AMMAN, Jordan – A pregnant 15-year-old who had been raped by a brother-in-law decided to marry her attacker, hoping this would shield her from other male relatives who might kill her in the name of “family honor.”
A young woman was taken into protective custody after being stabbed 17 times by a brother who accused her of bringing “shame” to the family for running away from an abusive husband.
Jail, forced marriage or the risk of getting killed by family members – these are some of the harsh choices still faced by victims of abuse or sexual violence in Jordan.
In a key step toward reform, the kingdom is now poised to abolish a provision that exempts a rapist from punishment if he marries his victim. Jordan’s parliament is expected to do so in a special session sometime after the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan next week.
Women’s rights advocates say repealing Article 308 would be a victory, but that more work lies ahead in a society with deeply rooted customs of patriarchy and a legal system that often goes easy on the male perpetrators.
“It’s about the patriarchal mentality in a society that never punishes the man or shames him for anything,” said Asma Khader, a lawyer and activist.
The “marry the rapist” provision has been repealed in Egypt and Morocco, but remains on the books in Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, Algeria and the Palestinian territories, according to the international group Human Rights Watch.
Judge Jehad al-Duradi, who handles sexual violence cases at Jordan’s main criminal court, said women who agree to marry their attackers often act out of desperation.
The judge cited the case of the 15-year-old who was raped by her sister’s husband. At the pregnant teen’s request, the judge approved a marriage between the rapist and his victim.
The rapist escaped punishment and expelled his new wife from his home on the day of the wedding, leaving her to fend for herself and her child, the judge said.
Several other Jordanian laws allow lenient treatment of those who kill or assault women.
One provision lightens punishment if a man kills his wife or another female relative for allegedly having sex outside marriage. Another article says a convicted killer could receive as little as a year in prison if he acts in a “state of great fury resulting from an unlawful and dangerous act” by the victim.
If the victim’s family drops a complaint, even that one-year minimum can be cut in half. Some perpetrators in Jordan have been jailed for as little as six months for killing a daughter or sister.
Al-Duradi said Jordanian courts have imposed harsher punishment for such crimes in recent years; no convicted killer has received a sentence of less than 10 years in prison since 2010.
“The text of the law hasn’t changed, but the interpretation has,” the judge said.
Jordan’s main criminal court heard 182 rape cases in 2015 and 168 in 2016. It also dealt with 39 slayings of women in 2015, including nine labeled “honor crimes.” In 2016, there were 36 killings, including eight honor cases.
The actual numbers are believed to be higher, with many assaults going unreported, said Samar Muhareb, director of a legal aid group. Communities prefer to handle such crimes in tribal arbitration to avoid public shame.
“Whenever we see informal justice, it’s at the expense of women,” Muhareb said.
Meanwhile, Jordanian authorities often detain at-risk women.
A decision on protective custody can be made by a provincial governor, without court approval. Detention typically continues until the woman’s family promises not to harm her, or until she finds a man to marry her.
Fidaa, 25, has repeatedly ended up in prison, following a chain of events that began with her divorcing an abusive husband when she was just 15 years old.
Angered by the divorce, one of her brothers stabbed and seriously wounded her.
The brother was sentenced to five years in prison, but the then-teen also ended up behind bars. Desperate to get out of protective custody, she married a 27-year-old man, only to be forced into prostitution.
Her new husband threatened to alert her brother to her whereabouts if she refused to work as a prostitute, Fidaa said in an interview at the Juweida women’s prison on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, Amman.
Fidaa, a petite woman with dark hair and a quiet demeanor, complied for three years. She eventually managed to leave her husband with help from the police’s family protection unit.
Ten years after her first detention, Fidaa is back in prison.
She was arrested in January, during a police raid of a brothel where she said she had found refuge after befriending some of the women there. Fidaa has been cleared of prostitution charges, but is again unable to leave detention without a sponsor.
“If my brothers know about what happened, they will slaughter me,” said Fidaa, who only gave her first name for fear of repercussions.
Sadeq al-Omari, a senior official in the prison system, said protective custody is often the only solution, adding that “the right to life is more important than the right to freedom.”
Plans to set up shelters with police protection have not materialized so far, he said.
In the meantime, authorities imprison the female victim rather than potential perpetrators because there are too many male relatives who might hurt her, he said. “Should I put 20 people in prison for one person’s protection?” al-Omari said.
Legislator Wafa Bani Mustafa said change begins with legal reform.
“If we can change the law so that it’s no longer a solution to get rid of the girl this way, we can encourage families to treat their daughters as victims, not as a source of shame,” he said. “If we cancel the legal umbrella, society will follow.”