The fight for gender equality in Jordan

  • Date December 2 2014
  • Publication Middle East Eye

Nimat Habashneh is an unlikely firebrand. Short and round in a faded cardigan and slippers, she sits beside me in her Amman living room, apologising often for a persistent cough, and reaching over several times to stroke my hand. She exudes a soft, motherly warmth. But her assessment of the Jordanian government’s treatment of families like hers is both forensic and scathing.

Habashneh, 56, is a Jordanian; the father of her six children was not. Because he was a foreigner (he is now dead), her children did not inherit her Jordanian citizenship. Habashneh felt this was so unjust, that she founded a civil liberties group, “My mother is Jordanian and her nationality is a right for me” in 2006. She took her campaign online with a Facebook page in 2009, and in five years has gathered 8,644 likes.

On 9 November, the Jordanian government appeared to finally hear campaigners’ pleas. Jordanian Prime Minister, Abdullah Ensour framed the privileges as a move to “fulfil our pledge to the children of our Jordanian daughters.” Local media featured campaigners praising the news, and Jordanian mothers of the country’s 355,932 foreign-fathered children commented on how their and their children’s lives would now be easier. And in the country’s decrepit taxis, the Palestinian drivers, always delighted to talk about their children, delivered a rousing “Alhamdulillah” at the news of improved access to health care and education, driving licenses and, “inshallah,” property ownership. Their Jordanian wives, several noted, were happy.

Habashneh was delighted at first, too: “The most important thing that happened today was that the government acknowledged that there are rights for Jordanian women married to non-Jordanian men,” she told The Jordan Times.

The privileges, which the government says will take three to six months to roll out, apply to all children of Jordanian women married to foreign men, provided those women have been residents in Jordan for five years. They include free elementary and secondary schooling, and significant cuts to healthcare costs. New ID cards will make it easier for the government to administer services, but parents will still have to arrange residency permits. Adult children of these marriages will no longer have to pay for work permits, and they will have second priority for jobs after Jordanian citizens (similar to work permit laws in many other countries that allow employers to hire a foreigner only if there is no available British or EU candidate).

But as the dust has settled, and as families and campaigners have looked more closely at the new privileges, the mood has soured. “The government promised IDs, but what about orphans and children with mothers working outside Jordan?” asks Habashneh, “How will they get the ID? Medication costs being waived, that’s not new! And access to school depends on mothers having been resident for five years. The removal of fees for labour and residence permits is irrelevant because of the new IDs, and access to higher professions is no more open: you can only get the labour permit if there’s no Jordanian in line.”

Habashneh pauses. “It’s like a mousetrap,” she said, reaching one hand forward slowly, then suddenly clamping down on it with the other.

Habashneh feels misled. She and fellow campaigners had asked for civil rights - “But somehow ‘civil rights’ became ‘privileges’”.

In 1990, Habashneh, her Moroccan husband and their children moved from Kuwait to her native Jordan. Because her children are not Jordanian nationals, they couldn’t attend state schools. She found herself with a JOD 4,000 ($5,650) bill each year for private school and a tangle of red tape as she negotiated residency claims for each child. She prayed none got ill; as non-citizens, they had no claim to public healthcare.

When Habashneh’s husband died of cancer in 2006, she was nearly destitute; his treatment costs and their six children’s private school tuition and medical expenses had broken her. But she was also a blogger, one of Jordan’s first, and she realised her moment had come.

“There was no way to start a movement when I came back to Jordan, and of course this issue was a red line. But when the internet came, I think it was the chance,” she said.

Nationality rights were still a red line, but Habashneh was determined to redraw it, first by leaving in comments on the few articles she could find on the issue, then as a guest on a radio show, roping in friends and neighbours with similar stories. In 2009 she created a Facebook page that for a full year had just 25 likes - friends, family and a few overseas supporters. She persevered, courting international media like BBC and CNN, slowly gaining traction.

In 2010, she aligned her cause to the Arab Uprising protests around Amman, and dragged her daughters with her. She leaned on fellow protesters for support and knowledge, and started sending letters - to Parliament, the Prime Minister, and the King.

