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Jordan Makes Progress on Women’s Rights, Repeals ‘Marry the Rapist’ Law

Jordan- Demonstration in Jordan
Jordanian schoolgirls demonstrate in Amman to press parliament to scrap an article of the penal code which allows men who kill women for “honor” to walk free. Photo AFP

Jordan has taken some steps forward on women’s rights in recent years, including repealing a law in July 2017 that allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims and rolling back provisions reducing sentences for men who kill their female relatives to preserve the family’s ‘honour’.

Under Article 308 of the penal code, rapists who married their victims and remained married for at least three years were pardoned. Supporters of the provision argued that it was designed to protect women’s honour. However, activists called it a violation of human rights, forcing women who had already been victimized into marriages with violent and abusive men.

Some legislators pushed to retain an article that allowed the provision to remain in place in cases of statutory rape of minors aged 15 to 17, but in the end, the entire code was repealed. Advocates hailed the decision as a major step forward for women’s rights.

Salma Nims, secretary general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, told Canada’s CBC Radio, “This has been a demand for the women’s movement and the human rights movements in Jordan for the past two decades, at least.”

She added that there are many other reforms that remain to be achieved, but noted, “However, this one has been one of the most important and significant because it was kind of contradictory with the idea of legal justice.”

Legislatures and judicial authorities have also taken steps toward ending the leniency shown to perpetrators of so-called ‘honour killings’. However, they have stopped short of repealing all the provisions that allow for lighter sentences in these cases.

According to Human Rights Watch, an average of 15 to 20 Jordanian women each year are victims of honour killings, in which men kill female relatives who are suspected of having extramarital sexual or romantic relationships.

There was a sharp increase in honour killings in 2016, when at least 38 women died, according to rights groups. Five were killed in one week in October alone. In one highly publicized case, an 18-year-old killed his 20-year-old sister after discovering that she had a mobile phone the family did not know about. The publicity surrounding this case and the increase in killings may have prompted some reforms.

In December 2016, the country’s Iftaa Department issued a fatwa saying that honour killings are contrary to Islamic law and should not receive reduced sentences.

In March 2017, following the fatwa, a judge doubled the sentence of two brothers who poisoned their sister after she fell in love with a man and fled the family home but returned upon being assured that she would not be harmed, increasing their prison time from 7.5 years to 15 years.

Judge Muhammad Tarawneh of the Court of Cassation said at the time, “We want to send a strong message to the people that killing women in the name of family honour will no longer be tolerated by our court.”

In July 2017, Jordan’s parliament moved to close a loophole that allowed men who killed their female relatives in ‘severe anger’ to receive reduced sentences.

Yet other mitigating provisions remain, including Article 340 of the penal code, which allows for reduced sentences for men who kill their wives or female relatives for committing adultery. In some cases, sentences can be reduced when the victim’s family requests leniency.

As recently as November 2017, a man’s sentence was reduced from 20 to ten years after he was convicted of strangling his wife and burning her body for talking to a man in the woods. The sentence was reduced when the wife’s relatives gave up their ‘personal right’ to push for a harsher sentence. This frequently occurs in honour killing cases because the surviving family members are related to the perpetrators as well as the victim.

Women’s rights groups have also petitioned the government to create shelters for abused women and end the practice of administrative detention for women believed to be at risk of being killed by their families.

Under the country’s crime prevention law, authorities sometimes put at risk women in protective custody in jail, alongside convicted criminals. In some cases, women have spent decades behind bars as a result.

These extreme cases aside, Jordanian women continue to face pervasive inequalities in more mundane areas of life, including barriers to entering the workforce and lack of rights with regards to their children.

Jordan has one of the lowest rates of female workforce participation worldwide, at about 13 per cent, and the majority of unemployed women are university graduates. Rates of early marriage remain high, both among Jordanian girls and particularly among Syrian refugees. As a result, these young women generally do not continue their education, also harming their future employment prospects.

Jordan is one of some 26 countries worldwide that do not give women the same rights as men to pass down their nationality to their children, according to UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. This has created problems for the families of children born in Jordan to Jordanian mothers married to foreign men because the children are treated as foreigners with respect to employment, property rights and other areas where Jordanian nationals are prioritized.

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