The ownership of the female body

In Jordan, a woman's primary role is that of a mother, Dr Rana Banat is trying to change that.
Photo by: Marc Veraart / (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Source: Flickr
Photo by: Marc Veraart / (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Source: Flickr

Amman, Jordan – “The key,” Dr Hana Banat says, as she pauses in her pacing to emphasise, “is that we have to get women believing they have more roles to play than just being a mother”.

She repeats the sentence for effect.

The sounds of shuffling of papers and uncomfortable movement in chairs reverberate around the plush conference hall in the glitzy Sheraton Hotel in Amman, Jordan.

Dr Banat is addressing a room of handpicked Jordanian humanitarian aid and development actors invited to convene around the lofty concept of behavioural change campaigning. There is a scattering of government officials. Slick smart phones are scarcely out of hand-reach.

Each participant is seated around a white-clothed table; plates of macaroons and chocolate ensembles are layered carefully on a centrepiece sharing plate.

This is a room of well-groomed people, accustomed to a week of organised talk and meetings around ‘them’ and what’s best for ‘them.’

Dr Banat, a Senior Behavioural Change Consultant, has just spent 24 months leading a national family planning campaign in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

“We have a population problem,” she says in response to a comment that pushing women away from their role as mothers is interfering with Jordan’s culture. “And we don’t have the resources to support it.”

High birthrates and an influx of millions of refugees from Syria and Iraq have seen Jordan’s population increase by 87 per cent in the past decade.

The desert country’s limited resources are at breaking point. It has one of the lowest per capita supply of water in the world, according to USAID research.

While stretched natural resources arguments have become the rehearsed catch-cry of Dr Banat’s justification for taking heed of family planning in the Kingdom, it is speaking of a future where her female compatriots see choice in their life where the poised professional’s voice dips into that of a plea.

Such is the emotion attached to attempts to alter traditional gender roles for women in Jordan that she says at the start of her campaign workshops she often had walk outs from participants.

The “traditional paradigm” of Jordanian gender roles expect women to marry early and contribute to the family as a homemaker, wife and mother. It then assumes that men will be in charge of the household and they will provide for their family financially. Women, as mothers and wives and girls as daughters and sisters, are considered vulnerable and in need of protection that the husband and male family members in turn provide.

Dr Banat’s words were spoken during the week where the Jordanian government voted to engage in getting rid of Article 308 of the Penal Code.

The controversial article permits pardoning rape perpetrators if they marry their victims and stay with them for at least three years, provided the victim is between 15 and 18 years old.

While the existence of the law elicits much commentary, it is by no means Jordan only. Such rape-marriage provisions are in place across much of Middle East, as well as several countries in Asia and Latin America. In Italy it wasn’t abolished until 1986, and in France, 1994.

The cabinet vote comes after months of heated debate on the issue in its Parliament, and more than a decade of lobbying and campaigning by local women’s rights activists.

Though the move to vote to abolish the law, which dates back to 1960s, was hailed as a victory by local women’s groups, much uncertainty remains about whether parliament will approve its repeal.

Such is the attachment to beliefs around a deep-seated view of the separation of gender in the patriarchal society, that earlier this month one parliamentarian was cheered for a comment saying it was “women who were the problem in Jordan’s society.”

“I thought society was ready, but the sessions in parliament were not a very good sign,” Rana Husseini, a women’s rights activists told Al Jazeera at the time.

“It’s not going to be an easy battle. There are many deputies that are against anything good for women. In their eyes, if a woman is raped, she has no chance of getting married, and … she will bring dishonour and shame to her family, so it is best for her to marry her rapist.”

For many rights activists, where the real gains must come from if Jordan’s women are to feel control of their bodies is in the unspoken mindset.

“…308 is not just in law, it’s in our heads,” Ghada Saba told Al Jazeera last week.

Widower, Rouba* says keeping her three teenage-aged daughters confined to the cramped two-room apartment shared by their extended 14-person family, is for their own benefit.

“People will talk if they are seen outside,” she says. “I must protect them.”

Her rationale for doing this is based on her religion. Muslims make up 92 per cent of Jordan’s population.

Rouba says as a protector and provider for the women, the man of the house has a legal right in Islamic law (shari’ah) to restrict freedom of movement of the women of the house, as he determines necessary for their security.

Without a father to take on this necessary “guardianship” of her daughter’s reputations, she says it is even more important that her daughters obey her.

For Rouba, an unmarried female alone in public can bring irreversible shame to their reputation and family.

Her daughters, scarcely taking their eyes off their mobile phones, shrug when asked about their interests.

“We like shopping for clothes,” Hiba*, the youngest eventually says. I ask how often they do this. “I can’t remember,” she replies.

The daughters are 13, 15, and 17 years of age.

University educated Lamia Komar has much to say about the way she lives her life.

A mother of three, she has a senior position with an international humanitarian agency and is convinced she has freedom of choice because she has pursued a career, education and drives a car.

“When my husband yells at me I just turn off so I don’t have to hear him,” she says with a shrug and a smile.

Having spoken proudly of her female family and friend contemporaries living a similar life, she seems surprised when pushed to explain if her husband is demanding, and if he she shouts at her regularly.

“Of course. Nearly every day.”

* Names have been modified to protect identity.

Rowena McNaughton

Rowena McNaughton is an Australian citizen, psychology and marketing graduate, with a passion for social justice, environment and the need to give respect and space for one's personal narrative. Rowena works in international development based in Jordan.
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