Detained in Jordan for disobeying men, girls use art to tell their stories

Long before COVID-19, these girls were detained under a controversial ‘male guardianship’ system. Here are some of their photos and poems

Marta Vidal
21 May 2020, 12.10pm
‘I want kindness and love,’ wrote Madeleine. She photographed birds flying in the distance from her bedroom in the juvenile detention centre

Madeleine* is 17 years old and dreams of being a chef. But her ambitions have been curtailed. She is behind bars in a juvenile detention centre in Jordan, waiting to be released into the care of a male family member.

“This is the story of a girl in prison: me,” wrote Shahed, another teenage girl, who was detained in the same al-Khanza detention centre in Amman, the country’s capital. “My wish is to live in a place without strict rules, to live free,” she said. “To have stability, to have a job, to be away from trouble and away from violence.” At the top of her letter she wrote “hope behind the steel”.

Both Madeleine and Shahed were detained under Jordan's controversial ‘male guardianship’ system, which has locked up women and girls for many months at a time without charge or trial, for activities such as leaving the family home without permission or for having sex outside marriage.

Many remain locked up amid the current pandemic, still waiting for a male guardian (usually their father or another male relative) to ‘bail’ them out.

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Well before the arrival of Jordan’s strict COVID-19 lockdown, I tried to speak to some of the teenage girls impacted by this system. I was not allowed into the al-Khanza centre to interview detainees myself, but some of the girls’ words and photos reached me through Linda Al Khoury, a photographer who did visit them.

For more than six months last year, Al Khoury went to the juvenile centre every week as part of a project to teach arts and crafts to the girls detained there.

The photos they took and the letters they wrote offer a rare insight into their lives and dreams in confinement. The art and photography workshops gave the girls a chance to speak out about their experiences while isolated from the outside world.

‘My dreams were bigger than my reality,’ wrote Madeleine. With cardboard, she built a food van to represent her ambition of having her own business

Al Khoury, who founded a photography project called Darat Al Tasweer, explains that she wanted to give thes girls “an opportunity to express themselves through photography. To tell their own stories, to express their feelings.”

“I asked them to take photos related to the concept of wandering,” she continues. “Since they couldn’t leave the detention centre, I asked them to wander in their dreams, to capture an internal journey.”

The photos the girls took show birds flying in the distance, raindrops and sunsets against steel bars, fences and barbed wire.

“When I look behind the steel bars, I feel excited for life outside. I want to leave and feel cared for. I want to leave and become a famous photographer,” wrote Shahed.

Another girl, Lubna, also detained in the same al-Khanza centre, wrote:

‘I dreamt that I have a dream, I carry it and it carries me’†
It has no colour or smell
‘I besiege it, and a ghost besieges me’†
I fly in it like a bird trying to fly
For the first time, but falling between its tweets
I see in it lots of nostalgic rain
And in my elegant dream, a sad tale
Wounded… A scared tune
It has skies, in which the thirsty find no clouds
It has no rain
I see in it the storms of hardship
And with each morning breeze, my dream ends.
Above freedom, I need a miracle
To make up for what was lost in my life
But for how much longer will I have to wait?
I will collect the stone of my strength
And turn them into clouds with rain,
To catch a glimpse of sleep.

[Poem by Lubna]

Male guardians, female prisoners

In the al-Khanza detention centre, each girl has a different story but the reasons why they are detained are very similar.

According to a 2019 Amnesty International report, many of the girls at this facility were imprisoned simply for breaking gender norms – because they disobeyed male authorities, were accused of having sex outside marriage, or because they wanted to live independently and make their own choices regarding relationships, education and mobility.

Some of the detainees are survivors of violence and sexual abuse, the report said. Most can only be released by male family members who agree to take responsibility for them.

Photo by Lubna: ‘I need a miracle to make up for what was lost in my life.’

Under Jordan’s male guardianship system, women need their guardian’s approval to get married and make other important decisions until the age of 30 (and beyond this, if they are deemed by authorities to pose risks to themselves).

Through this system, Amnesty’s report warned, the Jordanian authorities are empowering men to control women’s lives and limit their personal freedoms.

Imprisonment is used as a form of social control

Amnesty was granted access to the al-Khanza juvenile centre last year, but the NGO was not allowed to interview any of the girls there. The researchers were told that 24 girls were present in the facility – six of whom were pregnant.

Researchers also visited Juweideh, a women’s prison in Jordan, where they met 22 women jailed without charge or trial. More than half of the women said they had been imprisoned for more than three months, and many for over a year.

Amnesty estimates that every year in Jordan, hundreds of women are arrested without charge “as the state polices women’s sexual and reproductive lives and punishes perceived transgressions”. The report also details how the police can take women into custody for “virginity tests” at the request of a family member.

Lauren Aarons, an Amnesty legal advisor, told me that women and girls, including in al-Khanza, “are frequently subjected to this invasive and humiliating process, which has been recognised as form of torture and other ill-treatment”.

She said that imprisonment is often used as a form of social control and to punish those who reject male authority. Tests to determine if you have had sex reinforce the idea that male relatives have the right to monitor and control women’s bodies.

Photo by Shahed: ‘When I look behind the steel bars, I feel excited for life outside.’

Women and girls are detained under the male guardianship system by law enforcement after family members file a complaint, with any decision to send them to the al-Khanza facility overseen by a judge.

Authorities often describe such decisions as “protective custody’, with women and girls detained for their own safety. But Amnesty says this is often used as an excuse.

“Isolating women from society is not a solution,” says Aarons. “There needs to be a better way of protecting women who are in danger.” She adds that the authorities are not doing enough to address wider societal problems, change behaviours or investigate risks to women and girls from their own families.

In 2017, the Jordanian parliament approved a series of important human rights reforms – including the scrapping of the country’s infamous ‘marry your rapist’ law. In 2018, following years of advocacy by women’s rights activists, a new shelter for women and girls opened on the outskirts of Amman.

Aarons says the authorities are doing better when it comes to prosecuting abusers, but they continue to fail women when it comes to preventive and protective measures.

Photo by Nisreen

Dreaming in the dark

Trapped by a patriarchal system that polices their behaviour and punishes them for disobeying male authority, some of the girls in the detention centre struggle to imagine a bright future outside. But Al Khoury’s workshops hope to change that.

We were born from the darkness of the womb, and used to think that when we come out we will reach the light, but if this were true, then we wouldn’t leave that dark womb crying.
We lived a childhood without meaning, we found ourselves deprived of the dearest meaning: the love and care of parents. Instead we found another being, one that doesn’t give, that only deprives us. If it gives, it is only injustice and cruelty.
I found only distance and absence. I still live in darkness, but I continue looking for the path to light.
When someone knocked on my father’s door to propose, I accepted. I thought this would be my door to light. Unfortunately, it was not. I reached an unknown end. I don’t know when the light will come after all this darkness

[Poem by Nisreen]

Other detainees manage to hold on to glimmers of hope, however small.

“My dreams were bigger than reality,” writes Madeleine, the teenager with ambitions to become a chef. “I had many dreams, which I tried to express in pictures, and my first dream is to find relief, and continue flirting with my dreams, achieve them and be proud of them. But hardship is the main rule in my life. After hardship, comes relief.”

* Surnames withheld to protect identities. All the photos were taken by teenage girls held at al-Khanza juvenile detention centre in Amman. The girls’ texts were translated from Arabic by Adeeb Haddad. Photos courtesy of Linda Al Khoury.

† Quotes from poems by Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish.

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