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Last Updated: Monday, 9 February, 2004, 00:20 GMT
Bringing Jordan's women into the fold
By Dale Gavlak
BBC News Online in Jordan

King Abdullah and Queen Rania
Jordan's king wants his society to be a model for the region

Jordan is embarking on a radical reform process aimed at modernising the country's political system.

One of the key reforms is getting Jordanian women more involved in public affairs.

The country's monarch, King Abdullah, is behind the moves giving women a bigger and more active role in the political process.

Late last year, he dissolved the upper house of parliament and appointed seven women - the highest number ever - to a new 55-member body.

He also created a special quota system to ensure women would be elected to the lower chamber where they now number six out of 110 members.

Change from above

The king also appointed a female minister, Asma Khader, to serve as the government's spokesperson.

Ms Khader is a prominent lawyer and champion of human rights, particularly women's rights.

Jordan is a very conservative society. It is a society of men
Senator Wijdan Talhouni Saket

Jordan's Prime Minister, Faisal Fayex, for his part, has also urged women's organisations to spur political development in the country.

But some question whether engineering change from above will work in Jordan's traditional society.

The newly appointed senator, Wijdan Talhouni Saket, said King Abdullah is setting the right example to help build democracy in this tribal desert monarchy.

"Jordan is a very conservative society. It is a society of men," she explained.

"Usually men never give their places easily for women if we don't push for it.

"I think this is a first step."

She said the women appointed and elected by the quota system to parliament are mainly activists.

"I am sure and expecting that we are going to do a lot because we have the means, the experience, and now we are encouraged by His Majesty and Queen Rania," she said.

"All of us worked in civil society."

'Too conservative'

Senator Saket has been involved in grassroots development work for the past 20 years.

She has helped launch 250 middle and lower-income women into business by providing facilities, skills and training at her Jordan Forum for Business and Professional Women in the Garden district of Amman.

She said she is contributing her practical business know-how to parliament to help tackle the country's staggering 17% unemployment rate.

But some people argue it will take more than just introducing more women into parliament to change Jordan's political landscape.

Young Jordanian women
Jordanian women must overcome their country's traditional attitudes

Former minister of information, Leila Sharaf, said she did not initially support the idea of a special quota for women.

"I was against it at first," she explained, "because I thought that a quota may bring women who are not experienced in public life, women who are too conservative to push for women's rights or that it may slacken the women's movement."

But Ms Sharaf argues that the country's current election law of one person, one vote will not break the stigma against voting for women.

The quota system may need to be used again for the next parliamentary election, she said, until Jordanians become more accustomed to seeing women in public office.


Amman-based analyst Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group research institute agrees.

"This is a conservative, traditional society. Women can run for election but the chances of their winning are not great," he said.

"In a free and fair election where you are elected as a Jordanian citizen, it is very tough for women to be elected.

"That is the reality.We are talking about exceptions, not about the rule."

He said this reason makes the king's personal intervention to introduce change plausible.

"Appointing women to public office may be a good way to set a model.

"Here, women are taking positions of authority, they can do it and there is nothing wrong with it."

Although this is just one of many reforms King Abdullah is initiating, critics say a number still concentrate power in the hands of the king and do not go far enough.

Another problem is they have not caught on at the grassroots level.

Recently, a lawmaker from the conservative district of Ma'an in the south of the country said women's development is not on his agenda.

The 42-year old monarch may find himself facing an uphill battle with Jordan's traditional stalwarts to create the kind of society he wants to become an example to the rest of the Middle East.

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