Women gain ground in parliamentary election in Jordan

Women’s rights campaigners in Jordan believe the country is slowly moving towards more progressive political representation after female MPs won 20 of 130 seats in parliamentary elections on Tuesday, compared with 18 out of 150 in the previous parliament.

The growing relevance of women in Jordanian politics, evident in campaign posters clustered at roundabouts and lining roadsides countrywide in the buildup to polling, was reflected in a contest that featured 252 female candidates, the highest number to date.

“You could feel the change,” said Layla Naffa, director of programmes at the Arab Women Organisation, an NGO that fought for the introduction of a women’s quota in 2003.Naffa attributed the shift partly to the replacement of the controversial “one-person, one-vote” system with proportional representation, as a result of which women have become “an asset”, she said.

Under the new electroal law, passed last year, Jordan has been divided into 23 districts. Citizens select from competing lists in their constituency and vote for individual candidates from the same ticket. There is a minimum quota of 15 female members of parliament, at least one from each governorate.

The changes, designed to strengthen political parties and discourage a tradition of voting based on tribal allegiance rather than policy platforms, benefited female candidates on several levels, said Dr Amer Bani Amer, director of Al-Hayat Center, a civil society group that monitors elections through its RASED programme.

“For the first time, we had a large number of female candidates, [with] men and women running together in partnership,” said Amer.

Women appeared in all but six of the 226 party lists, including those of Islamist groups. The increased number of female candidates was accompanied by a vital shift in the perception of women. In the buildup to the election, coalitions anxious to tap into the female vote scrambled to incorporate a woman on their lists. Several all-male groups, slower to recognise the increased advantage of aligning with women, returned after the first day of registration to add a female face.

“It’s a sign of growing acceptance among the public,” said Asma Khader, a former minister in Jordan’s government and chairwoman of the Sisterhood is Global Institute (Sigi), which monitored the election from a gender perspective. “People are now ready to see women’s names and photographs on political campaign posters around the country.”

There were still six lists on which the image of the female candidate was conspicuously absent – replaced by a picture of flowers or animals in deference to conservative sensitivities.

Elsewhere, a more progressive stance was epitomised by two national lists composed solely of women. “I wanted to make the point that women can match men in politics; that we have a vital role to play in determining this country’s future,” said Dr Noor Zaza, who formed a three-woman list in the country’s capital, Amman.

The strong performance of high-profile female MPs in the previous parliament has contributed to a belief in “women’s ability to do good” and effect change, said Naffa. While some female MPs have simply been “mouthpieces” for the tribes they represent, a few, such as Wafa Bani Mustafa, have taken up pressing causes, including the campaign to overturn the notorious Article 308 of the Penal Code, which grants rapists clemency if they marry their victims.

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