It's not common for women candidates to put their picture on their campaign posters. Fatima Bani Yaseen is an exception. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Alexandra Karlsdotter Stenström.
Today Jordan holds local elections. With a recently raised women quota, the outcome could be more women than ever in local councils. We have met three women activists who stand as candidates.
In Jordan, local elections are being met with varying interest. In the capital Amman most people don’t seem to bother. It is just a day off for everyone and the common joke is that the shores of the Dead Sea will be full of people, since no one will go and vote.
But traditionally, local elections are more important for people living outside of the major cities. They are primarily a way to secure the family or clan interests, through making sure that a strong candidate is produced, that can be elected to the City Council.
Won over male candidates
Maysoon Meqdadi. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Alexandra Karlsdotter Stenström
In the village of Kura in the north of Jordan, we meet Fatima Bani Yaseen and Maysoon Meqdadi, active in the local women’s rights organisation with the same name as the village. They both run for election. Fatima has held a seat at the City Council for several periods now, and is a well-known figure in her constituency. When her clan was to decide on candidates for this year’s election, she was one of their final choices, beating several male candidates in the process. But getting to that point has not been easy.
Her first time as a candidate was preceded by a long and painful struggle with her brother. Since Fatima is not married, her brothers have the final say on everything she is to do outside the walls of her home. But this time she refused to accept their no.
“I locked myself in my room and just cried. I refused to talk to my brother.”
Weeks passed, and when only two weeks remained before the election, Fatima’s brother finally gave in. She was allowed to run as a candidate.
“Our society is ruled by men and clans” she says cooly.
But she adds that many women want to support her and have called her to ask if they can help with her campaign.
For Maysoon it’s her first time as a candidate. Besides from her and Fatima, there are only two other women standing for election in the municipality, so they are both hoping to be elected.
And chances are good. In the latest revision of the Jordanian electoral law, the women quota at the municipal level was raised from 20 to 25 percent. It is a relatively high figure – in the Parliament only 10 percent of the seats are reserved for women – and a success for the women’s movement. But a success that demands commitment. To change the view of women being mere political alibis, women have to get engaged in politics and stand for election.
Out of 2 808 candidates in the local elections, 473 are women. The total number of seats in the city councils are 1100, which means that 275 of them are reserved for women. Thus, there are less than two female candidates for each seat. And some districts don’t even have one female candidate. This is solved by hand-picking women to the remaining seats – women who often are skilled and experienced, but who haven’t put themselves up as candidates.
Only female candidate
In the village of Rakeen in southern Jordan, lives Sara Rahayfeh. She is also active in a local women’s rights organisation, this too with the same name as the village. She also stands for election, and since she is the only female candidate in her constituency, chances are good for her to win a seat.
Besides from being the leader of the organisation Rakeen, Sara is an experienced and well-known midwife. Still, it is crucial for her to have the family or the clan behind her when standing for election.
“I have the support of my whole family in this. And I feel strong. I have learned so much through my job with the organisation” she says.
Posters and knocking on doors
Back in Kura, Maysoon and Fatima are talking with horror about a woman in their district running as a candidate, not in her own name but as the wife of Mr X – because his name is the important one.
Fatima has her picture on her election posters. This is rare for a woman, since it’s not considered appropriate. Maysoon has not printed any posters, but has been out knocking on doors in her constituency, talking to voters about the things she wants to change.
“I want to make sure that the resources of the municipality are distributed fairly between everyone who lives here. Waste collection is important, it has to run smoothly everywhere. And I want to ensure that there are street lights on all streets.”
Fatima is also adamant on the importance of resources being distributed fairly. And she is particularly interested in how the budget is being put together.
“There has to be women in the Budget Committee, and we must ensure that the money also will benefit women. Health care is an important example, women need special medical equipment” she says.
Nima Habashne and her daughter demonstrating for women to have the same right as men to transfer their citizenship to their children. Photo: Private.
According to Jordanian law, women don’t have the right to transfer their Jordanian citizenship to their children. That means that if you’re born to a foreign father, you’re closed off from civil rights like state health care, the educational system and the right to vote. Nima Habashne decided to take the fight for her children.
”It started a couple of months after my Moroccon husband had passed away. My then 8-year-old daughter had a heart condition and I didn’t have the money to pay for her medical care. I went to the Prime Ministry to apply for her to recieve care in one of the state hospitals. But the person I talked to just through the papers in my face and said ’This is not Jordan’s responsibility, your children should apply for care in Morocco.’ On my way home I decided that I was going to fight for my rights and the rights of my children.”
Almost seven years have passed since Nima Habashne decided to start the campaign My mother is Jordanian and her Nationality is My Right. Nima and the other 450 mothers that are part of the campaign, fight for Jordanian women to have the same right as Jordanian men to transfer their citizenship to their children. Tens of thousands of mothers and many more children are affected by this discriminatory legislation, which is a result of Jordan making a reservation to Article 9 in the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Discrimination Against Women, CEDAW.