“I started like a turtle, sticking my head out, and it was like a tsunami. To start a campaign in a place where nobody is ready for it, it’s like digging in the sea,” she said.

In 2011, Habashneh backed Mustafa Hamarneh, a politician who pledged to support her cause if he became MP. He was elected, but the civil rights she and so many other campaigners had hoped for were downgraded. Although she can see a silver lining - “Now, at least, the government acknowledges that these ladies are citizens and they have rights” - the “privileges” have been a bitter pill to swallow.

Other campaigners share her sense of loss. Hadeel Abdelaziz, a fellow campaigner and the Director of Justice Centre for Legal Aid, called the privileges “a distorted version of civil rights.”

“We asked for gender equality. Since men are granted nationality for their wives and children, this is how it should be for women,” she said. Abdelaziz, whose husband is Jordanian, sees this purely as an issue of gender equality.

But the government disagrees: on repeated occasions, politicians have referred to this as a political issue and, in particular, a Palestinian issue. In announcing the privileges, PM Ensour said the additional rights (including citizenship) had been rejected “because it might affect the demographic balance in Jordan and might lead to empty Palestine from its people.”

The Kingdom’s demographic balance is fragile: at least 60 percent Jordan’s population is Palestinian. The waves of Palestinians who arrived after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the 1967 occupation of the West Bank were given citizenship, but subsequent refugees were not. There is a palpable divide between “Jordanian-Jordanian” and “Palestinian-Jordanian” - a divide that starts with identity but trickles down to education, labour rights and now, privileges.

When the privileges were announced, the government counted 88,983 Jordanian women married to foreign men, 55,606 of them to Palestinians. In a country of 8 million with an average birth rate of 3.3 children per woman, the children of these marriages amount to a not insignificant slice of the population. Make those children citizens now, and their demographic effect would be felt for generations to come.

The government’s position is a delicate one: Jordan desperately wants to see a two-state solution. Were the Kingdom to offer citizenship to such a huge number of Palestinians, and change the laws in such a way that Palestinian men could merge into Jordanian society the same way Palestinian (and other foreign) women can, critics might say that there is no need for a Palestinian state - that Jordan has become the de facto alternative homeland.

It’s an argument that carries little weight with human rights experts. "The Jordanian government continues to use the Palestine issue as an excuse to discriminate against Jordanian women by denying them the basic right to pass citizenship to their children,” said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher with Human Rights Watch.

Campaigners say it is in fact a gender issue, a view shared by many of the Jordanian women - including those married to other Jordanians.

“The law says the children of “Ordunie” [The word for Jordanian, in its male form] should be granted citizenship. We want to apply that equally,” said Abdelaziz. “We don’t need any new laws: just apply the current laws to men and women.”

Abdelaziz said she approached the government and inverted the alternative homeland argument, asking what might happen if 300,000 Jordanian men married 300,000 Palestinian women. The response, she said, was that this gender balance would not upset demographics.

“Men can choose to marry whomever they like without talk of demographics or resources. Why not women?” she asked.

The gender split in perception of what this issue is really about says something about the fight for state of gender equality in Jordan: even taking just a small sample, the women see this as a gender issue while men see it politically.

“They want to put all of the history of the political crisis, from 1948 until this moment, on the women’s heads,” said Habashneh.

Abdelaziz insists gender equality is in the best interests of the country, but admits she is battling a zero-sum sense of rights and freedoms. “This is not a cake to be sliced up for people to fight over the pieces,” she said.

Human Rights Watch’s Coogle agrees. “Easing some of the burdens on Jordanian women and their non-citizen children is a welcome step, but Jordan will continue to fall short of its international obligations until it grants Jordanian women the same legal rights as Jordanian men,” he said.

Both Abdelaziz and Habashneh are adamant that change will come - whether in their or her daughters’ lifetimes, they don’t yet know.

Giving up isn’t an option for either campaigner, explained Abdelaziz. “If you accept discrimination against women, where will you stop? You’ll lose the soul of this country.”