it, and Princess Basma, who used her prominence in the media to call for change.
The Royal Committee, which was established in October 2016 to review Jordan’s penal code, then ordered parliament to review the statute, which it finally did in August 2017.
What is more, there are signs that attitudes towards honor killings are changing within the Jordanian government, albeit slowly. The sentence for two brothers who killed their sister was doubled last year, from seven and a half to 15 years imprisonment for one and from 10 to 20 years imprisonment for the other.
In December 2016, the government’s Iftaa Department, which regulates religious questions, issued a fatwa saying that honor killings are incompatible with Islam. This was seen as a major shift as most Jordanian men who favor honor killings offer religious reasons to support their argument.
Last summer, Parliament abolished Article 98, which had stipulated that men who committed an honor killing “in a state of great anger” were subject to a less stringent penalty.
It is important for any country to realize that women’s rights are human rights, too. But many more changes are still needed in Jordan to reach that goal, ensuring a safe and equal society for women.
(Editing by Sue Landau)
Muna Matouq is from Amman, Jordan and Nagoya, Japan. She recently finished her high school studies at King’s Academy in Jordan. Her interests include languages, social issues and travelling. Starting in October, she will be studying social sciences in Japan.