Jordanian feminist movement and the struggle for social and political change: achievements and challenges
Written by Maisoon Al-Amarneh
Most scholars and advocates would argue that the emergence of the Jordanian Women’s Movement dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. For example, Nicola Pratt, argues that “women in Jordan have a long history of public work which dates back prior to the founding of the Jordanian state in 1920s”,1 and this work in its early stages was limited to the provision of humanitarian assistance to poor and needy people in most parts of the Kingdom.
However, while reviewing the literature available on the history of Jordanian Women’s Movement, and its long engagement in the national struggle for social and political change, the observer will notice that this movement had gone through three main phases;2 each phase was influenced by the internal political situation in Jordan, and the external political and social developments in the surrounding Arab and regional states.
During this long struggle, the Jordanian feminist movement has made significant gains in achieving equality, fighting gender-based violence and increasing participation in political and public life. Civil society organizations have played and continue to play an important role in promoting women’s rights and challenging the stereotyped image of women, and today, women enjoy, in principle, equal rights with men. Many of the legal restrictions on women such as participation in public life, education and employment were repealed. This came as a result the long struggle and demands by a group of women leaders and politicians, who were demanding women’s rights and equality, and was culminated by the government’s ratification of international human rights instruments and amendments to national legislations.3 However, this progress did not meet the aspirations of women’s movement to reach full equality in rights and duties. Women still suffer discrimination in law and in practice in a society still characterized by conservative, patriarchal and tribal norms, in “which limitations to women’s empowerment come from within families and communities, including community leaders.”4
To this extent, this article endeavours to highlight the history of Jordanian women’s movement and the empowerment of women through participation in parliamentarian and municipal elections as one of the feminism-based political agenda in Jordan.
History of the Jordanian Women’s Movement:
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the Jordanian women’s movement had gone through three main phases, each under the influence of diverse internal and external factors, in particular those related to “political transformation, the economic crisis, the changing patterns of women’s lives, and the international interest in women’s issues”.5
The first phase, 1944-1973, witnessed the establishment of the first women’s organization in 1944. Women’s actions during this period focused on providing humanitarian assistance for vulnerable people, specifically for Palestine refugees.6 In the meantime, women have attempted to break the society’s political and social isolation, but unfortunately, they remained outside the sphere of participation in political life for several decades, and were deprived from practicing their political rights. However, in mid 50s, a significant shift in favour of women rights occurred when the Parliament voted to give women with primary education to vote only without running the elections, but this was cancelled after the dissolution of the Parliament and the dismissal of the government of Suleiman Nabulsi in 1957.7
The second phase, 1973 -1989, witnessed change at the level of women’s organizations and actions, and women were more able to reinforce their efforts. This phase was also marked by the engagement of official actors with the establishment of the General Federation of Women, which shifted the women efforts from a humanitarian angle to a more organized one.8 In 1974, and after a long struggle by women movements and activists, women secured the right to vote and run for parliamentary elections under the law no. 8 of 1974. The first participation of women in the official councils was in 1978, in what was called at that time the National Consultative Council, which was formed by appointment in 1978-1984 to fill the constitutional vacuum. King Hussain then appointed three women in a council of 60 seats: Anam Mufti, Woodad Pulse and Nayla Al-Rashdan.9
The third phase, the post-liberalization, started in 1989 and could be considered the most significant regarding the advancement of women’s rights in Jordan. In this phase, more doors were open for diverse changes at the level of women’s interests and actions.10 The first year women engaged directly in the political and parliamentarian life was in 1989 elections, but they did not get any seats in the House of Representatives. In 1993, Tujan Faisal was the only female candidate elected tothe House of Representatives, thus becoming the first woman in the Jordanian parliament.11
Women’s Participation in Political and Public Life:
Jordan ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1992, which created a contest space for debate on policies, and brought about some achievements, even if slowly and minimally. Furthermore, the beginning of the 21st century witnessed significant legislative achievements in the field of women’s rights.12 This was accompanied by the intervention and involvement of Queen Rania in advocacy efforts in favour of the rights of Jordanian women through her engagement in social and charity work. The Queen announced the adoption of legal changes relating to citizenship rights and retirement, saying they “will give the Jordanian women equal rights as granted by the constitution.”13
Moreover, similar changes were facilitated by King Abdullah II. In 2002, the King approved legal amendments relating to the so-called honour crimes.
