Dec 20 2019

Despite landmark gains, Jordan’s women don’t see the end of male guardianship

Jordanian women still have a way to go in their fight to end an abusive male guardianship system ruling their lives and bodies regardless of some positive achievements made in the past years

Restrictions and violations against female family members take place across different governorates [Getty]

Last month, a 25-year old woman was reportedly left 100 percent blind after her husband took her eyes out following a domestic dispute at their home in the Jordanian city of Jerash. The man was charged with causing permanent disability, a crime that could land him a sentence ranging from three to 15 years in prison.

News of the horrendous assault sparked outrage across the country after it circulated on social media. Hundreds of Jordanians staged a sit-in to urge better legal and social protection for women victims of domestic violence.

“The key in protecting women is to have laws that protect them properly, so perpetrators do not get away with their crimes easily,” an activist at the gathering, Laila Abu Aloleh, told 7Dnews.

Earlier in October, another Jordanian husband horrifically beat his wife to death in the town of Al Rasifa, in Jordan’s Al Zarqa’a governorate. Many called on authorities to immediately refer the man to public prosecution while some were concerned that legal loopholes could be applied like in other similar cases.

Dozens of women in Jordan face attempted murders, death threats and physical abuse at the hands of their own families.

The incidence of these cases falls in the logic of an existing male “guardianship” system that controls women’s lives and limits their personal freedoms.

Under this abusive system, drawing from some provisions in the personal status law, a male relative (normally the father, brother or uncle) holds certain powers over women in various aspects of life, from their movement to sexual activity and reproduction.

Restrictions and violations against female family members take place across different governorates with the complicity of Jordanian authorities in varying degrees, much at the discretion of governors.

“It’s a dominant practice. Local governors exercise power that goes above the law on the pretext of a reality where a family could kill their daughter if they found out she had sex outside marriage,” argued Salma Nims, secretary-general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW).

Until proven “innocent”, a girl or woman can be suspected of having a sexual affair even if she chats with a man by phone or shares pictures of herself with him.

In the event she leaves her family home, after more than one day of absence by default she becomes a “runaway” thought guilty of misconduct. The family will then report her “absent”.

As such, provincial governors would administratively detain many women under the guise of “precautionary” custody – as their relatives may want to kill them – for several reasons such as leaving home without her male guardian’s permission, sex or pregnancy outside marriage, leaving their families after being forcedly married, or suffering and surviving physical attacks from male family members.

For these female detainees who are at risk of “honour killing” to be freed, governors typically request that male guarantors sign for their release.

These may be sometimes the same relatives who threatened the woman’s safety. There have been cases in which protection orders, although signed, have not protected women from being hurt or killed.

A recent report released by Amnesty International in late October denounced the discriminatory male “guardianship” system under which Jordanian women can be put in arbitrary detention or subjected to degrading “virginity tests” if their male guardians complain to the authorities.

The human rights organisation interviewed 121 people for the report, including women held in Juwaideh correctional facility, the main women’s jail in Jordan.

“This practice of putting women in administrative detention without charge, trial, or due process, has no legal basis,” Amnesty’s legal adviser and researcher Lauren Aarons pointed out.

“The country’s crime prevention law has been misused to grant governors the power to do that.”

In Jordan, women under the age of 30 need the consent of a male guardian to get married, and adult pre-marital sex is punishable by up to three years in prison.

Some unmarried women detained for “absence” told Amnesty that they were ordered to submit to virginity tests by Family Protection or family members.

Testimonies provided by the rights group showed those imprisoned were, in many cases, fleeing abusive homes, or running away after their guardian blocked their choice of marriage partner.

Others were sent back to their family home after divorce, or tried to obtain custody of their children then were returned to their parents’ home.

Women pregnant outside marriage can be also forcibly separated from their newborn children. Amnesty researchers found that any unmarried woman who gives birth sees her infant systematically removed by police and placed in state-run care homes, whilst she may be imprisoned to find herself fighting for child custody.