No rights without money
For children whose mother has a Jordanian citizenship and whose father has a citizenship from another country, the consequences are serious. Without a Jordanian citizenship they are deprived of several fundamental rights within Jordanian society. They are not allowed to vote and don’t have access to state health care or to the educational system. Unless they have a lot of money that is. It’s always possible to pay your way into a university or state hospital. However, most of these families are living on the margins and several of the mothers in the campaign network are widows or divorced.
Without a Jordanian citizenship you have to apply for a special permit from the state to do almost everything, like taking your driver’s license or getting married and there are no guarantees that your application will be granted. You can not even be sure that you will be allowed to stay in Jordan. As a child of a Jordanian mother and a foreign father, you’re a guest in your own country and the state reserves the right to deport anyone who it considers a liability to Jordanian society.
Started on the internet
Messages from Jordanian mothers and their children without Jordanian citizenship, on a manifestation in Amman on the International Women’s Day, 8 March, this year. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Johanna Wassholm.
Nima Habashne’s campaign started on the internet, in a time when the political climate in the Middle East was different from today.
”For several years I ran this campaign through my blog and on Facebook. But after the Arab Spring it felt like we could risk to take it outside, into the streets” she says.
Before she started organising protests herself, Nima Habashne participated in the big demonstrations taking place for general reforms and increased democracy – to learn how a demonstration works and to talk to the participants about the citizenship issue.
”The first time I organised a demonstration outside the Prime Ministry, it was only me and my two daughters. That was March 24th, 2011. Now I have between 20 and 60 other mothers with me each time. And I feel that I have the support of the Jordanian people. I believe that 80 percent of the people in the streets support my campaign.”
Hot political topic
Her biggest opposition can be found on the governmental level. The citizenship issue is a hot political topic in a country that has more refugees per capita than any other country in the world, and where this discriminatory legislation affects around 500 000 people.
However, after many years of continous campaigning, Nima Habashne has gotten a lot of allies. Last month, 11 parlamentarians put forward a proposed law to grant these children civil rights. Not citizenship, but access to basic rights like health care, education and the labour market.
”It’s a first step. You have to start somewhere. But I will not rest until our children enjoy full citizenships” says Nima Habashne.
Field Representative in Jordan for the Swedish women’s rights and peace organisation The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation
Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation / Johanna Wassholm
Today, parliamentary elections are hold in Jordan. When it comes to women’s political representation everything can only get better, as there is not one woman in the present provisional government.
Today’s elections are early elections, King Abdullah II dissolved the parliament last fall, a common phenomenon in Jordan politics. According to the new election law, which is the result of two years demands for reform, are 15 of the 150 seats in parliament reserved for female candidates. This is an increase of three seats compared to the last election in 2010 and can be regarded as a tiny success. At the same time the total number of seats in parliament has increased, so the quota of 10 percent is still the same. The women’s rights movement in Jordan is not content with this low number and, since the last election, has been calling for 30 percent of the seats should go to women.
There is hope for a few more women to get into parliament after today’s election, as two women are number one on their respective parties lists and a couple more women have a chance of getting enough votes of their own to be elected. The number of women to stand for election is higher than ever before. Out of about 1400 candidates, 215 are women.
Family voting is common
But even if women will be represented with more than 15 percent in the parliament after the election, the view on women as political actors won’t change over night. Many still think that politics is off-limits for women and neither men nor women vote in a larger extend for female candidates. The so-called family voting is also common in Jordan, especially outside the capital Amman.
Layla Hamarne from The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s partner organization ‘Arab Women’s Organization’ works for advocating women’s political participation. She doesn’t believe that many women will decide for themselves for whom they will vote. “I think it is very uncommon for women to vote independently, except for intellectuals and people in the bigger cities, “she says.
It is the paterfamilias, safeguarding the families’ or the clans’ interests, who decides whom the rest of the family shall vote for. The lack of possibility to vote independently makes it difficult for women to vote for candidates who want to strengthen women’s power and influence in society.
The big question is though: Will this play a role? Discontentment is widespread amongst voters as well as political parties. The claim for political reform has been loud since the Arab Spring started to spread two years ago, and even though there are some changes for the better, the situation is still far from being satisfying for the majority of the population. There was only a minimal response to the demand of a modernized and more democratic electoral law, and therefore some opposition parties boycott the election, amongst them the influential Muslim Brotherhood and some leftist parties.
A low voter turnout is expected; in Amman no more than 30 percent of the voters are anticipated to show up at the poll places. In public opinion, the candidates are the same who have been sitting in parliament for many years. Many corruption cases, apparently an inevitable part of the Jordanian power structure, chipped away at their reputation and they are not regarded as being able to bring about change. ‘They are all corrupt’, is a usual statement. Few people think that a new parliament will do something against the high living costs in the country or widen the freedom of speech, two questions which are pivotal in Jordanian politics right now – or should be pivotal, in the people’s opinion.
Text: Johanna Wassholm
working for the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation in Amman, Jordan
Translation: Katharina Andersen
Last year’s new European Neighbourhood Policy meant an increased commitment from the European Union to support human rights when aiding its neighbouring countries. But women’s rights are still very much missing in the formal documents, and thereby also in the actions taken and planned. This although the official words spoken are underlining equality.
