Story by Robert Tokanel // Photo by Katie Kriz
AMMAN, Jordan – Women in Jordan get paid less, have little power in the political and economic landscape and, even when abused by men, are rarely given a voice in the court system.
But there is hope that the historically unequal society is slowly changing to give women more rights.
Former Minister of State and current Secretary General of the Jordanian National Commission for Women Asma Khader addressed a group of 19 journalism and photography students from Northeastern University Monday to discuss the importance of boosting economic and social empowerment of Jordanian women.
Khader, a founding member of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute (SIGI), an Amman-based non-governmental organization that provides counseling and legal services for female victims of social and physical abuse, focused on the group’s recent efforts to increase female presence in Jordan’s private sector, where women represent only 16 percent of the labor force. (Jordanian women represent about 40 percent of the workforce in the public sector.)
“Jordan will face a real challenge in a few years [when] the majority of people will be in the age of work,” Khader said. “If we freeze the power of women … we waste the power we have in the country.”
Seventy percent of the population in Jordan is under 30 years old and well educated, which underscores the need for women to gain the legal and technical means to compete in a society where social norms have historically dictated that they stay at home.
Khader said Jordanian women currently receive 34 percent less pay than men for comparable positions in the private sector, and lower wages often create situations where work is too time-consuming to be cost-effective. (Comparatively, women in the U.S. earn 25 percent less than men for the same positions.)
“If the woman tried to count what this work would cost her in terms of services … she would prefer to stay home,” she said.
The social attitude toward the concept of women in the workplace is a more difficult problem to solve, though. Jordanian courts and customs are representative of a culture that has historically provided justification for discrimination against women, Khader said.
While they have become less common in recent years, “honor crimes” – cases in which men murder women for acts of adultery, or showing interest in a male not approved of by the family, or even being raped – are still protected by Jordanian law. In these cases, judges can rule that the crime was committed in a “fit of fury” and lower sentences to a minimum of only three to six months.
“The traditions lead sometimes to killing just because there are rumors,” Khader said.
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that many victims’ families will drop charges against those accused of honor crimes to avoid social repercussions.
Over the past four years, Khader said there have been an average of 12 to16 honor killings annually, but only one or two cases per year have benefited from legal protection in court. However, she said the majority of the population still supports these acts, and would oppose amending legal protections for them.
Furthermore, she said, “more and more women” continue to approach the Sisterhood Is Global Institute with complaints of sexual and physical abuse. Now, the 17-member organization takes nearly 30 cases per month to court and hears more than 1,000 complaints per year.
Khader said the increased number of cases since the group’s founding in 1998 is actually indicative of social empowerment. Women who were once afraid to come forward for fear of repercussions or because it was too hard to handle or afford a court case while raising children or working have used the group’s resources to seek justice.
“[Abuse] is not increasing, the reporting of it is increasing,” she said.
In the absence of concrete solutions to societal problems, Khader and a variety of women’s organizations are currently advocating amendments to labor law that would provide women with aid for paid maternity leave and increased minimum wages, as well as a variety of other laws that limit the power of women in Jordanian society.
The National Dialogue Committee, a new group announced on Monday to consider amendments to Jordan’s Constitution in the wake of strings of protests and reforms across the Middle East, would have the power to make these kinds of changes. However, Khader is the only woman on the committee. She said she is in the process of drafting a formal letter to submit with the consensus of a variety of women’s rights groups domestically and internationally to provide a stronger voice against continued discrimination against women in Jordan.
“They forget, if you don’t knock the door,” she said. “But we challenge them … whether we are [represented] or not, this is what we want. So we are trying to be positive.”