Just a little over one year ago, Jordan’s King Abdullah II tasked the Royal Committee for the Modernization of the Political System with proposing reforms to steer the Hashemite Kingdom further towards democracy. Special attention was given to increasing the participation of both youth and women in Jordan’s political life and the narrative that democracy cannot be achieved without inclusion and equality. This is also reflected in the Commission’s Report: each of the six chapters includes a subsection on women, and one is even entirely dedicated to them. In contrast to this, only a quarter of 74 committee members were female, and the extent to which women’s rights organizations were directly involved in drafting the report remains largely unclear.
The urgency for action is apparent: In 2021, Jordan ranked 144 out of 157 countries worldwide when it comes to women’s political empowerment, behind Saudi Arabia, a steep decline since the early 2000s. Only two female ministers can be found in the current cabinet, the number of women in the lower house does not exceed the legal minimum of 16 out of 130, and 58 out of 65 senators are men. Women head to the polls as candidates or voters in significantly smaller numbers than men, in the last parliamentary election in 2020, only 22% of candidates were female and the already historically low turnout was even less among women. This pattern is also evident on a more localized level: Not even one out of five candidates in recent municipal elections was a woman, and not a single one competed for the position of mayor – in contrast to 572 men.
The discussion over women’s equal participation in Jordanian politics is not new but has gained momentum in the context of the reforms. In 2021, FES published the book Years of Struggle – The Women’s Movement in Jordan, authored by journalist and activist Rana Husseini, and just recently launched an Arabic edition. According to Husseini, four major factors hamper especially female candidacies and the likelihood of securing a seat: A societal bias questioning women’s ability to lead, a voting system favoring male candidates, incompatibility of political activism with the role of women in society, and the need to secure significant financial means for an election campaign. To what extent have these issues been addressed by the reforms after all?
Enhanced Political Participation – easier said than done
The primary aim of the reforms was to close the aforementioned gender gap: A new election law reserves 30% of lower house seats to party lists in a closed national list system, which have to rank at least one woman under the first three nominees. While this should increase the number of women in parliament, the outcome crucially depends on how well parties perform on the ballot box and whether prominent male candidates give up safe positions up in favour of a female candidate. Given the current scarcity of women in party leadership positions and thresholds to enter parliament in the first place, especially smaller parties might fail to meet these expectations. Another top-down and hence challenging regulation in the law demands that every party’s founding members be at least 20% women, widening the female party base. Whether this can transform decision-making and programs within parties beyond quantitative changes or if parties will only do the absolute minimum remains to be seen.
Visibility can be a first step towards Change
It waits to be seen whether women’s representation in the parliament will go beyond quota seats – seats that are reserved for women – something that did not occur in the last general elections in 2020. However, in an Interview with the author, Husseini stresses that quota seats enhance visibility and have successfully furthered the acceptance and expansion of female political participation among the wider public in the past. Recent Arab Barometer data supports her claim: General approval to the statement that men are more qualified for political leadership has declined from about 74% in previous years to 53% in 2020. Similarly, approval for the statement that a woman could become prime minister in a Muslim country increased from an average of 65-69% in the previous years to 72% in 2022. While still manifest, it seems that the societal bias against women’s political leadership is slowly eroding.
No Job for a Woman? Politics remain a challenging work Environment
None of these reforms, however, address the difficult working conditions for female politicians, many of them mirrored in the economic sector. In Jordan, economic participation of women remains low. While (political) work is generally accepted by a woman’s social environment, such acceptance quickly deteriorates if work appears to come at the expense of the family or takes place in a mixed-gender work environment. Women often face gender-based violence during campaigns or when they hold office - another obstacle for those considering to enter the political arena. Without change in this regard, participation, both, economic and political, is unlikely to increase quickly.
Equality in politics without equality before the law?
The most important obstacle to women’s participation remains inequality before the law. The Jordanian constitution does not offer full legal equality as it’s Article 6 prohibits discrimination only “on grounds of race, language and religion”, not on the grounds of sex. While this was not touched upon by the committee, a constitutional amendment added the female tense of Jordanians (Urduniat) to the second chapter, defining the rights and duties of Jordanians. Simultaneously, a clause instructing the state explicitly to empower women and protect them from all forms of violence and discrimination. While this was already highly controversial during parliamentary discussion, these measures remain far from a sufficient substitute – not only for female observers. Former Jordanian Foreign Minister, Marwan Muasher, for example, criticised the term “women’s empowerment” as being too vague and pointed out that the above-mentioned discrimination “loophole” remained untouched by the clause - he demanded full constitutional equality instead. In the current state, also Rana Husseini argued in an interview with the author, that future lawsuits might be necessary for clarification.
Meaningful change requires more than top-down reforms
While current amendments and reforms certainly improve chances for women’s participation, it is clear that they do not present a gigantic leap forward. Major obstacles within and outside the political system remain and previous experience renders many observers and activists sceptical. It is crucial in this regard to see, how parties are going to fulfil those demands, as those were largely imposed upon them. In this situation, the question arises, how the country’s civil society and especially women’s movement can find their role in accompanying the implementation of reforms and push for even further change. Civil activism in Jordan, just recently marked by Freedom House as “not free”, is facing many challenges and incentives to “know where to push the boundaries and when to stop so that they will not be crushed,” as Husseini put it. While she stays hopeful that success will be achieved in the long term, the ability of civil society to effectively address inequalities and injustices in nearly all aspects of women’s social, political, and economic life in Jordan is key to preventing this round of reforms from remaining a paper tiger.
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