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Essay: The development of Human Rights in Jordan

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  • Subject area(s): Human rights essays
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  • The development of Human Rights in Jordan
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The development of Human Rights in Jordan was highly influenced by occupation, underlying cultural values, and external pressure from the international system. Before delving into Jordan in the modern period, it is important to note that Jordan has a deeply-rooted tribal structure that is reflected in current legislation. This structure stems from the mass “bedouinization” of Transjordan, which began towards the end of the 9th century. The lands which composed Transjordan shifted hands several times before falling into the hands of the Ottomans in 1516 when they captured the area from the Mamluks. In 1914, WWI broke out, and only two years later Sharif Hussein proclaimed the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in Mecca.

The British Mandate of Transjordan, installed in 1922, formally achieved independence in 1946 as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Transjordan had primarily inherited their legal system from the Ottoman Empire. Article 58, of the Trans-Jordanian Basic Law of 1928, stipulated that the laws that existed prior to 1914 in the area that would eventually become modern-day Jordan were still officially in place from the rule of the Ottoman Empire and would remain in force until amended or repealed. This law provided for a degree of continuity between the Ottoman Empire, the mandate of Transjordan, and eventually independent Jordan.

The same process was true for family law in Jordan. In 1917 the Ottomans issued their first codified family law entitled the Ottoman Law of Family Rights (OLFR). Because the Ottoman Empire soon collapsed after issuing the law, the Ottomans were not able to implement it properly, however, the British mandate authorities, who had recently acquired Ottoman land, decided to apply the OLFR and Ottoman concepts of human rights to all Muslim citizens and to continue to apply their own personal status laws to non-Muslims.

During the Ottoman Empire the various non-Muslim religious communities were organized as millets. Among other benefits, they were allowed to operate their own courts. The autonomy of the millet was preserved throughout the mandate period and continues into the present. As a direct result of this, the Jordanian legal system remains divided into three courts: religious, regular, and special courts. The regular courts have jurisdiction over all people in regular and criminal matters, while family law is adjudicated by religious courts, which are divided into sharia courts and courts of other religious communities.

With the surge of Palestinian refugees and a new king in 1952, the mid-20th century was open to change and to the advent of political parties. Capitalizing on the political turmoil of the period and from the empowerment of the nationalist movement, the Women’s movement emerged in 1954 with the formation of the Jordanian Women’s Union.

In the beginning of the 1950s, and with the establishment of the first Jordanian Women’s Union (JWU) in 1954 and the promulgation of the 1952 Jordanian Constitution, there began to be concerted efforts of different groups striving towards providing equal educational opportunities and decreasing the illiteracy rate.

In 1955, it was determined that educated women with elementary certificates could vote. The 1954 JWU played a huge role in achieving Jordanian women’s legal right to vote in the parliamentary elections. A women’s ability to vote rested on the condition of finishing her primary level of education, which increased the number of women who wanted to be educated. However, before the Women’s Union could catch international attention by demanding full political rights for women, the government amended the election law and the next parliamentary elections were not for another ten years, so women’s right to vote in municipal elections was not truly granted until that time.
The political strength of the Women’s Union continued to grow. Despite increase in support, due to the Women’s Union vocal resistance towards government’s policy on Palestinian issues, the union leaders had their passports confiscated and the movement was derailed once again. Furthermore, the Jordanian government established the Personal Status Law of 1976, which outwardly seemed like reform, but ultimately emphasized tradition and largely set-back the Women’s movement.

In 1976, a new code of family law was issued in Jordan, the Jordanian Law of Personal Status (JLPS). The JLPS both expanded and modified the JLFR and was described in the accompanying explanatory memorandum as aiming to provide provisions that, “meet the needs of Jordanian society, drawn from Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) and various sources, and including all that is sound in the shari’a laws in effect in neighboring Arab lands.”. The 1976 Personal Status Law (PSL) expanded the provisions for custody in comparison to the 1951 JLFR, thus further delineating both women’s and children’s rights.

Rights for Women

In 1974, Emily Bisharat revitalized the original women’s movement under a new banner, although this resurge was met by pushback from the government. In regard to Women’s rights compared to those of men in Jordan at this time, there was an emphasis on obedience underscored in the 1976 Personal Status Law. Under Article 37, the wife “owes obedience” and cohabitation to her husband, and has an obligation to follow him so long as he ensures her safety. If she refuses, she loses her right to financial support (nafaqa). Despite the emphasis of female obedience, men were obliged to support their wives, which constituted a duty as well.

