Jordan’s civil society fights for more rights in Personal Status Law

Rights and women activists are exerting efforts to convince Jordan’s Senate to amend several articles of the Personal Status Law that allow child marriage, and disregards women’s rights in divorce and inheritance.

al-monitor A Jordanian woman walks in Baqaa, Jordan, Aug. 31, 201.  Photo by KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images.

Dec 26, 2018

The endorsement of the Personal Status Law Dec. 11 by the Jordanian Lower House evoked the anger of activists and supporters of women rights in Jordan for keeping the exceptions of early marriage at the age of 15.

The amendments on the law regulating family affairs such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, custody and guardianship issues according to sharia (Islamic law) were disappointing for the feminist movement represented by the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW), civil society institutions and activists.

On Dec. 11, the movement started collecting signatures from the public for a petition demanding the Senate to consider amending some articles of the law. So far, 5,225 signatures have been collected.

A bill approved by the House of Deputies is passed to the Senate for debate and a vote. If approved, the bill is then submitted to the king, who can either grant consent by royal decree or return the bill unapproved with justifications.

The petition is a list of proposed amendments of around 11 articles, topped with demands to omit conditions that allow minors to get married, or raise the minimum age for marriage to 16 in case the conditions were retained under Article 10 of the law.

The controversial article provides, under the request of applicants, marriage permits at the age of 15 (according to the 2010 version of the temporary law) or “for those turning the age of 16” (according to the Lower House's recent amendments).

Salam Nims, JNCW's secretary-general, told Al-Monitor that both versions have the same legal interpretation but with different linguistic structure, as minors still can get married at the age of 15.

The latest figures by the Supreme Court Department show that over 10,000 cases of child marriage (under the age of 18) were recorded in 2017, and constituted 13.4% of the overall marriages in 2016.

Nirmeen Murad, a women's rights activist, told Al-Monitor that the problem of early marriage lays in its association with forced marriage since such decisions are usually taken by the family, not by the girl because she is not in charge of taking her own decisions. She called on the state to take strict measures on the policy level to combat this phenomenon.

Marriage under 18 is considered an exception by the law and special regulations issued by the Supreme Court Department control the process of granting marriage permissions to "under-aged" applicants. A committee of sharia judges studies living conditions and education status of each applicant and accordingly decides to grant marriage permission or not. The decision greatly depends on the committee's estimation of whether the girl is ready for marriage or not.

However, Judge Ashraf Omari from the Supreme Court Department told Al-Monitor over the phone that the new regulations to impose limitations on child marriage that were developed in late 2017 and went into effect in January show that cases of child marriage dropped by 25%.

The average number of minors between ages 15 and 18 who got married in 2018 decreased to 3% from 4% in 2017, Omari said.

The diplomatic tools adopted in the last couple of years to bring about legislative amendments to the Personal Status Law failed. “Announced and unannounced meetings with parliamentarians and Supreme Court officials [who took part in amending the law] do not seem to have been enough,” Nims said. “We lost the battle in the Lower House, but now we are fighting to gain the support of the Senate.”

Nims noted that the proposed amendments are concerned with protecting women's dignity and rights as well as the cohesion of the family.

According to the current legislation, the compensation for a woman who was divorced without legitimate cause mounts between one to three years of alimony, regardless of the length of the marriage.

However, member of parliament Wafaa Bani Mustafa said in an interview Dec. 11 on Roya TV that her suggestion of raising the upper limit of arbitrary divorce compensation to 12 years of alimony was rejected. She argued that the current compensation is unjust comparing with the great harm caused by such arbitrary action.

In addition, calls for considering equality between sons and daughters under Article 279 — which restricts providing “obligatory bequest” (al-wasiya al-wajiba) to orphaned grandchildren through predeceased sons only, not daughters — were rejected, Bani Mustafa noted.

Omari, who took part in amending the law, claimed that gender aspects were not considered in restricting the obligatory bequest to the grandchildren through a predeceased son, but considered that the child's bread provider passed away.

He stressed that the best interests of the family and society as a whole are at the heart of the law, neither women’s nor men’s. “It is a family law, not women’s law and not men's law.”

However, Nims noted that civil societies' and JNCW's ongoing meetings with the Senate's legal committee are promising, where they touched support for three main demands: raising the minimum age of marriage to 16, giving victims of arbitrary divorce a just compensation and providing the orphaned grandchildren through predeceased daughters the obligatory bequest.

The 328-article law, which was referred, before the Lower House approved it on Dec. 11, to the 16th Lower House's Legal Committee for revision and was discussed under the dome by the 18th House of Representatives, saw amendments of around 20 articles on important issues of child custody, Omari added.

Murad said that the Lower House's amendments introduced to the law some aspects for the first time, like giving the Christian mother the right to keep her Muslim children in her custody and admitting DNA tests in testing paternity of children born out of wedlock. She considered them a positive step forward.

A study published Dec. 10 and conducted by several UN agencies on gender justice in the Arab states' laws and policies affecting gender equality said that some gender justice aspects of Jordan’s Personal Status Law have been addressed. But, the study added, important gender inequalities remain in issues such as child custody, minimum age of marriage and male guardianship over women.

However, a 2015 UN Women report rated Jordan's 2010 temporary Personal Status Law among the world's eighth highly discriminatory laws against women.