In 2017, Jordan ranked 138th in economic participation and 126th in political empowerment out of 144 countries, meaning it had some of the greatest gaps between men and women in the world.14 Progress at the level of political participation has been driven primarily by women’s quota established under the amended electoral law of 2003. However, efforts by civil society and women’s movement in Jordan encouraged more women to run for elections and even achieve victory in the ballots. The number and percentage of women in the House of Representatives has slightly increased over the last three electoral cycles both due to the quota and potential shift in social norms governing women’s political participation.15 In 2016, 15.3% of Jordan’s Member of Parliaments were women, the highest percentage in its history. Five women won through direct competition (voting) and the remaining 15 secured through quota.16
Still, several conflicting policies remain and Jordan holds reservations on two articles in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In its concluding observation on the sixth periodic report of Jordan, the United Nations Committee on CEDAW expressed concern over “the low participation of women at all levels of decision-making, including within the Government, the parliament, the judiciary and the civil service, and the lack of specific steps to address the underlying causes of the exclusion of women from decision-making, including prevailing social and cultural attitudes.”17 The Committee then recommended that Jordan adopts “measures, including temporary special measures, in accordance with article 4 (1) of the Convention and the Committee’s general recommendation No. 25, including quotas and benchmarks with specific time frames, in order to achieve the equal and full participation of women in political and public life and in decision-making at the local and national levels, including in the judiciary and the civil service.”18 Another recommendation was for Jordan to “implement awareness raising campaigns for society as a whole about the importance of women’s participation in decision-making, including the participation of women belonging to disadvantaged or marginalized groups, and offer training and mentoring programmes on leadership and negotiation skills for current and future women leaders.”19
Civil Society’s Tools and Mechanisms for Increasing Women’s Political Participation:
Civil society organizations and the women’s movement in Jordan have been working extensively to increase the number of women participating in, or running for, elections. Multiple tools and mechanisms have been utilized in order to empower women and amplify their voices in the politics and electoral process. One of these instruments is the Eye on Women Coalition which was formed by Sisterhood Is Global Institute-Jordan (SIGI-JO) during the parliamentarian elections of 2016, and was reactivated during the municipal and decentralization elections of 2017. The Coalition consists of 36 civil society organizations, women organizations and aims to monitor and observe elections from a women perspective. The Coalition was seen by women leaders and women organizations as an effective tool to advance women’s rights during elections and raise their voices for better representation at the national level.20
Asma Khader, the executive director of SIGI-JO, stated that the “objective of the Eye Coalition is to monitor the elections from a gender perspective, and to identify means to encourage women to run for decision-making positions by training and empowering them to participate in the elections without fear, as well as expanding people’s awareness of the importance of women’s political participation and the new electoral law”. Khader added that “the Coalition aims to support women to reach leadership positions at all levels, political parties, parliamentary and municipal.”21
However, the Independent Electoral Commission says that women's participation in political and public life in Jordan is still low and does not meet the aspirations of the feminist movement. According to the Commission, the political participation of women and raising their voice is one of the most important priorities of the women's movements and other civil society institutions. To achieve this, a number of basic tools are needed through which the status of women can be raised politically, this includes:22
- The need for a political will to provide fair opportunities for women in the political and social spheres
- Political parties should give women equal opportunities in comparison to men, in assuming positions and political positions in parties and other levels
- Economic support should be provided to women to enable them to run for elections
- The need for awareness and education programs for women in the field of political rights, as well as capacity building for the women engaged in the field
- The media should play a positive role in supporting and highlighting women's leadership in general, and supporting and highlighting the work of the women's movement and civil society organizations in particular.
To conclude, despite the many successes achieved by the Jordanian feminist movement, it still lacks the tools needed to promote women and raise their status in terms of political and social representation. This requires great efforts by local and international civil society organizations to implement programs that empower communities and raise awareness of women's rights and the importance of their participation in political and public life, especially women in marginalized communities in rural areas and in refugee camps.
Maisoon Al-Amarneh works as a regional development professional, with over 15 years experience in sustainable programme management in the MENA region. Al-Amarneh’s core competencies include development of sustainable business strategies, design and formulation of results-oriented programmes; conducting research studies and needs assessment on a wide range of topics including economic empowerment for youth and women in marginalized communities, women empowerment in political and public life and gender-related studies; monitoring and evaluation of humanitarian and emergency responses programs and projects; concept and proposal writing, and extensive experience in reporting to international donors including USAID and European Commission; and strategy planning, and strengthening of capacity building for civil society organizations.
1 Pratt, N (2015), “History of General Women's Work in Jordan between 1946 and 1989”, at <https://www.7iber.com/society/history-of-womens-activism-in-jordan-1946-1989/> (accessed 18th September 2018)
Al-Atiyat, I (2003), the Women’s Movement in Jordan: Activism, Discourses and Strategies, p 21
3 For example, Jordan ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1992.
4 Report of the Special Rapporteure on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Rashida Manjoo, 14 May 2012, p 19.
5 Al-Atiyat, I (2003), the Women’s Movement in Jordan: Activism, Discourses and Strategies, p 21
6Al-Atiyat, I (2003), the Women’s Movement in Jordan: Activism, Discourses and Strategies, p 55-59
7 Al-Yasin, R (2016) “ Jordanian Women in Parliament”, at < http://sawaleif.com> (accessed 15th August 2018)
8 Al-Atiyat, I (2003), the Women’s Movement in Jordan: Activism, Discourses and Strategies, p 59-62
9 Al-Yasin, R (2016) “ Jordanian Women in Parliament”, at < http://sawaleif.com> (accessed 15th August 2018)
10 Al-Atiyat, I (2003), the Women’s Movement in Jordan: Activism, Discourses and Strategies, p 64-65
11 Al-Yasin, R (2016) “ Jordanian Women in Parliament”, at < http://sawaleif.com> (accessed 15th August 2018)
12 Zaidan, H (2013), “Women’s Rights in Jordan: CEDAW and National Laws”, pp 1-2, at < https://ruor.uottawa.ca/bitstream/10393/26101/2/ZAIDAN%2C%20Haya%2020135.pdf> (accessed 17th August 2018)
13Jordan Times, November 03, 2002
14 World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report 2017, Jordan Country Profile, Geneva, 2017
15 Fiscal Reform and Public Financial Management Activity (FRPFM), USAID Publication, 23 April 2018
16 Jordan House of Representatives Data base.
17 Concluding observation on the sixth periodic report of Jordan, UN Committee on CEDAW, 9 March 2017, p 11
18Concluding observation on the sixth periodic report of Jordan, UN Committee on CEDAW, 9 March 2017, p 11
19 Concluding observation on the sixth periodic report of Jordan, UN Committee on CEDAW, 9 March 2017, p 11
21 Interview with Asma Khader, 10th August 2018
22 Interview with the Independent Electoral Commission, 14th August 2018