In regard to women and Marriage, the legal age of marriage for males and females is 18 years but the chief justice may permit marriage to anyone who is 15 years old if it is in his or her interest. The sharia judge determines if the marriage is appropriate even if the woman’s guardian opposes it, usually considering financial matters of the prospective husband. Under Article 19, the bride can request in the marriage contract that her husband not force her to leave country and that he does not take a second wife. She may also request a clause to obtain rights to divorce. Despite these exceptions, the practice of these rights are rarely exercised because women are often unaware or afraid of the risks involved in seeking such privileges.

In regard to women’s rights and polygamy, Article 40 stipulates that a man who has more than one wife must treat all his wives equitably and provide them with separate dwellings. It is legal to have up to four wives. Polygamy is generally uncommon but more prevalent in rural areas. However, in 2001, there were slight reforms and modifications of personal status law, including requiring courts to inform wives of each other’s existence and khula.

Despite setbacks from the PSL of 1976, Muslim women continued to organize. In 1981, the Interior Ministry ordered the Women’s Union to close due to supposed legal violations. At the same time, the General Federation of Jordanian Women (GFJW) formed in 1982 under the leadership of the first woman minister, In’am Mufti, Minister of Social Development, but was viewed as pro-government. The GFJW was the first attempt by the government to consolidate the women’s movement and control its political agenda.

Moving into the 21st century, according to the 2000 Jordanian Human Development Report, Jordan has the highest female literacy rate and overall literacy rate of all Arab states. Literacy nearly doubled from 47% in 1960, to 87% in 1995 and to 89.7% in 2002. However, while the overall literacy rate has risen sharply, a substantial gender gap still remains: two-thirds of all illiterate Jordanians are women. Additionally, the gap is even greater in regard to higher education.

These gender gaps can be analyzed by understanding the social structure of Jordan. In some areas of the country, Bedouin and rural areas especially, families’ traditional attitudes still place more importance on the education of sons while daughters are pushed towards early marriage. Maternity is viewed as the natural biological role of women and has traditionally been regarded as their major social role in kinship societies.

Emphasizing the role tribes and family play in the construction of a patriarchal society, Mai Abul Samen, Director of the National Forum for Jordanian Women (NFJW) said,

“… yes, we are a patriarchal society, and that is a consequence of the inherited social traditions and values, especially in the tribal areas of Jordan. I think it is family, which usually gives holiness to boys and subordinates girls, and society passes these concepts from one generation to another. That is why I think it is the role of the educational system to try to reform these mistaken beliefs. Unfortunately, in our educational curriculum we concentrate on the idea that the woman’s job is to rear children and cook whereas men’s is to study and work outside the home”.

In Jordan, literacy and treatment of women is regional. It is clear that female illiteracy rates are always higher than males (about double) in the different regions. But these rates differ significantly from one region to another. For example, in Amman, the capital, female illiteracy rates are the lowest in the country, while for in Ma’an and Mafraq, which are considered rural areas, they are the highest.

These differences in rates are not surprising. As explained above, in rural areas, women’s education is usually disapproved of and traditional attitudes still place more importance on the education of sons. In contrast, Amman, similar to other capital cities around the world, has more money, power, and industry. Industrialization and capitalism can be seen as replacing traditional norms and alleviating the need for women to stay at home, and thus have played a major role in improving social attitudes towards women’s education.

One cannot speak about Jordan as if it is just Amman. Although Amman has made significant progress in terms of Human Rights, the more rural regions, which value tribal structure and kinship, have not changed much in terms of gender relations. If there were fairer distribution of industrialization and services throughout the country, it would most likely improve women’s status, and subsequently human status throughout the country.

Rights for Children

The concept of the “best interest” of the child was not present at the beginning of the Jordanian legal system. In regard to family law, the Jordanian government continued to apply the OLFR of 1917, but it did not contain any custody provisions. It was not until 1951, when the Jordanian government issued a new family law entitled the Jordanian Law of Family Rights (JLFR), which was largely derived from the OLFR, that an attempt to codify provisions to custody were made.

The number of women’s rights groups began to increase in the 1990s and along with that increase, women began to formulate more concrete demands regarding overall personal status law reform, including provisions regarding child law. These demands were supported by international law through legal documents such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which came into play in 1990.
Jordan ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on 24 May 1991. Like other Middle Eastern states, Jordan had several reservations about certain articles in the convention. The Jordanian government has been careful in emphasizing that it adopted the concept of the “best interests of the child”, although certain reservations have manifested themselves making it obvious that Jordan has not fully incorporated the principle, as stipulated in the convention.