In May 2011 the European Union revised its Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) in, as the European Commission (EC) describes it, ”a rapid respons to the changes taking place in particular in the Southern Mediterranean but also in Eastern Europe”. This new strategy was adopted to show Europe’s support to the peoples of the Arab Spring and to their struggle for freedom, democracy and safety. A year on the EC has made an assessment of the implementation of this new policy so far, and the result is presented in the report Delivering on a new European Neighbourhood Policy.
When presenting the report, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Commission Vice-President (HR/VP), Catherine Ashton, was optimistic:
- We have seen great progress in some countries. In others, we need to encourage the political leadership to take bold steps down the path to reform. I have always said that we will be judged on our work with our immediate neighbours, and I am convinced that we are moving in the right direction. We will continue to help our partners in their efforts to embed fundamental values and reinforce the economic reforms which are necessary to create what I call ‘deep democracy’, she said.
Women’s rights not in writing
The ENP defines deep and sustainable democracy as ”including free and fair elections, freedom of association, expression and assembly, the rule of law administered by an independent judiciary” etc, but there is no mentioning of women’s rights to equal participation in decision-making.
Since history has shown us that when women’s rights are not spelled out in basic documents (and sometimes even when they are) they won’t appear in reality, this could be seen as very unfortunate. Especially since Delivering on a new European Neighbourhood Policy states that it ”is based on new features, including…a recognition of the special role of women in reshaping both politics and society”. A statement further endorsed by Catherine Ashton:
- I’ve been very privileged to meet women in countries like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia. We need to ensure that women play their full part in society, in the political and economic life of their countries, not just because of course it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes economic and political sense. I would argue women should be at the heart of all the transformations that follow.
Actions for women through the ENP
So the question is: How have these EU statements on women’s rights been transformed into actions concerning the neighbouring countries during the past year, and what are the plans within this area for the years to come?
Delivering on a new European Neighbourhood Policy has only one paragraph mentioning women’s rights. It states that building sustainable democracy also means ensuring gender equality and increasing the participation of women in political and economic life. But after that the paragraph just goes on observing that some of the countries last year tried to set up legislation to ensure a more balanced composition of parliaments, but that they have encountered resistance and therefore this action has not had the desired effect.
But in the accompanying document Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity: Report on activities in 2011 and Roadmap for future action, there is a list of actions taken within the ENP to establish full participation of women in society when it comes to the Southern Neighbourhood. This includes:
- A high level meeting in New York in September that ”drew international attention to the need to ensure that women play an active part in political processes worldwide”.
- The HR/VP during the Women’s Rights Forum in Libya in November announcing the launch of a programme for women’s empowerment, including capacity building and education in the region.
- A regional campaign on women’s political participation in the Middle East and North Africa launched in December, together with ”concrete projects in this field”.
- In Tunisia: promoting gender senstitive institutional and judicial reforms and women’s participation in elections.
- In Egypt: addressing women’s participation in political life through a cultural initiative called the Spirit of Tahrir.
- In Jordan: having two ”Village Business Incubators” promoting rural women’s right to participate in the labour market.
Actions to come
For the upcoming period of 2012-2013 the actions specifically mentioning women are:
- The programme Political and economic empowerment of women in Southern Mediterranean region, aiming to help marginalised women gaining access to economic and public life.
- Increased funding to the Anna Lindh Foundation and its programme Civil Society for Dialogue, targeting youth and women.
The equivalent document for the Eastern Neighbourhood – Eastern Partnership: A Roadmap to the autumn 2013 Summit – has no mention of women’s rights or participation whatsoever.
The new ENP entailed the principle of ”more for more”, meaning that the more a partner country makes progress and implements reforms, the more support it will recieve from the EU. In separete country progress reports these reforms are stated as actions that EU ”invites” the country to take. Four of the ones for 2012 mention women or gender:
Armenia invitations contain ”adopting a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, including further steps leading to the harmonisation of legislation with the EU acquis in the areas of gender equality and non-discrimination.”
Jordan invitations contain ”increase efforts to eradicate violence against women and to promote their integration in politics, socio-economic life through promoting women entrepreneurs, women’s participation in the labour market and in education, in line with the recommendations listed in the preliminary report issued in October by the UN Special Rapporteur on discrimination against women”.
Lebanon invitations contain ”pay special attention to enhancing the role of women in both public and economy sectors respectively”.
Ukraine invitations contain ”address in good time issues raised in the area of justice and home affairs, notably on combating trafficking in human beings taking into account a gender and human rights perspective”.
These are all of course good examples, but in comparison to the points on various measures regarding trade that are taking up several pages of the different documents, it is not much. Especially when accompanied by a floating language that uses non-specific words like ”leading to”, ”harmonisation”, ”pay special attention to” etc.
In other words: it remains to be seen how the EU’s bold statements on the importance of gender equality will actually be followed through in its practical dealings with the neighbouring countries the upcoming years.