The politics of women’s rights promotion in Jordan

The promotion of women’s rights through the introduction of gender quotas in Jordan is being used to score points on ‘democratization’ and to present a ‘modern’ face to the world. What are the prospects for women’s empowerment?

Marta Pietrobelli
1 July 2013

Like other countries in the Middle East, Jordan has been at the receiving end of ‘democracy promotion assistance’, which includes provisions for the promotion of gender equality and the greater political representation of women. What are the intended and unintended results of these measures, and how should we evaluate them in the context of past and more recent protests?

Jordan’s critical position in the region, often defined as a ‘buffer state’ or as ‘a “safe zone” in a sea of unrest’, is narrowly connected to the financial relationship with the United States, which places Jordan among the top 10 recipients of US foreign aid. In March 2013, President Barack Obama, while visiting the country, pledged $200 million to help the country to cope with the flux of Syrian refugees which is dramatically increasing at a rate of around 5,000 refugees per day in the northern border Za’atari Camp. This funnelling of money is not only directed to economic and military assistance, but also to what is commonly known as ‘democracy promotion programmes’. These activities include an increase of women’s political participation, and follow both the global gender equality rhetoric of international donors and foreign governments’ agendas.  Although these programmes focusing on ‘women’s empowerment initiatives’ mushroomed after September 11, 2001 in conflict and post-conflict countries, Jordan has been also been a target of these initiatives. 

One of the consequences of pouring large amounts of funding into women’s rights promotion has been the adoption of affirmative action measures, including gender quotas to increase women’s political participation in national parliaments. After the last elections held in January 2013, the presence of women in parliament was still very low – 12.2% in the Lower House and 11.7% in the Upper House. What are the interests behind the adoption of gender quotas? And how are these measures incorporated into broader efforts for the promotion of women’s rights in the country?

The problematic adoption of gender quotas

The ‘global gender equality regime’ that finds expression in the third UN Millennium Development Goal and demands that a specific proportion of parliamentary seats be held by women by 2015, rapidly created an economic incentive to incorporate women institutionally into the political systems of the countries concerned. Most of the countries that took this rhetoric on board did not have good reputations for upholding women’s rights - as was the case in Jordan.

Gender quotas in the Jordanian parliament were first introduced in 2003, with 6 seats reserved to women, raised in 2010 to 12 seats, and this year to 15 seats. In 2007 a 20% threshold was also introduced for municipal elections and increased to 25% in 2011. When female candidates, women’s rights activists and the elected women I interviewed in 2010–2011 agreed to the introduction of gender quotas, they considered this to be a temporary measure. They justified it as one of the few means through which women could attain political representation, and they perceived this policy as a ‘royal gift’. 

Women’s organizations in Jordan, whether government-sponsored, under royal patronage or independent, although not always united, have lobbied for the introduction of gender quotas at both the parliamentary and the municipal levels.  But their lobbying activities were not the principal reason for the adoption of the measures. The introduction of quotas appeared to be more directly linked to gaining financial benefits for the country through foreign funding, on the one hand, and showing the world a ‘modern’ face, on the other. According to a governmental official I interviewed ‘the Arab world is ranked lowest in the world with regard to women’s political participation, and we need to be comparable to other countries in order to progress’. As a female candidate for the 2010 parliamentary elections confirmed, the introduction of quotas was not grounded in interest in women’s political participation, 'there is still no trust in women, but they increased the quota… only for decoration, for the media and for the international community, not for us’. The emphasis was not on women and their capabilities and potential contributions to the political arena, but was related primarily to a package of democratization that follows broader neo-liberal policies.

If the Jordanian government and parliament were genuinely interested in the empowerment of women, laws regulating violence against women would have been taken seriously and honor crimes would have been properly tackled. Violence against women, whether in the case of harassment in the streets, domestic violence or honor crimes, is a problem in Jordan, as well as it is in the region. Furthermore, women who speak up against the violence risk of being punished. In the fall semester of 2011, Professor Quawas at the University of Jordan, supported a group of students in her feminist theory class to make a short video about the sexual harassment experienced by female students on campus, and the video was posted on YouTube. In September 2012, Professor Quawas was dismissed from her post by a decision of the university’s board of trustees. The film was considered harmful to the university’s reputation, and the degradation of the learning environment at the university caused by widespread sexual harassment was not addressed.

In line with this desire to denounce gender inequalities, in June 2012 a diverse range of protesters, organized by four groups of activists, took to the streets in Amman to peacefully demonstrate against gender inequalities.  By creating a ‘human chain’ they contested the rape-marriage law, which allows rape charges to be dropped if the perpetrator agrees to marry the victim, women's rights to citizenship, honor crimes, and women’s harassment. The protest received mixed and controversial comments; nevertheless it indicated the extent to which the young generation is starting to challenge gender norms and inequalities in Jordan. 

Although new ways of demonstrating and protesting are developing in Jordan, the government is still not willing to address the issue of violence against women in any depth. Since it is arguable that the principal motive is to ‘look good’ at the regional and international level, and to look ‘modern’ and show that democracy is being ‘promoted’ through the adoption of gender quotas, a substantive discussion on women’s rights is being by-passed – rights that if guaranteed would challenge the status quo. Gender quotas in Jordan are not being adopted in response to a demand for women’s rights; and the promotion and use of women’s political participation can be seen as constituting a form of embedded feminism, or a ‘soft option’ that operates to cloak other political and economic aims. 

What future for women’s rights promotion ? 

The challenge in Jordan clearly goes beyond the urgent need for female representation in politics. Women’s rights are a fundamental aspect of democratization, but they run the risk of being instrumentalized by international and national interests. Publicizing the introduction of specific measures that are well received in the West and the public role that Queen Rania has adopted as the ‘promoter’ of women’s rights, although very contested internally, have helped to create the impression that Jordan is paying attention to women’s rights.  However, women in Jordan continue to face severe forms of discrimination. Independent organizations do not always have enough room for manoeuvre, because of the strict control of civil society by the state. 

The few other opposition forces that are resisting co-optation by the state appear to be Islamist political parties, particularly the Islamic Action Front, which boycotted the last elections, but has the capability of mobilizing the streets as the demonstrations after Friday prayers reveal. This party has female followers, but their positions on gender justice are often very conservative. Although the role of the Islamic Action Front does not appear to be as overt in Jordan as Islamist parties in other countries in the region, its power, though latent, is present. We may therefore be witnessing a paradox: a situation where on the one hand the state instrumentalizes women’s rights as a democratic façade through ad hoc women’s organizations, such as the Jordanian National Commission for Women, or through the introduction of measures such as gender quotas, and on the other, opposition movements that challenge the state but have gender regressive platforms.

In a country where there is both eagerness to ‘appear modern’, and a lack of effort to challenge gender inequalities, the role of women’s organizations is more central now than ever. Yet, women’s organizations, particularly government-related or royal supported, walk a tightrope between government co-optation and the promotion of women’s rights. As long as the promotion of women’s rights is associated with government and organizations operating under royal patronage in a context where the role of state is becoming increasingly discredited and challenged, there is a danger that this will eventually produce a backlash against women’s rights promotion in Jordan, as is already the case in Egypt

Although in there have been indications of change, the euphoria experienced at the beginning of the demonstrations back in 2011 is decreasing day by day, as unemployment rates soar and proper political reforms fail to materialize; in this uncertain situation, demands for women’s rights risk being sidelined once again. As a women’s rights activist from Jordan recently told me: ‘I am not pessimistic, I am realistic; if things continue to work in this way, the status of women’s rights in the country won’t get any better’.





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