In August, Jordan made a legal breakthrough to protect the civil status of women by scrapping Article 308. Repeal of the controversial law is being described as a “historic day for Jordan” as rpists can no longer hide behind the law and escape punishment. Article 308 allowed rapists to avoid a prison term if they married the victim and stayed with her for at least three years.
The hands-up vote to abolish the article was endorsed by the Lower and Upper Houses of parliament, reflecting what became government policy after a Royal Committee for Developing the Judiciary and Enhancing the Rule of Law was appointed in October 2016 by King Abdullah to scrap Article 308 that had long been a source of embarrassment for the Jordan legal system.
The government of Prime Minister Hani Al Mulki fully backed the deputies and senators when they made a show of hands to scrap what become commonly known as “marry-the-rapist” law. Al Mulki said his government was committed to abolishing Article 308 to protect family values in Jordan. The country’s Social Development Minister Hala Lattouf seconded. “Parliament’s decision to annul Article 308 is a step towards safeguarding children, young girls and families”. “Annulling the article doesn’t ban marriage or interfere with decisions of individuals regarding marriage, but in the case of a complaint, it must be investigated to achieve justice,” the minister added.
Eva Abu Halaweh, the director of Mizan Law Group for Human Rights in Amman, said: “Annulling this article is a victory for all rape victims,”
“This is a victory for the women’s movement and human rights in Jordan,” Salma Nims, secretary-general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, said.
Politicians, parliamentary deputies, professionals and ordinary people described the vote to remove the article as a “historic day in Jordan’s history”. Jordanian Lower House deputy Khaled Ramadan, who alongwith other legislators, had been pushing forward for repealing the law. “After 57 years of this law, this is an important step towards societal reform and for equality. Today, we are sending a message to every rapist that ‘your crime will not be overlooked and we will not let you get away with it’.”
Amani Rizq, senior programme officer of the Swedish gender equality organisation, the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation in Jordan pointed out “the legislative achievement of today is a great step towards justice for women in Jordan ... it needs to be part of a plan to protect women victims of rape crimes in a holistic approach.” She was just one of many who supported the move like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Equality Now, a US-based organisation.
The move to abolish the law in Jordan came days after Tunisia passed a similar legislation aimed at reforming laws pertaining to women’s issues. The Lebanese parliament scrapped a similar law that allowed rapists to escape punishment if they marry their victims. Now both Jordan and Lebanon have joined a string of other Arab countries who have withdrawn such controversial laws. These include Morocco which scrapped a similar law in 2014 and before that Egypt in 1999. Activists, however, are still waiting for such reform in Palestine, Iraq, Bahrain and Kuwait.
The action by the Jordanian deputies puts the Kingdom in the forefront of protecting women rights and safeguarding them against different kinds of abuses. The recent scrapping of the law was also the result of a bigger campaign to remove the pernicious article as the government, public sector and private NGOs as well as parliamentary deputies joined hands to remove Article 308.
The Amman Chapter of the Sisterhood is Global Institute (SGI) was one of the main bodies that provided information to the parliamentary deputies regarding the victims of honour in a bid to influence them to vote against Article 308. “The  article is not based on a logical or legal rationale. It is not justified and it does not stand in line with our culture, knowledge and logical thinking,” said lawyer Asma Khader, SGI director.
The National Center for Human Rights (NCHR) is one of the players who campaigned for the reform of the law. Its director Dr Musa Breizat praised the decision of the legislators as a “step in the right direction”. His organisation discussed the recommendations of the Royal committee through the Ministry of Justice “and we had a clear and strong stance on this matter, calling for the annulment of this article.”
Besides this, deputies had worked hard to abolish this article, unlike the situation in the 1990s for instance when the majority of parliamentary MPs were against the removal of the Article 308 from the Penal Code, arguing then that the society would be against such a move.
Like her colleague Ramdan, deputy Wafa Bani Mustafa has been forceful in the fight to remove the obnoxious article. She first proposed to annul Article 308 in December 2013 when the government wanted to start reforming the Penal Code in response to public demand for legal and political reform that gained momentum in 2012 through academics, activists and journalists and campaigns in universities, the media and NGOs which wanted to raise awareness and abolish the law.
It wasn’t easy, at first it was touch-and-go. While many deputies wanted to vote for abolition, there were some against it. The Legal Committee of the Lower House sought to introduce three “exceptions” to Article 308 rather than scrap it altogether. These included exceptions in cases of consensual sex, sexual molestation of victims between 15 and 18 years old and in the case of an individual who “seduces a virgin over 18 years of age with the promise of marriage and caused her to lose her virginity.”
Mustafa Khasawneh, head of the Legal Committee defended the exceptions although Article 308 was scrapped altogether in the end. “We are legally, socially, morally, tribally, and nationally obligated to accept the amendments because this is in favour of women and the family,” he said, reflecting a deep belief that was always held in Jordanian society to do with shame, the dishonour victims would bring to their family and social stigma.
It is from this prevailing shame culture that honour crimes are committed and in the past, perpetrators were aided and abetted by the leniency given to them through Article 308 and the recently amended Article 97 of the Penal Code that also reduces prison sentencing of those — usually relatives, sons, fathers, even wives — who murder victims “in a fit of rage”. According to the new amendment, this argument is no longer acceptable.
In a depressing tone, Israa Tawalbeh, Jordan’s first coroner, remarked earlier when discussing the issue that even for the victim, accepting marriage under the Article 308 regardless of how negative it is could be was “better than leaving girls to be killed by their parents or relatives.”
Many activists, however, clearly don’t support this. Forcing a girl to marry her rapist “is killing this girl a thousand times a day, at least,” said Dima Barakat, who campaigned for changes in the law. She said it was simply unacceptable for the rapist to marry his victim because he had already taken “away her dignity, her honour and took away her life.”
But this is not the end of the road. Through scrapping Article 308, Jordan has made leaps in its legal history but much more needs to be done. Islamic Action Front spokesman Dima Tahboub says while “religious law, or sharia, does not condone protecting rapists,” there is clearly much to be done to protect women from violence through psychological and social support for victims of violence.
The scrapping of Article 308 will continue to have its critics among the public and “that’s why we need an awareness campaign to educate the people that the annulment was the right thing to do and that it does justice to victim’s rape,” said Braizat, pointing out there are still many articles in the law regarding women’s rights that need to be amended.
Through the cancellation of this article it is hoped the number of honour killings would go down. Statistics provided by Jordan’s Ministry of Justice show that between 2010 and 2013, 159 rapists avoided a prison term by marrying their victims and over this period it was suggested that 300 rapes were recorded over each of these years and some say the figure could be higher because of under-reporting. However, we need to wait and see how effective the scrapping of the article would become on these figures. In the first half of 2017, 12 women were reportedly killed in honour crime incidents.
Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a PhD in Political Science from Leeds University in the UK.