For example, in regard to Article 14, which refers to freedom of religion, the Jordanian government has reported that, “every child has the right to receive religious instruction in accordance with the wishes of the parents.” This clearly demonstrates the government does not view religious freedom or freedom of belief as a right of the child. Parents are given the right to choose religious instruction for the child. Religious freedom, in the eyes of the Jordanian government, is interpreted as the right to practice one’s faith freely, but not as the right to change one’s faith. In addition, the right to receive an Islamic upbringing is presented in the best interests of the child, which also explains why custody is allocated differently between Muslim and non-Muslim women and why adoption is frowned upon.

Although Jordan ratified the CRC, it was most likely done in response to increasing international pressure to adopt the concept of “the best interest of the child” principle. In spite of this, Jordan has maintained its reservations about several articles of the Convention (most notably Article 14). In Jordan, freedom of religion is not seen as a right that should be given to children, and in instances of marriage between a Muslim man and a Christian woman it is seen as the right of the father in order to ensure that his children receive an Islamic upbringing. Given these inconsistencies, it is unlikely that “the best interest of the child,” as denoted by the CRC, will become the chief framework through which children’s rights are addressed in Jordan.

Rights Regarding Criminal Punishment

In Jordan, there is often a lack of penalty for men who engage in what are called “crimes of honor.” It is known that international human rights law condemns honor killings, however, the existence of Article 340 in the Jordanian Penal Code provides that:

“(1) [he] who catches his wife, or one of his female relatives unlawfully committing (in the act of) adultery with another, and …kills, wounds, or injures one or both of them, is exempt from penalty”.

The law encourages more honor killings since perpetrators are often exempted from any type of penalty and, in the worst cases, they only receive light sentences and are released after spending few months in prison.

The killing is often not about the actual sexual encounter. Instead of focusing on verifying the act of adultery, the issue has more to do with “the defilement of the male’s honor” than “whether or not the woman is or is not guilty.”. In addition, what has aggravated this problem is the popular fundamentalist belief that committing honor killings, which Article 340 of the Jordanian Penal Code covers, is derived from the Islamic sharia’. Fundamental Islamic beliefs defend honor killings as a convenient method to protect the honor of their female relatives. Although, despite those who commit honor killings and who justify their actions in reference to Islam and the Qur’an, the Islamic Sharia does not mention anything to promote honor crimes against women.

The Qur’an stipulates that in order to be charged with adultery, a person must be caught in the act by four reliable witnesses, which is hard to prove. Not only this, but also it punishes both men and women in the same way: that is stoning to death for those who are married and lashing for single people. The Qur’an: Surah Al-Nour, verse 24 provides:

[24:2] The adulteress and the adulterer you shall whip each of them a hundred lashes. Do not be swayed by pity from carrying out God’s law, if you truly believe in God and the Last Day. And let a group of believers witness their penalty. [24:4] Those who accuse married women of adultery, then fail to produce four witnesses, you shall whip them eighty lashes, and do not accept any testimony from them; they are wicked.

The allowance of honor killings in Jordanian society is a clear reflection of the patriarchal social system and does not reflect the values of Islam. This fact becomes stronger, when we realize that it has been proven to the courts that a large number of the victims were innocent, and suspicion was the only reason behind their murder.

In trying to make sense of this, scholars have speculated about several different motivations. Perhaps, because women in the Arab world represent the word “fitna”, which means seductiveness, this is why men prefer to keep them at home so as not to “spoil” society. More plausible, is the idea that the existence and the survival of this discriminatory legislation up to the present, reflects the existence of men as a dominant class within Jordanian social structure (who are economically, politically and physically stronger), particularly if we take into consideration that women do not represent an effective part of the legislative authority in Jordan.

“Protective custody” laws have been formulated as a response to these killings in order to protect women from their own shame because social pressure by the community has discouraged police from reporting honor killings. While parliament enacted the Family Protection Law (FPL) in January 2008, which provided procedural instructions for cases of domestic violence, including detaining the suspected abuser for 24 hours, the police are not required to enforce the law. A perpetrator may also marry a victim to avoid punishment under Article 308 of the penal code, which is thought to protect the victim from shame. The Family Reconciliation House (FRH) in Amman, created by the Ministry of Social Development in 2007, was intended to provide victims with rehabilitation and long-term solutions. Some conservative societies, however, may see it has a refuge for “bad women” and it is highly stigmatized for women to go there. Many women are still imprisoned for their own safety, and choose prison over life at home.

