Lauren Aarons, Amnesty International's legal adviser and lead researcher, addresses a press conference launching the report "Imprisoned women, stolen children: Policing sex, marriage and pregnancy," Amman, Jordan, October 23, 2019. (Khalil Mazraawi/AFP via Getty Images)

Guardians of the Women’s Galaxy

Some of Jordan’s laws are used to reinforce the power male custodians have over women

If you think Saudi Arabia is the only country in the Middle East with male guardianship laws, think again.

Jordan, a country that has a reputation for being progressive relative to the Arab world in general, also has male guardianship enshrined in legislation. Furthermore, laws that have nothing to do with male custodianship are sometimes used to reinforce the men in charge.

A report released in late October by Amnesty International called on the Hashemite kingdom to, among other things, “end the arbitrary detention” of women who do not adhere to the wishes of the male relative in charge of them, often a father or a brother.

Regional governors use the 1954 Crime Prevention Law to imprison people without arraignment for long periods of time. Amnesty notes that these officials use this act to justify jailing women whose well-being has been threatened by guardians or other male relatives or even for leaving home without permission from their guardians, which does not violate any directives.

“The crime prevention law of 1954 doesn’t provide governors or any other authorities the power to detain women to protect them, but it’s been misused in this way,” Lauren Aarons, legal adviser for Amnesty International and lead researcher on the report titled “Imprisoned women, stolen children: Policing sex, marriage and pregnancy,” told The Media Line.

A woman can be taken into custody for nonmartial sex, which is against the law, at the behest of her male relative or spouse. At least in the case of the former, only women and girls are impacted; men are not jailed at the behest of relatives for nonmarital sex.

“A male guardian can make a complaint that she had sex outside of marriage, which could trigger a criminal investigation and, potentially, prosecution. There’s no comparison for men,” Aarons said. “Men aren’t subjected to a male guardian who can make a complaint about a man.”

Amnesty noted that while the Jordanian prime minister’s office denied detaining women for going out without their custodians’ approval, the organization found 22 women at Juweidah prison who were detained because of non-excused absences and sex outside of marriage. The number of women in that jail has risen to at least 30 in September according to “informed sources,” the report says.

Jordan’s guardianship laws also impact women’s prospects from an early age, as their custodians decide if and what they study, and what profession, if any, they will be allowed to pursue. Thus, the trajectory of a woman’s life largely depends on the family she was born into.

“There are two types of families in Jordan. … The first type will not do anything against the [norms of] society; the second let their girls study at any age and allow them to learn what they want like music,” Heba Zuhair, a theater manager in Jordan working in education, training, and the empowerment of women and girls, told The Media Line.

She explained that guardians must approve of their wards’ jobs. Zuhair says a family may not send a daughter out to work if, for example, her place of employment is located outside the city or town in which she resides.

Iqbal Hassan, director of the women’s empowerment and gender program at the Jordanian Hashemite Fund for Human Development, a government-created nonprofit organization, believes one of the biggest challenges Jordanian women face is joining the workforce.

“The rate of participation of Jordanian women in the economy [15.2%] is one of the lowest in the world. … Their unemployment rate is double, indicating a shortage of jobs available to women despite their high level of education,” she told The Media Line.

“Women not only face a harder time findings jobs but they also face discrimination; employers prefer not to hire them for fear of losing them after they have children,” she continued. “Social norms and the culture influence women’s economic participation by either hindering or pushing women and girls to specific fields of work and limiting the opportunities to become leaders in their communities.”

Many women, Hassan explained, are drawn to the health and education sector, for example. She also notes that women are often paid less than men.

If the woman or girl does not see eye to eye with her guardian, her only recourse is through the legal system.

Zuhair explained that this presents a social barrier for the women who wish to pursue this route.

“Many feel shy to go to a lawyer and the government; it goes against the culture to go and say that ‘my dad is forcing me to stay at home,’” she said. “It’s a huge problem for the girls.”

Despite all of this, Zuhair feels optimistic about the direction Jordan is headed in regard to the guardianship system.

“Nowadays, most families care about their girls and their futures,” she said.

Hassan believes that men are crucial partners in improving the plight of women in Jordan.

“To have buy-in [at all levels of society] … you need also to address the men, leaders and influencers at the community level to advocate for women’s rights economically, socially and politically,” Hassan said.

She is also hopeful about the future for Jordanian women.

“I believe that changing behaviors takes time. Never expect the outcomes immediately after your interventions,” Hassan said.

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