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Jordan struggles to stem violence against women - By SUHA MA'AYEH, Jordan News



The recent killing of Iman Irsheid, a 21-year-old university student, has once again brought attention to the harsh reality that gender-based violence remains a shameful and entrenched problem in Jordan and other parts of the Middle East.
Her attacker, 37-year-old Oday Hassan, shot her at least five times on the university campus in Irbid. A few days later, the perpetrator shot himself dead after he was asked by the police to surrender.
Iman’s murder came days after a similar crime in Egypt where Nayera Ashraf, a 21-year-old university student in Mansoura, was stabbed to death after she declined a marriage proposal from her attacker.
While social media have played a role in exposing such gruesome crimes against women, sadly many cases of gender-based violence in Jordan and beyond remain underreported. Violence against women is so pervasive that physically harming a spouse is relatively common. Most alarming, it is widely accepted. A government survey published in 2019 found that 69 percent of men and 46 percent of women agreed that wife beating could be justified.
According to UN Women, 37 percent of women in the Arab world have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime, although indicators suggest the figure could be higher. This compares to 21 percent in Western Europe and 25 percent in North America, both regions where the situation is far from perfect.
Unfortunately, women in Jordan are often reluctant to report male abusers. They fear they will retaliate and remain skeptical that the systems and institutions in their patriarchal society will protect them.
Besides, a rhetoric that blames the victim rather than the perpetrator for sexual assault persists.
Jordan has one of the world’s lowest women labor force participation rates, at 13 percent, meaning that most women rely on their spouses for financial support. This leaves them with limited options if they want to leave an abusive partner.
Social stigma does not help either. Few families are keen on having their divorced daughters return home. They often ask them to leave the children with the father so he provides for them.
That is why the vast majority of battered women continue to suffer in silence. This obscures their plight and encourages men to push, shove and slap their wives, sisters or daughters, or even kill them.
When the pandemic hit Jordan, in March 2020, there was a surge in domestic violence cases, like in many other countries. The Family Protection Department, a police unit working to combat domestic and sexual violence, reported 1,534 cases of domestic abuse, a 33 percent increase during the first month of lockdown.
But few women had the courage to make their voices heard. One was Iman Al Khateeb, a 36-year-old single mother who shared harrowing details of abuse at the hands of her brother and mother. She was forced to flee home with her 13-year-old son in April 2020 and was later relocated to a safe house.
Even before the pandemic, the 2017-18 Population and Family Health Survey showed that 26 percent of married women aged between 15 and 49 were exposed to physical or verbal abuse and sexual violence at least once by their spouses. But the attacks are also coming from other male family members.
Two years ago, Ahlam, a 40-year-old woman, was killed by her father with a brick in broad daylight. Local media reports said he smoked a cigarette and drank tea next to her body as he waited for the police to arrive.
In another horrific incident in 2019, a 31-year-old man blinded his wife by gouging her eyes.
To combat gender-based violence Jordan and the wider Middle East, social norms and attitudes need to change and laws need to be reformed. Mothers need to teach their sons that it is not acceptable to hurt women. Perhaps, most importantly, women must strive to be financially independent.
These high profile cases sparked outcry and prompted Jordan to take action.
The Family Protection Department has beefed up its efforts to provide stronger protection for abused women. In addition to its 24-hour hotline, it made it easier for victims to file complaints through social media and a police app.
But efforts to stem gender-based violence have not gone far enough.
The Domestic Violence Protection Act that was adopted in 2017 does not have a definition of what constitutes violence against women. Marital rape is not even considered a crime.
NGOs provide legal aid and support, but they continue to struggle with limited resources. There are several economic empowerment programs to equip women with skills, but they are not enough to help them pay the bills or take care of children.
Besides, couples are encouraged by the Family Protection Department to settle disputes if the abuse was not a criminal offense. Some men who learn that hurting a woman is not OK may stop, but others continue, particularly if the woman has no family to support her. Since most women report abuse as the final straw, reconciling with the attacker seems at best unlikely to succeed and at worst extremely dangerous.
Some abused women I talked to wished their husbands dead. Others who managed to leave are staying in shelters, facing a bleak future. I met some women who struggled at first, but thanks to support from their families and NGOs were able to stand on their own feet.
To combat gender-based violence Jordan and the wider Middle East, social norms and attitudes need to change and laws need to be reformed. Mothers need to teach their sons that it is not acceptable to hurt women. Perhaps, most importantly, women must strive to be financially independent. Until that is the case, tragic cases like that of Iman Irsheid will remain all too common.
Suha Ma'ayeh is a journalist based in Amman. Her work has been published in Foreign Policy and CTC Sentinel. She also reports for The Wall Street Journal and other publications on Jordan and southern Syria. ©Syndication Bureau.

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