North Africa, West Asia

A new chapter for feminism in Jordan

More and more Jordanian women are refusing to accept the sexist status quo and choosing to change it.

Olivia Cuthbert
3 April 2017

Women's rights activists protest in front of Parliament in Amman, Jordan on the 1st of December 2016 calling for an end to violence against women. Picture from the Jordanian Women Union’s Facebook Page. Wajd Shamayleh’s family won’t discuss women’s rights at the dinner table. Too often it ends in a quarrel. In the eyes of her family, women shouldn’t talk about politics or religion. “They think a woman should study, have a degree and work but be limited in what she does or says,” explains 27-year-old Shamayleh.

Even as a child, growing up in a conservative community in Jordan, she found these restrictions difficult to digest. While her younger brothers spoke their minds freely, she was told to shush, “because as a girl you should be quiet.” For Shamayleh, the expectation that she would slot into traditional roles felt unnatural. “I had something in me that kept asking why I should follow a certain path and not have my own dreams. Why, when I wanted to start work, did it have to be a job my father found for me?

Her frustration is widely felt in Jordan, where, despite having one of the highest female literacy rates in the region, women make up just 22 percent of the workforce. “A lot of girls here are highly educated but they don’t care about getting a job at the end of their studies. They just want to get married because their family tells them that’s the best thing they can do and the only way to be complete,” says Nadine Ibrahim, 28, a local dentist who takes an active interest in women’s rights.

Like many of the barriers Jordanian women face, this disparity is rooted in a network of strict social codes, propped up by a legal system that frequently undermines the rights of women and reinforces the patriarchal status quo. Activists point to provisions that perpetuate women’s second-class status, such as the Personal Status Law, under which men may inherit twice as much as women, or the refusal to grant full citizenship rights to the children of Jordanian women (but not men) who have married foreigners.

“Feminists here don’t always identify as feminists, they see themselves as women activists”

These legal impediments, and others facing Jordanian women, have been confronted by activists across the country, often at great personal risk. Yet while Jordan has a proud history of brave women’s rights campaigners, many fear or refuse to call themselves feminists.

Reclaiming feminism

“Feminists here don’t always identify as feminists, they see themselves as women activists,” says Nadia Shamroukh director of the Jordanian Women’s Union (JWU). “Some of them criticise feminism because they have an idea that it is linked to radical ideologies and they don’t want to be associated with this and attacked by society,” she says.

Many in Jordan see feminism as a taboo subject, and a threat to the social and religious order. Others within the women’s rights community dismiss it as a predominantly intellectual movement that busy activists have little time or energy to engage with. Shamroukh is hoping to change this, starting with a new education programme designed to open up the discourse around feminism and unite it with activism.

 “The concept of feminism is very elitist here,” says Ana, who also works at JWU, explaining that the programme will target women from all backgrounds, reaching out to those in rural communities with little or no access to discussions around women’s rights. “Feminism is something that’s raised at roundtable discussions or conferences attended by highly educated women who mostly come from privileged backgrounds. It’s not inclusive. That’s what JWU is trying to do: introduce feminism as something every woman should adopt and claim as her own,” she says.

For Aseel Abu Albandora, project coordinator at JWU, feminism in Jordan means something different to feminism in the west. Jordanian feminists need to “equip themselves for the fight,” she says, by learning about their rights. “In the west people are free about taking a stand but for us to have a belief that’s not usual in this country is a struggle.” Shamroukh emphasises the importance of focusing on a feminism that’s distinct to the region rather than ideas translated from overseas. “We need a home-grown concept because our priorities are different,” she explains, adding that some feminist issues such as lesbian rights are difficult to address in a Middle Eastern context.

“Change has to come from within. We're not waiting for the west to help us"

Feminist vlogger Laila Hzaineh says it’s essential to distinguish between what’s imported from the west and what’s bred in the Middle East. “Here we’re still fighting for basic rights so movements like “free the nipple” are absolutely out of the question. We’re still trying to free our hair.” She points to a long lineage of strong Arab women to look up to. “Change has to come from within. We're not waiting for the west to help us because in the Middle East we know what it's like to have the west intervene in our problems. It’s one of the reasons feminism isn't accepted in Jordan, because it seems so "western”.”