“Unmarried women can try at the most to get their children back as forest parents. Others, mostly migrant domestic workers, have given birth at home to prevent their child being taken away from them,” Aarons continued. “Then it’s very hard for unmarried women to register their children’s birth.”

Amnesty has documented a number of instances of unmarried women who were jailed after they became pregnant as a result of rape, forcibly split from their child or denied birth registration.

“The time has now come to end the detention and ill-treatment of women simply for disobeying their male guardian or transgressing gender norms,” Heba Morayef, Amnesty’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said.

Although the law gives police full powers to hold a criminal suspect in custody, the “irony” is that a male relative who’s suspected of committing a crime against his daughter, sister or niece, is not apprehended, as the JNCW secretary-general stressed: “For the authorities it’s easier to hold a woman in jail ‘for their own safety’, instead.”

Some women spend indefinitely renewed periods in detention as long as 10-15 years.

While both men and women may be prosecuted if their spouse complains to the authorities, a woman can also be prosecuted following a complaint by her male guardian.

“Women aged 18 till 40 in Jordan are not treated fully as adults,” Razan Khatib, a feminist entrepreneur, wrote in a blog post last year complaining that Jordanian females under 40 who are unmarried or divorced are deemed “dependents” of their male guardian.

“The choice of where they live, travel is limited by the guardianship of their fathers,” she criticised in her post, “When married, the guardianship transfers to their husbands.”

The Jordanian government has carried out a number of reforms to protect women’s rights in the last several years, including opening of the Dar Amneh shelter for women in July 2018.

The newly established centre is a joint project by civil society and women’s rights groups and the Ministry of Social Development to help women at risk of violence from their own families to build new lives.

Providing a temporary alternative for women, to support rather than punish them, Dar Amneh has been commended by civil society organisations for reducing the numbers of at risk-women in so-called “protective custody”.

The shelter provides beneficiaries with the necessary psychological, social, medical and rehabilitation services, along with legal representation, case evaluation, and, if possible, family reconciliation.

As of September 2019, the safe house had hosted 75 women, 44 of them

In 2017, Jordan joined many other Arab countries in scrapping laws that allowed rapists to avoid punishment by marrying their victims, which was another welcome reform.

The kingdom also amended one article of the penal code to close a loophole granting leniency to honour killers, and judges have passed down harsher sentences in recent months.

Rana Husseini, a Jordanian activist journalist whose work has focused particularly on gender-based violence and women killed in crimes, stated that “credit should be given to the justice system” which is now dealing with honour-related murders differently.

“Twenty years ago, a man who kills a woman in name of family honour would get prison terms of three to six months, one year or maximum five. Now, it’s at least seven years up to life imprisonment depending on the cases,” The Jordan Times senior reporter said.

She pointed to changed verdicts and investigative procedures enabling to better handle crimes against women.

“When you have a serious investigation, you have serious charges being levelled against suspects. Then, you are preserving victims’ lives,” affirmed Husseini, author of the book Murder in the Name of Honour.

In recent years, as more Jordanian women have been speaking up against violence and denouncing it, an increased number of incidents of family abuse have been reported.

In the first six months of 2019, more than 7,000 cases of domestic violence were reported to Jordan’s Family Protection Unit (FPU). The unit dealt with over 11,000 cases in 2018. There were 89 cases of women being killed in 2018, according to officials. Most of the reports involved honour killing.

But the unlawful practice of administrative detention is still leaving dozens of threatened women lost in the prison system. The majority of them were detained after complaints raised to local authorities by their own family members.

“There’s still this mentality among Jordanian authorities of ‘let’s take the woman away to keep her out of problem’ rather than efforts put in prosecuting family members who threaten women’s lives,” Amnesty’s legal adviser commented.

Nims said that under a patriarchal system, women exclusively are held responsible for the family honour: “This concept of linking honour to the woman’s body is very embedded in Jordanian society, and it has been reproduced in legislation.”

Published in The New Arab on 20 December 2019

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