Story and photo by Eryn Carlson
AMMAN, Jordan – Despite constituting nearly 48 percent of the total population, Jordanian women are largely absent from the country’s political sphere, but with a recent push for increased parliamentary representation, the Jordanian National Commission for Women is looking to change this.
The group, a semi-governmental organization committed to advocating women’s rights and gender-equitable policies, announced in early June that it has prepared a list of recommendations for changes to Jordan’s elections law and will submit it to the government for discussion. The list is headlined by a call for an increase in the women’s representational quota – from 12 seats in the house to 15 – in the upcoming parliamentary elections this fall.
“The allocation of seats for women is currently at 10 percent. We’re looking to increase this to 30,” said JNCW Assistant Secretary of Institutional Development Badreih Al-Balbisi.
The two-house Parliament of Jordan, “Majlis al-Umma,” consists of the House of Senate, whose 60 members are all appointed by King Abdullah II, and the elected House of Representatives. Jordan’s Constitution establishes that, of the latter’s 120 seats, some must be reserved for Christians, Circassian and Chechen minorities, as well as women, under a quota system. That means those seats are filled with representatives of those “minorities” – but they’re not actually elected.
Previous elections – the last took place in 2010 – allotted women specifically a 12-seat quota. However, one woman, Reem Badran, won an additional spot in her own right, outside the quota system, by scoring more votes than men who were running for her seat. This brings the number of women in the current legislature to 13.
“Now most woman activists are pushing for more [seats] – at least 20. I personally believe it must be 30, but we need to do things step by step, and not through the quota system. This isn’t a long-term solution, just one to promote awareness,” said Bariah Naqshabandi, a women’s rights activist and author of the 2001 book Women’s Political Participation in Jordan and Other Arab Countries.
Many Jordanians view the quota system with negativity. Some think that reserving seats for women is the opposite of gender equality since members filling seat allocations are not earning their spot through fair elections. Additionally, members appointed through the quota system are thought to be unqualified, just there because of their connections to men already prominent in the government. Reem Badran, for example, the one woman elected outside the quota, is the daughter of a former prime minister.
“We’re looking for woman activists, not just décor to fill the quota…for women to participate rather than just being there,” said Naqshabandi, who is also a political science professor at Petra University. “Most of these women now just sit back and go with a flow. In the male-driven arena, we need [female] fighters who are qualified and have views.”
Naqshabandi isn’t optimistic about seeing any of these “fighters” rise to power any time soon. And she isn’t alone. Many even doubt the possibility of increasing the number of allotted seats designated for women.
“This won’t happen, and it shouldn’t. It isn’t fair game to give more seats to these women – they aren’t representative of Jordanians. These quota-fillers are upper-class urban women who spend lots of money on clothes and have spa days,” said Bader Al-Madi, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Jordan. “We want [women] to participate in political life but they actually have to participate.”
It’s not that simple, though. Women in Jordan, as well as other Middle Eastern countries, are burdened by age-old tradition when it comes to the social status of females. This causes women active in the political realm to be widely viewed as puppets of their male counterparts. And, while some officials will point to specific women who are strong, competent politicians, all women in government face great challenges just by their presence there.
“In Jordan, all the groups and government are not serious about women. People don’t take it into consideration,” said Al-Balbisi on women’s political participation in the Mideast. “The reason for that is our culture and society. We need to change both men and women’s mentality of thinking of them as second-rate citizens.”
What’s more, people say, is the fact that Jordan, and the region in general, has bigger issues to resolve beyond gender equality.
“Jordan is different from other Arab countries: more open and ideal. But we still have bigger economic, regional and global issues. Women are vulnerable and not the priority,” said Nuha Maayta, president of the General Federation of Jordanian Women, a non-governmental organization comprised of women’s associations and societies dedicated to empowering women politically, socially and economically.
That’s not to say women’s influence in politics is stagnant. In fact, it’s on the rise.
“[Female] participation in the municipal council is quite high, and 20 of the 231 women there have been elected outside of the quota,” said Al-Balbisi. Also, she said, more women are taking jobs as teachers, lawyers and doctors, which could lead to their increased interest in running for office. “Our hope is that their participation in public life would lead them to be more likely to participate in politics and even going into parliament.”
Women occupying ministerial and judicial positions is increasing, too – albeit slowly. Al-Balbisi also noted that political party membership by women is growing, though statistics indicating this can be somewhat misleading. With the relatively new status of political parties, which were outlawed in Jordan until 1992, women are often pulled in by male family members so parties’ membership looks high enough to gain official status, noted Al-Balbisi.
By Middle Eastern standards, the Hashemite family is noted as being relatively liberal toward women’s rights, and some cite this as a commitment by the regime to get more women involved in governmental proceedings. Others, though, aren’t convinced.
“They just want to show that Jordan is civilized. But for me, I don’t see women liberated or involved,” said Naqshabandi. “I want to see more educated woman involved in political participation in every sector and at the grassroots level. But it just isn’t happening – women don’t have energy to fight. They just want to go and get married. It makes me depressed.”
Still, it is clear that women’s political involvement has increased significantly in the last 10 years. And now is not the time to get complacent, activists say.
Maayta summarizes her opinion of what’s a risk if they do: “When it comes to this, we go forward one step, and go back two.”