Spreading the word

Despite these hurdles, feminism is gathering pace in Jordan as more women gain knowledge of the rights they are due and denied. “In the past, it has always been a taboo topic that people don’t want to discuss because they think it will ruin the family fabric and introduce secularism into Jordan. Now, the feminist movement has become more outspoken,” says Farah Mesmar, regional advocacy officer at Kvinna till Kvinna, a Swedish women’s rights organisation with offices in Jordan.

She points to the role played by social media in raising awareness among the younger generation, widening the scope for activism at all levels of society. “New communication methods have helped us a lot. Before, the only option was to go into the street and protest, with all the risks that entailed, but now you can do social media advocacy.”

The expansion of civil society in Jordan has also been instrumental, providing a much larger platform to unite and engage women’s activism. “Previously we had very few organisations working on feminist issues but now almost all the NGOs have a gender programme and this has opened a bigger pool for feminists to get involved,” Mesmar adds.

A political stand

The country has also seen a steady increase in the number of women taking up public office, with 20 out of 130 seats in last year’s parliamentary elections secured by women, an increase on 18 out of 150 in the previous term. However, only a handful of female parliamentarians are willing to take up women’s rights causes and those that do often face hefty opposition in the male-dominated house. “It takes a strong woman to be in parliament and face the patriarchy,” says Layla Naffa director of programmes at the Arab Women Organisation, an NGO working to increase female political participation in Jordan.

Abla Abu Elbeh, a former MP and secretary general of the Jordanian People’s Democratic Party, says female MPs feel pressured to compensate for their femininity by outperforming male colleagues. “Women have to be better than men to make up for not being male.” This compounds the challenges for female MPs looking to raise issues affecting women and confront the gender inequality that pervades Jordan’s social and legal structures. According to Elbeh, “Of the women in parliament, just three or four are effective (in this matter).”

Part of the problem is a failure to translate policy into action. Anas Al Horani, 25, a translator, editor and women’s rights campaigner, describes the tendency for feminist language to be co-opted by those looking to earn equality brownie points. “In Jordan you have authority figures claiming that they’re working for equal wages and rights between genders, but in reality they aren’t doing anything about it. The only good thing is that women’s rights are now on everyone’s lips.”

He cites the same discrepancy in social interactions between women and men. “Guys have increasingly cottoned on to the fact that women are expecting a more equal relationship and are using it to their advantage.” While the discourse around women’s rights has shifted, in many ways he says, chauvinism has simply changed shape. “Sexism has become more subtle with men using the language of social justice to seduce as many women as possible.”

A feminist future

Horani says feminist men need to voice their support more loudly, but this can be challenging in a society that draws sharp distinctions between male and female spheres. Tony Dabbas, 21, feels that being a feminist is just “common sense,” and believes lack of awareness is the problem. “In my community they make fun of me (for these views) and don’t take it seriously. Men are a big problem in this equation,” he explains.

"Feminism is not something to be ashamed of, it’s something to be proud of"

But while feminism may be variously viewed as a joke, a threat, a western import or the prerogative of the elite, more and more Jordanian women are taking it seriously by educating themselves and others about their rights. Shamroukh believes that now it’s more important than ever to invest in the younger generation and arm them with the knowledge to take the fight forward. “The revolutions across the Arab world brought all the dirt to the fore and now we can see it and fight it. In the past we couldn’t talk about issues like secularism and feminism, but now people can see with their own eyes and address the problems that were hidden before.”

Maram Altamimi, a 20-year-old computer engineering student, is part of a group of feminist campaigners at her university. “People think we’re just a bunch of rude girls and boys making noise and being ridiculous but it’s up to us to change things,” she says. Describing the impact ingrained sexism has on the lives of women in Jordan, she picks a recent experience. “A few weeks ago this man started following me down the street and calling me horrible names. I wanted to teach him a lesson so I told him he didn’t have the right to speak to me that way.”

This kind of harassment is the norm for the Jordanian women, she continues. “Instead of supporting me, people in the street told me off for responding and said he’s within his rights to behave like that.” Frustrated, she went home in tears. “My mum told me that’s just the way it is and I should be stronger.” But Altamimi is part of a generation where more and more Jordanian women are refusing to accept the sexist status quo. “We need to educate ourselves in what feminism means. I’m going to raise my kids to know this word, understand it and grow up loving it. Feminism is not something to be ashamed of, it’s something to be proud of.”

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