In addition to honor killings, Amnesty International has raised crime-related concerns regarding continued reports of the torture and ill-treatment in Jordan of detainees to extract confessions. In the Jordanian Penal Code, there are protective guidelines on the use of confessions. The guidelines state that the authorities and court must obtain the confession without force or duress, but inconsistencies between legal code provisions and the actual treatment of individuals still occur. Jordan also continues to sentence people to death and to execute people, often after they have received unfair trials, and often when confessions are extracted under torture.

Rights Regarding Slavery and Unfree Labor

As for Jordanian legislations, and Jordanian Civil Law in Particular, there is no express provision tackling the prohibition of slavery. However, Islamic law is the main source for the Jordanian Civil Law, and slavery is strictly banned by the rules of Islam. Notably, Article 210 of the Ottoman Majallah, which prohibits slavery and any transaction that is related to trafficking in humans.

Moreover, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan ratified the international Protocol amending the International Convention for Abolishing Slavery, and the International Convention regarding the Abolishing of Slavery, Slaves Trading, Institutions and Semi Slavery Practices. To further demonstration of their commitment, Jordan passed the Law for the Prevention of Trafficking in Humans in 2009. This law criminalizes the exploitation of human by enslaving persons, or subjecting them to servitude, or forcing them to work in prostitution or any form of sexual exploitation.

In regard to forced labor, according to US State Department Human Rights Report of 2013, there were reported instances in the garment Industry. However, the NGO, Better Work Jordan, reported that no factories were found noncompliant concerning any type of bonded labor.

Rights Regarding Religious Freedom

The Jordanian constitution explicitly states that the state religion is Islam, but provides for the freedom to practice one’s religion and faith in accordance with the customs that are observed in the kingdom, unless they violate public order or morality. The constitution also stipulates that there will be no discrimination in the rights and duties of citizens on grounds of religion.

In contrast, some members of the international community (most notably the United States) have argued that the government’s application of Sharia infringes upon the religious rights and freedoms laid out in the constitution by prohibiting conversion from Islam and discriminating against religious minorities in some matters relating to family law. Neither the constitution, the penal code, nor civil legislation bans conversion from Islam or efforts to proselytize Muslims. Despite this, the government prohibits conversion from Islam in that it accords primacy to Islamic law, which governs Muslims personal status and prohibits them from converting. Although, the government does allow conversion to Islam and from one recognized non-Islamic faith to another. Because the government does not allow conversion from Islam, it also does not recognize converts from Islam as falling under the jurisdiction of their new religious community’s laws in matters of personal status. Instead, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims.

The constitution also provides that matters concerning personal status, such as religion, marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, are under the exclusive jurisdiction of religious courts. Muslims are subject to the jurisdiction of Islamic law courts, which apply Islamic law adhering to the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence, except in cases that are explicitly addressed by civil status legislation. The sharia courts in Jordan hear all cases that concern disputes over parental care if both parties are Muslim. In cases of mixed marriages between a Christian and a Muslim, the civil courts have jurisdiction unless all relevant parties accept the jurisdiction of the sharia courts. Christian courts have jurisdiction to adjudicate cases that arise between the members of their community with respect to all issues relating to personal status law. In practice this means that Christian children are subjected to different laws outside of the jurisdiction of the state (i.e. the legal rights of children and what is determined as being in their best interests) will vary based on their religious affiliation.


Jordan is an example of a liberal autocracy, where hegemonic control has been consistently maintained. Even as human rights language has begun to infiltrate most Islamic countries, the Jordanian regime has largely maintained control and has been able to implement human rights on their own terms, while also subverting large-scale human rights movements through repression and co-optation (i.e. the Women’s movement). While human rights have significantly impacted Jordanian society and expectations, it has not moved to deeper challenge the non-western normative currents that still remain deeply entrenched within its society. For example, the institutionalization of the patriarchal practices of tribes and of the shari’a court has not changed over the course of Jordanian history. The legal system in Jordan still largely sees women as inherently dependent on men, both financially and for security. When Jordan became a state, rather than creating a unified court system, it maintained the court system of the Ottoman Empire and British Mandate. Only if the government were to establish a different court system, that challenged the sacred space of the shari’a court in matters of personal status, would the state likely be recognized as in “full compliance” with International Human Rights standards.

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