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In Jordan, A Struggle For Gender Equality

For eight years, Nima Habashna has been garnering online support for the rights of Jordanian women to pass on their citizenship to their non-Jordanian spouses and children.

When the Jordanian government — in response to the Arab Spring — scrapped an article in the Public Assembly Law requiring consent to hold rallies, Mrs. Habashna took her cause offline and onto the streets. Over the past few months, she organized several protests outside Parliament, the Royal Palace and the prime minister’s office.

As in many other countries in the region, Jordanian law grants nationality only to a person whose father holds citizenship. As a mother of six children who is married to a Moroccan, Mrs. Habashna is the only Jordanian citizen in her family.

“No one in my family objected to my marriage, but after I got married and had children, I discovered the laws begin to fight you,” she said during an interview as two of her daughters sat nearby.

Despite recent constitutional amendments this fall, many women and human rights advocates assailed the broken promise by an appointed committee to include the word “gender” in Article 6, concerning equality of all Jordanians: “There shall be no discrimination between Jordanians as regards to their rights and duties on grounds of race, language or religion.”

Rashida Manjoo, the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women, said, “The explicit prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex and gender in the Constitution would not only give women a practical tool to challenge inequality more effectively, but would also serve to educate and raise awareness among Jordanian society as a whole.” Ms. Manjoo just concluded a visit here as the first independent expert charged by the U.N. Human Rights Council to monitor violence against women.

The first time Mrs. Habashna told her supporters she would be protesting in Amman, she expected several women to join her. “Nobody showed up except my daughters, and when I called some turned off their cellphones,” she said. “Others told me their husbands didn’t permit them to join.”

But a barrier of fear has been lifted in Jordan as the number of protests increased in the region. Many of Mrs. Habashna’s female supporters now join her during protests. Some have received threatening messages, however, warning them to stop their campaign or face punishment. “We received letters to frighten us,” she said, “but I guarantee you, we will not remain silent.”

The struggle for women’s rights is an example of the challenges Jordan faces as it implements reforms promised by the government in response to popular demands and the Arab Spring.

Pursuing her fight, Mrs. Habashna, 53, decided to create a Facebook page, called “My Mom Is Jordanian and Her Citizenship Is My Right.” The page had nearly 3,000 members before it was hacked this month. Mrs. Habashna said, “This issue is supposed to be about human rights and equality, but it has become politicized.”

In a small country that is home to more refugees per capita than almost anywhere in the world, demographics, identity and political divisions — real or perceived — play a crucial role in the citizenship debate.

Unlike other refugees who are considered “guests” in Jordan, Palestinian refugees were granted citizenship after the annexation of the West Bank from Jordan by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Today “a Palestinian woman can marry a Jordanian man and get citizenship, and her children will automatically become Jordanian,” said Nermeen Murad, executive director of the Information and Research Center at the King Hussein Foundation.

Nearly two years ago, the Information and Research Center began a study of the social and economic impact of citizenship laws for Jordanian women married to foreign men. In 2009, it revealed that there were nearly 66,000 such couples in the kingdom.

Since Jordanian men, by law, can marry non-Jordanian women who are then granted citizenship, “There’s not equal treatment,” Mrs. Murad said during an interview with JO, a local cultural and social monthly magazine.

There are a large number of Palestinians who are married to non-Jordanians, she added, but “a lot of them are Egyptians, and there’s increased fear among East Bank Jordanians of a lot of Iraqis and Syrians.” East Bank Jordanians fear they may become a minority.

As unrest sweeps the immediate region — with protests in Egypt, stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and civil strife in Syria and Iraq — Jordan finds itself in a precarious position.

Local newspapers have been covering the plight of Syrian refugees. King Abdullah II said in a recent interview with the BBC that Jordan would keep its borders open for Syrians who flee here. “We’ve had lots of refugees come into Jordan historically — not that that makes us very comfortable, but we have to open our arms,” the king said.

The number of Syrians in the kingdom, though relatively few so far, may further sharpen the nationality debate.

Still, there are calls and protests here for comprehensive political reform, including from women’s movements, opposition groups and human rights organizations. At the same time, there are those who remain resistant to change. The monarch calls them “the old guard” — those who fear a loss of political and demographic clout.

Sawsan Zaideh, a journalist and talk-show host at AmmanNet, a community radio station, said, “I believe the members of the royal family do want to give more rights to women, but there is political pressure and interests that unfortunately seem to stand in the way.”

“There is a political reality that dictates the debate on women’s rights,” she added. “There are conservative tribes who are the backbone of the regime, the Islamic Action Front — the biggest opposition party — and a general patriarchal society the government finds difficult to go against and can’t afford to lose.”

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