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Jordan’s Sexist Laws and the Night Fatima’s Eyes Were Taken

Heba Abou Taha
Jordanian Journalist
October 23, 2020
"Everything about us is shameful. It’s shameful to get a divorce in a rural community, it is shameful for you to complain about your husband in particular, especially if he was your cousin, and shameful for you to do I don’t know what else. A woman must make a decision before she loses her life or the life of her children. For me, it wasn’t only my life that was wasted, but also the lives of my children…".

“Because I am not accounted for among the living, nor am I accounted for among the dead, sometimes I think to myself, maybe if I had let him stab me and I didn’t resist, I would’ve either died or lived. At least I would’ve been able to see… I mean, it’s just like what he told me; He said, if you lived and didn’t die, I would make sure you die 100 deaths every day, and here I am, indeed dying 100 deaths everyday…” She gestured with her hand as she spoke, with silent tears shedding from eyes whose light had gone out, on account of the fact that she was now, blind.

Even the word “death” seems lacking in relation to what happened to the Jordanian mother, Fatima Abu Aklik.

At 37 years old, she endured such an intense level of pain, that she was didn’t know at the time that what she thought was blood on her face was actually her eye which her husband had pulled out, while the other was stabbed with an awl (a small but sharp and pointed tool).

The incident took place in November of 2019, in brutal attack carried out by her husband that could have killed her, after nearly 14 years of a turbulent and violent marriage. He tried to kill her, and when he failed, he pulled out her eyes.

The crime change Fatima’s life forever, and the lives of her children. It also caused quite a stir in Jordan’s public opinion.

Weeks and months have passed since Fatima’s ordeal, when she survived certain death, but could her life now really be considered surviving?

Today, Fatima lives with her two sons (13 years and 11 years old) and her daughter (3 years old) in her parents’ modest house in the town of Al-Mushairefah in Mafraq Governorate, north of the capital, Amman. She moved to her family home after the assault took place, and her husband was imprisoned, and he is still on trial for attempting to kill her and deliberately taking her eyesight.

Although Fatima’s account was one of the most horrific stories of violence against women in recent years, it should be known that it is not an isolated incident. Every once in a while, Jordan is preoccupied with a new tragedy that directly affects the female gender. According to the Department of Statistics on Domestic Violence, out of every 100 wives in Jordan, 26 wives have been subjected to physical, sexual, or emotional violence by their husbands.

“A woman must make a decision before she loses her life or the life of her children. For me, it wasn’t only my life that was wasted, but also the lives of my children…”.

In Fatima’s story, the details resemble the stories of the women and young girls who have suffered similar miserable fates. She grew up in a conservative family in a poor town in the Mafraq governorate, north of Amman. She completed her studies at the College of Education where she was learning fashion design.

At that time, her cousin Abdel Hakim, who worked with her brother in the field of driving truck rentals, otherwise known as “dump trucks”, entered her life. He was 3 years younger than her, and she did not know him previously before they’d met, and a traditional family marriage took place.

From the very first day, Fatima discovered that she had made a very bad choice. One week after their marriage, her husband ordered her to not speak with her brother or to communicate with him, because of a dispute that had occurred between them: “He started being violent with me from the very first week … He prevented me from communicating with my brother, and I assured him that he had spoken to me but that I was not responding to him. And when I tried to discuss things with him and to convince him that it was my right to speak with my brother, he hit me”…

Fatima lived through a very harsh marriage, many years of insults, cursing, and beatings, during which she resorted to her family’s house several times to no avail. She had also filed an alimony lawsuit against him, but he had been mortgaging his salary to pay off his loans, and she was also unable to pay the fees for the divorce case, so she retreated out of fear for her children. “I wanted to get a divorce, but I didn’t have any money … In the end, I shut up about the issue and stayed with my children so that I wouldn’t lose them. Hi mother also played a role in what I was living through, for after he married me and his father passed away, he tried to get engaged around eight times. But when they’d find out that his wife was staying with him, the girls would leave him and refuse to marry him. His mother was on his side, helping him get engaged.” Fatima added, “I stayed quiet all these years for my children, fearing that a new wife would come and be violent towards them too.”

No Societal or Legal Protection

In Jordan, conservative religious and tribal traditions intertwine within the societal composition, which is then reflected in personal status laws that do not provide for equality between spouses, but rather “complementary” rights that require a wife to obey her husband in exchange for his financial support.

In their traditional conservative society, these laws do not give women many options regarding marriage, divorce, and independence. A woman may lose the right to maintenance from her husband if she lives or works outside their home without his consent, and women inherit half the amount that their male relatives inherit.

According to Jordanian law, men can unilaterally divorce their wives without restrictions, while women are not entitled to unilaterally divorce their husbands and are subject to longer and more expensive procedures. The Jordanian Personal Status Law gives preference to the mother after the divorce in deciding on custody of the child until he reaches the age of 15, after which the child can choose between the parents, and custody is withdrawn from the divorced mother if she remarries.

These are other basic deficiencies in the law, which is also headed by the prevalence of early marriage among girls, and although amendments were issued in recent years that raised the age of marriage to 18 years of age, judges of the Sharia court can exclude some “special cases” for children between 15 and 18 years old, if the “Marriage is a necessity required by mutual interest, and whoever marries accordingly acquires full capacity in everything related to marriage …”. This legislative circumvention has kept an entry point for young girls’ marriage in Jordan, and according to statistical reports, girls constitute the vast majority of married children in Jordan.

“I have the two grown-up boys, they’ve become afraid of everything. I mean, they wake me up so I would go with them to the bathroom… My little girl, at first, she didn’t speak at all, then when she began to speak, she talked about everything she saw that night. I mean, the first thing that she ever said out loud was Mama’s eyes, blood…”.

