Photo Credit: UN Women/Christopher Herwig. October 21. 2015.
The following analysis appears in Volume 4, Issue 6 of the Peace Science Digest.
Citation: Forester, S. (2019). Protecting women, protecting the state: Militarism, security threats, and government action on violence against women in Jordan. Security Dialogue, 50(6), 1-18.
Keywords: Jordan, militarism, violence against women, human rights
In 2008, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan passed its Family Protection Law, which dedicated government resources to the cause of preventing domestic violence and, importantly, protecting women. Yet, this progress on women’s rights cannot be disentangled from broader changes in civil liberties and the national military and intelligence infrastructure that took place simultaneously. This article explores how militarism influences the gender policy-making process and pays special attention to how Jordan was able to pass the Family Protection Act while stripping citizens of other civil liberties like freedom of speech and association. The author argues that Jordan passed national legislation on domestic violence, in part, to improve its international reputation. It entrenched a masculine and militarized approach to security that emphasizes the need for women’s protection rather than the transformation of gender relations.
The author uses 54 interviews and field notes from a 16-month stay in Jordan to develop this case study. She begins by tracing the origins of the Family Protection Law with the creation of Family Protection Units in 1998, police units specially trained to handle victims of sexual crimes and domestic violence. This happened during a tumultuous political time in Jordan. The signing of the peace agreement with Israel a few years earlier garnered widespread protests that the king repressed—holding protesters indefinitely and prohibiting journalists from covering certain events. He dissolved parliament in 2001 and ruled by decree for the following two years, issuing 250 temporary laws. Many of these laws “severely curbed” freedom of speech and assembly while others improved women’s rights.
The simultaneous advancement of women’s rights and suppression of other civil liberties shows that, “while [Jordan] construed freedom of speech and freedom of press as state-security threats that should be constrained through royal decree, the government never framed changes to the status of women as antithetical to the security of the state.” This pairing of advancements to women’s rights with the exertion of greater control over the state would become a recurrent strategy for the king.
When the king reinstated parliament in 2003, a conservative backlash followed. The 250 temporary laws were examined, and the lower house voted against many of the advancements in women’s rights. The king did not challenge parliament in this instance because he needed their support to quell dissent against the 1994 peace treaty with Israel (which still generated much domestic resistance, despite having been adopted close to a decade prior) and outrage over the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Throughout this period, women activists worked to push the issue of women’s rights despite a conservative backlash. The name of the law itself, Family Protection Law, reflects a concession between women’s groups and conservative voices. Women activists saw that Jordanian society was not yet ready to embrace the term “gender-based violence.” They would be more likely to gain support if they referred to “family protection,” which eased concerns among conservative audiences that feared a law on gender-based violence would encourage divorce and the separation of families.
While conservative voices in society played a role in the development of the Family Protection Law, it was the trade-off between women’s rights and state-security interests that heavily influenced when the law would pass and under what conditions. In 2005, Jordan witnessed the worst terrorist attack in its history, resulting in 60 killed and over 100 injured. The state moved into “full-scale security mode,” passing a wide-sweeping anti-terrorism law that expanded the powers of national intelligence and police and even further limited freedom of expression and assembly. The terrorist attacks “strengthen[ed] militarism in Jordan” as the state increasingly aligned its domestic security strategy with that of the U.S.-led global war on terrorism. Islamist groups, whether violent or not, were targeted in subsequent crackdowns.
In order to downplay its autocratic tendencies to an international audience, Jordan moved to advance women’s rights. It signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and opened its first government-run women’s shelter in 2007. The king pushed for the passage of the Family Protection Law until it passed in January of 2008. Some women’s rights activists, however, revoked their support because they believed it failed to adequately protect women.
The author argues that this case holds important implications for how women’s rights can be promoted in militarized contexts. First, perhaps counterintuitively, Jordan’s position on women’s rights went hand in hand with its militarized domestic security agenda insofar as the state could be situated as both the protector of women and the protector against terrorism. This served as a useful appeal to the international community who could justify working with Jordan as a military partner in the global war on terror due to its positive stance on women’s rights, while conveniently ignoring its violations of civil liberties. Second, the Family Protection Law emphasized the need for women’s protection rather than their agency, seeing the state as the protector of women. Activists knew that the success of the legislation relied on a protectionist narrative and were strategic about using the contemporary security context to justify their proposed legislation. With these implications in mind, the author shows that understanding militarism in domestic policy-making helps to better understand the conditions for when and how governments will advance women’s rights.
- The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan passed the Family Protection Law in 2008 to address violence against women but did so while also stripping other civil liberties like freedom of expression and assembly.
- In order to appeal to the international community and maintain its participation in the global war on terror, Jordan’s security interests motivated its support of women’s rights to maintain the appearance of a modern, democratic country.
- Women’s rights activists in Jordan understood that making progress on women’s rights legislation was contingent on navigating a militarized political landscape where a protectionist narrative of women’s rights would make legislation more likely to pass.
Jordan’s management of civil liberties during this time period, whether intentional or not, created a false dichotomy between women’s rights and other human rights. Advancing women’s rights is not conditional on the repression of others, not least because it creates more opponents to women’s rights than supporters, as indicated by the conservative backlash in Jordan. Militarism is key here because it informs how the state views its security interests. From the state perspective, protecting women from violence fits in with an overall militarized society where protection by the state—whether it be from terrorism or gender-based violence—can be used to justify its other autocratic tendencies, like the repression of freedom of expression and association.
Working in an autocratic and militarized country creates a difficult situation for activists, like those women’s rights activists in Jordan who were compelled to frame their cause within a protectionist framework in order for it to be successful. Yet, this frame threatens to undermine the larger cause for women’s rights activists: women’s agency and the transformation of gender relations in pursuit of equality. This is a catch-22 for advancing women’s rights: how can activists be effective in challenging patriarchy and transforming gender relations if they must also navigate and work within that same social system to gain any traction? Fortunately, research shows that weak laws on women’s rights still help women and perhaps can serve as a springboard for introducing broader reforms in the future. While national legislation is still important, women’s rights activists should heed the observation from the author of this research who notes, “women’s groups acted strategically to frame the policy on violence against women as aligning with the dominant discourse of the state as the paternalistic protector of women, but, in doing so, they inadvertently reified the logic of militarism.” There is a real danger to human rights if militarism goes unchecked, namely that rights become conditional to how the state defines its security interests. With this in mind, women’s rights activists can celebrate their legislative victories while not ignoring their long-term goals and vision of challenging and dismantling patriarchal and militarized social institutions.
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Salma Network: http://salmanetwork.org/index.php?todo=about&cat=260&lang=en
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