Jordanian girls walk past an election banner.

AMMAN, Jordan (WOMENSENEWS)–Falak Jamaani was a dentist for 27 years in the Jordan Armed Forces before she traded in cavities for campaigns and became one of six women elected to parliament in 2003 through a novel quota system imposed by the king.

Four years later, Jamaani is the first woman to gain a parliamentary seat in an outright victory over male challengers, a sign that Jordan’s political scene is gradually opening its doors to women one seat at a time.

“The quota is a gift from the king of Jordan to the women of Jordan,” Jamaani, who beat out 15 men for her seat in the country’s 110-member lower house of parliament, told Women’s eNews. “Jordanians now are getting used to women in the parliament.

“I am very happy and very glad that I was able to do something that a woman could not do before.”

Jamaani’s victory ticks up the number of female parliamentarians to seven from six.

In the Nov. 20 election 885 candidates ran for office, of which 199–nearly a quarter–were women. During the last election in 2003, only 54 women declared their candidacy after King Abdullah II announced a quota system saving six seats for women in the parliament’s 110-seat lower house. Seats are also reserved for representatives from Jordan’s Christian and Circassian minorities.

Women gained the right to vote and stand for office in 1974. Turnout for the election was 54 percent of eligible voters.

The 55 members of the upper house are all nominated by the king and since the monarchy began its democratization process, under former King Hussein in 1989, several women have held positions. The upper house is expected to be named in the coming days by King Abdullah.

Another female candidate, Nariman Rousan, was re-elected by means of the quota system. She was just 14 votes short of winning her seat outright.

Quotas Benefit Rural Women

The 2003 election law set aside six seats for the women who, countrywide, receive the highest percentage of votes in their districts, no matter where they placed in relation to other candidates. Districts are drawn by geography rather than population, so women who run in less populated areas have a better chance of securing a higher percentage of votes.

In Jordan’s more rural areas, some tribes took to nominating women with the understanding that it increased their chance of being represented in government.

The first woman elected to parliament was Toujan Faisal in 1993. She ran for a Circassian seat in a district of Amman reserved for the Circassian minority, a non-Arab Islamic people originally from the Caucasus region of western Asia.

Faisal beat out men for her seat 10 years before the gender quota was established. While she was later defeated, she remains an outspoken critic of the government. In 2002, Faisal was arrested after she publicly accused the prime minister of corruption and was charged with “tarnishing the Jordanian state.” The king pardoned her after she served 100 days of an 18-month sentence but she is barred from running for public office again.

Faisal has come out against the quota system, saying it is unfair to all Jordanians, and charges that the current regime is not committed to full reforms for equal rights for minorities.

Claims of Election Tampering

Jordan’s election was also marked by some cries of foul play. The Islamic Action Front, the main opposition party, accused officials of vote-buying and other means of corruption. In an upset, the party’s female candidate, Hayat al-Mseimi, lost her bid for re-election and the party won only six of the 22 seats it was contesting.

The seven women–some liberal, some conservative–who gained parliamentary seats ran as independents as did most of their male opponents. While Jordan is on a path to democracy, party politics are not strongly developed. Constitutionally, most powers still rest with the king, who appoints administrations, approves legislation and can dissolve parliament.

While female parliamentarians are a small minority, Jordanian activists praise the quota system for breaking a psychological barrier that kept women out of politics, said Amal Sabbagh, former secretary-general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women and research methodologies professor at Jordan University in Amman.

“We’re quite traditional. We are modern in so many aspects but when it comes to gender, any breakthroughs had to be gradual,” said Sabbagh, who added that the quota system showed voters that women could do their jobs as well as the men.

However, Sabbagh criticizes the quota system formula for giving women from smaller districts more of an advantage than urban women. And many activists and politicians hope the quota will be temporary until women gain political recognition on their own.

Nation of Strong Traditions

While not as conservative as some of its neighbors, Jordan observes familial and tribal customs.

Islam–and traditions that spring from the religion–govern many aspects of everyday life, from dress codes to business practices.

Women are not required to cover their hair although many choose to, even in large cities.

Taboos here are slowly easing about discussing so-called honor killings, murder of a woman by male relatives claiming her death is necessary to preserve the family’s name. About 20 women are killed by male relatives each year, and most receive reduced sentences if the case is brought to court.

The growing awareness about honor killings and other violent acts against women–not sanctioned by Islam, but still customary in many places here–is due in part to campaigns undertaken by the monarchy, including Queen Rania.

Despite the encouragement aimed at them, some women here shy from the political process.

Walking home from work in the Jordanian capital, Hedaya Hassan, a 28-year-old hospital lab technician, admitted that she didn’t vote for anyone, male or female.

“I don’t vote. One vote isn’t going to count in this country,” she said, adding that as long as the transparency of the election was questioned, it didn’t matter who was running. “Women are active in politics but it’s not enough for them to be active. It’s not just about the candidate but the culture; some men will never vote for a woman.”

Even as a woman, Hassan said that gender equality was not her immediate priority.

“This country has big economic problems, like jobs and the cost of gas,” she said. “But I’m glad the quota is there for the women who like politics and can help give them a voice.”

Admitting that change comes slowly, Jamaani insisted that it was with the help of men–those who voted for her and her male colleagues who gave their support to her campaign–that she was able to be re-elected. It is women like Hassan that Jamaani hopes to reign in and encourage to join her in Jordan’s political scene.

“I’m going to work on promoting and drafting laws concerning women while in office. It’s now up to me and all the women to use this gift to promote our place in politics,” Jamaani said.

Iman Azzi is a freelance writer based in Beirut.

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