Lawyer and human rights defender Hala Ahed says that the Personal Status Law views women within the family as being lower in rank. “Dealing with the notions of guardianship that gives men within the family the power to violate women’s rights is a concept that has become unfortunately practiced and reinforced by legislation as a form of bullying to deprive women of their most basic rights. According to the Personal Status Law, a man can deprive a woman of maintenance if she goes out to work without his consent, or he can deprive her of her children if she marries another person after their divorce. These are within a system that reinforces the inferiority of women and reinforces that there are roles within the family that require men to be more domineering in order to suppress women’s behavior and choices.”

According to Ahed, this philosophy that governs personal status laws has given men in the family a wider authority to control women’s choices on how to work, live, and dress. “It becomes a requirement for a woman not to go out to work or a requirement for her to sit at home, or not to go out to study at university or not to meet her friends or her family. Also preventing her from using a phone or even creating an account on social networking sites, these become socially desirable behaviors that people within the family impose on women in order to evaluate their behavior according to the prevailing culture, and to suppress their choices.”

With these laws coupled with harsh traditions, many women find themselves restricted in the face of any violence or belittlement, and are forced to remain silent and accept reality, despite its cruelty. Here, the dilemma of weak legal protection for women arises.

“We are talking about a political, social and economic system that discriminates against women, a system that always puts them in a vulnerable situation…So, we blame this social system that tolerates violence, legally doesn’t recognize forms of violence, nor provides adequate protection for women, nor helps them access justice,” Ahed added.

19 Thousand Cases

Figures from the “Directorate of Reform, Mediation and Family Conciliation” concerned with settling family disputes indicate that from the beginning of 2020 until the end of June, about 19 thousand cases of conflict and family disputes were registered in a country with an estimated population of 10 million people. Fifty-two percent of these cases ended with peace settlements, while those in charge of the reconciliation offices assert that their ultimate goal is to reduce divorce cases.

Human rights activists believe that the pressure towards family settlements is an extension of the suffering of women under the pretext of ‘society and tradition’. In this context, Ahed believes that the level of protection in Jordan for women who have been beaten is very weak. “Many women refrain from submitting even a complaint because they know that the procedures are sterile and ineffective, and therefore even if the woman goes to the competent authorities, it’s like she would get stuck in the same vortex, especially since the prevailing mentality does not look to referring domestic violence cases as crimes, but rather as a mere problem within a family, which should be resolved without resorting to the law. ​​Reconciliation is always the goal, and then the woman often returns home to the violence again.”

The Night Fatima was Beaten …

The lack of trust in family centers is exactly the reason Fatima did not resort to them, in an environment where divorce and the independence of women are considered dangerous. “In our society, divorce is shameful. If a woman complains about her cousin, it’s shameful. It’s shameful because he is a relative. I mean, customs and traditions are always revolving around shame, in a rural community everything is shameful; Divorce is shameful, you complaining about your husband is shameful.” The shame and fear for her children is what caused Fatima to endure her husband’s violence, but her compromise with him did not protect her from the horror that she never imagined would happen to her.

One day in November 2019, Fatima’s husband asked her to bring him a coffee and a hookah and to sit with him in the guest room, which he then locked. He took out a knife that he had hidden and told her: “You always tell me you don’t want me,” and threatened her that he would slaughter her or her children in front of her.

This happened in front of her three children.

These were the terrifying moments experienced by Fatima, who was afraid to die by getting stabbed on the one hand and afraid for her children on the other.

It was really harsh listening to the details of what happened to Fatima in those moments. “I kept holding my oldest son’s hand, while my husband was saying ‘let them go outside’. I told him I didn’t want that, and pleaded with my children to not leave me, because if they were to leave, he would kill me… the last thing he said was I’ll kill you in front of them or I’ll kill them in front of you, and I’d let you die on your own. I looked at my children, and their faces were yellow with fear. My little girl was attached to me, she started to cry… she got up from my lap out of fear and got in between us, and I told him, for the sake of your daughter, don’t you love her? For god’s sake just leave me one eye so that I could see her, and raise her, and he said no, I’m going to take both your eyes.” Indeed, that’s what her husband did.

That night, Fatima was treated at the hospital, but it was not possible for her to regain her eyesight. Her husband was imprisoned and she moved to her parents’ house.

The months that passed since the attempt to kill her revealed the extent of the psychological damage that befell her children. “I have the two grown-up boys, they’ve become afraid of everything. I mean, they wake me up so I would go with them to the bathroom… My little girl, at first, she didn’t speak at all, then when she began to speak, she talked about everything she saw that night. I mean, the first thing that she ever said out loud was Mama’s eyes, blood…”.

Fatima feels helpless because of her inability to take care of her children, after she lost her eyesight. She was taking care of all their affairs, but today she is in need of constant assistance. What worries her the most is that her little girl witnessed that whole crime; “Her two brothers saw the knife when he was trying to kill me, but they did not see him take out my eyes. But the little girl, she saw everything. God knows what is going on inside her head.”

Ahed says that removing women from the circle of violence is not possible yet, due to the legal and societal fence surrounding that violence. “Today, a woman who wants to challenge her social conditions and wants to be free from the violence of the legislative system, will deal with the latter as a defender and as an outlaw. The woman that leaves her home or her husband’s house to escape violence, if reported, would be under arrest.”

Fatima regrets that she was not able to get a divorce and survive on her own with her children. She knows that the laws and societal culture were against her. “Everything about us is shameful. It’s shameful to get a divorce in a rural community, it is shameful for you to complain about your husband in particular, especially if he was your cousin, and shameful for you to do I don’t know what else. A woman must make a decision before she loses her life or the life of her children. For me, it wasn’t only my life that was wasted, but also the lives of my children…”.

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