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In Jordan, Policing of Women Places Power with Male Guardians

Amnesty International
Photo: Amnesty International / Flickr ©Flickr ⁃ Amnesty International

A report released in October 2019 by human rights group Amnesty International documents the reality of male guardianship in Jordan that has given men power over women in various facets of life, including sexual activity and reproduction. This has resulted in women being detained and even separated from their children. Initial reforms have indicated political will for better protection of women’s rights, and campaigners say it must be exercised now.

The report, titled Imprisoned Women, Stolen Children: Policing Sex, Marriage and Pregnancy in Jordan, includes 121 interviews with victims, civil society groups and officials as well as an overview of Jordanian law, policies and court rulings, providing a snapshot of the violations encountered by women.

Imprisonment for zina – sex outside of marriage – is a charge levied against both women and men. In some cases, the Family Protection Department of the Public Security Directorate, i.e. the police, accompanied women to hospital for a ‘virginity test’ to be administered, at the request of a male guardian or relative.

In other cases, unmarried women found to be pregnant were detained for the remainder of their pregnancy, in order to stop them accessing an abortion, which is prohibited in Jordan.

Often referred to as ‘illegal babies’, the children of unmarried women are often taken into state care without seeking the mother’s permission.

The risk of both being detained and separated from their children has forced some women to have clandestine home births. Yet the challenges ahead for these mothers are still sizeable, including not being able to register the birth or facing social ostracization.

Women have also been imprisoned for ‘absence’, as leaving home without the permission of a male guardian is not allowed. Some of these male guardians complained to the police, suspecting the woman had run off with a man, even though this was untrue in some instances.

In terms of numbers, Amnesty International found evidence of hundreds of cases. The system is able to prevail as the powers afforded to men are both enshrined in law and assisted by coercive measures by the authorities.

Lauren Aarons, the lead researcher on the report, described to Fanack the framework that enables male guardians’ power over women. Within the Personal Status Law, for example, one article sets out that male guardian consent is needed for marriage, allowing the guardian to block a woman’s choice of partner while also setting out who a male guardian is: a father, brother, uncle or other close male relative.

Male guardian power is also established in the penal code, where zina can be prosecuted if a spouse complains or if a male guardian complains. “Male guardians have this power to initiate prosecutions of women but there’s no sort of equivalent for men,” said Aarons.

Furthermore, in the medical constitution, a woman needs the consent of a male guardian to have an abortion, if her health is at risk from the pregnancy. Other legal examples exist, but in some instances, power is exerted through practice rather than policy, further increasing the power given to male guardians. This includes provincial governors putting women in administrative detention for absence, a misuse of the controversial Crime Prevention Law of 1954 that allows authorities to detain individuals without charge or trial and for long periods of time.

Some cases involve women who wish to marry but cannot get a sheikh to conduct the marriage because the woman does not have a male guardian. The Amnesty International report cites the case of ‘Ola’. Without parental guardians, she had a child out of wedlock and on giving birth, hospital staff called the police. Taken to Juweidah women’s prison in the capital Amman, she was not charged with a crime and did not know when she would be released.

Another woman was arrested for absence. After being taken to a police station, she told researchers, “The two police officers there beat me. One told another to get a hose to beat me with. He said, ‘Let’s educate her.’ I was taken to the governor’s deputy in [location withheld]. He said I would go to Juweidah prison until my father bails me out….”

The condition for release is often that the women return home and may only occur if they are bailed out by a male family member.

A letter to Amnesty International from the prime minister’s office, dated 14 October 2019, stated that there were 149 women currently in administrative detention, 85 of whom had been detained for over a year for zina (along with a similar number of men). It also stated, ‘There is no case where women have been apprehended for being absent from home without their guardian’s permission, unless this is combined with a complaint about committing a crime or an offence.’

Amnesty International’s documentation and the work of Jordanian lawyers, however, indicated detention was ordered for absence, often solely at the request of the guardian.

An additional and contradictory claim was that women were sometimes detained for their own safety because if family members were motivated enough to report their female relatives’ absence, they believed they could also harm them. Women have been previously documented to be held in protective custody in Juweidah prison when they are at risk of honour killings.

“That justification has never been acceptable,” said Aarons, “because according to international law, protective custody is a violation of a person’s rights except when certain criteria are present, for example when the individual has consented.” She added that it is even harder to understand since the opening of the Dar Amneh shelter, where women can be taken instead of remaining in prison in administrative detention.

Despite the generally dismal picture, Aarons noted that Dar Amneh is one of a number of positive steps that have been taken following persistent advocacy by civil society organizations, including Mizan for Law, which opened the shelter with the Ministry of Social Development in July 2018.

The scrapping of Article 308 of the penal code that allowed rapists to evade punishment if they married their victims was another welcome reform.

Dar Amneh is an improvement from prison, and women residing there are provided with health care, housing, job training and other services as well as support for longer term solutions so they can leave the facility. They are also allowed to keep children up to the age of six with them, and the Ministry of Social Development, according to the Amnesty International report, reunited two mothers at the shelter with their children.

Despite clear operating instructions from the shelter, however, Aarons said they are not always respected. For instance, women are not always allowed to leave the shelter despite the facility’s protocol saying they can. It is also unclear if unmarried women will be able to remain with their children once they do leave.

However, signs of greater political will to protect women’s rights are emerging. As of mid-September 2019, a total of 75 women have been housed at Dar Amneh, 44 of whom have now left.

For now, many laws remain requiring reform, including the Personal Status Law, regarded by the United Nations as a highly discriminatory piece of legislation .

“The Jordanian government should urgently address these shameful violations that national women’s organizations have been battling for decades,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, “starting with the zealous use of detention powers by provincial governors, and the discriminatory male guardianship system that allows adult women to be arrested for leaving home without permission.”

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