by Josephine Chaet, ACOR-CAORC Pre-Doctoral Fellow 2019
Since returning to my home institution in 2019, following almost two years of intermittent fieldwork in Jordan, I have slowly begun the process of analyzing the ethnographic data collected over sixteen months of research with three non-governmental women’s organizations located in the urban core of Amman. This endeavor has become increasingly complicated as the contemporary global moment, isolating and interrupting, clouds my previous experiences of Jordanian women’s activism. As the numerous organizations at the center of my work actively seek to develop new ways of virtually engaging with their communities, I struggle to retrospectively conceptualize the many activities I observed just months ago. This is especially true of the earliest conversations that lent original purpose and structure to my evolving dissertation; still, their importance cannot be discounted, for it is upon precisely those initial, incidental encounters that my dissertation is founded. In turn, this essay returns to one fundamental ethnographic moment, which took place during summer 2017, as I think through the pivotal occasion which grounds my interest in the shape of women’s activism in Jordan.
My dissertation asks what feminist action looks like in institutionally restricted contexts and considers how such emergent civic practices might be contextually understood. For anthropologists interested in the organizational manifestations of these programs, myself included, the existence of governmental constraints upon independent associational activity provokes additional questions concerning the different ways organizations navigate the sociopolitical conditions in which they operate. Women’s organizations have been active in Jordan since the mid-twentieth century and have historically played a vital role in debates regarding women’s rights in the country. Thus, despite regulations placed upon the organizational efforts of women by the state, existing associations have managed to carve out a position in political discussions, particularly those concerned with “women’s issues.” Against assumptions that continue to perceive women’s activism as stymied by the state, then, this brief essay outlines a revised understanding of such activity as strategically productive. It does so by presenting what has, in many ways, become the analytic anchor of my dissertation: my first encounter with a young woman, named Widjan Ahmed, fortuitously affiliated with the abolishment of Article 308 from the national penal code in August of 2017, a moment presented as a public victory for women’s organizations. By exploring this incident in some detail, in this essay, I commence a rethinking of feminist action in Jordan that complicates well-worn discourses which see women’s organizations as removed from processes of legislative change.
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The work that we do, you know, it is not easy. It is not easy at all. [pause] But it is important, and because the [women’s] organizations know that to be true, that is why we continue to advocate and campaign for change. (Widjan Ahmed, personal communication, 1 August 2017)
1 August 2017: Over the past several months, finishing an intensive Arabic language program in Amman, I have tried several times to arrange an interview with the program director of jam’aīa al-mar’a fī al-urdun (“The Association of Women in Jordan,” hereafter “the association”), a prominent women’s organization in the country. Throughout the several-week period during which I have tried to coordinate a meeting, I have walked past the association’s administrative center—a converted villa on a popular main road, partially concealed by a tall wooden fence—quite frequently, and I have visited more than once. On the occasions when I have entered the office with the anticipation of encountering the director, however, she has invariably been unavailable; when I would ask to arrange an appointment with the secretary at the front desk, she would write down my information but would, eventually, send me on my way without a concrete plan. I was, therefore, quite surprised to receive a short text message earlier in the week indicating that a meeting had at last been planned.
Once again, I find myself standing outside of the association’s headquarters in upscale Jabal Amman, or shāri‘ al-rīnbū (“rainbow street”), as the area is colloquially known; yet today, I am here with the purpose of speaking with Lamia Najera, an activist in her seventies, who has, for many years, served as the director of programs for the association. When I arrive this afternoon, however, the office again appears empty. I wait for a few minutes, anxiously checking my phone, before disappointedly turning to find a taxi home. Yet, as I start to leave, a young female staff member, whom I recognize immediately from previous visits, comes hurrying toward the building. Apologizing profusely, she explains that her colleagues have joined other women’s organizations gathering in the municipal district of Abdali, in anticipation of the parliamentary vote to repeal Article 308, informally termed the “marriage rape law.” Thus, she will be representing the association for me. “We did it,” she tells me. “The parliament voted to abolish [Article 308]. The efforts started many years ago and, of course, we have all been working so hard, but, really, I cannot believe it. It is still a shock.”
Pausing briefly to check her mobile phone, the woman, who belatedly introduces herself as Widjan Ahmed, proceeds to lead me away from the street and into the association’s main office. Although I reluctantly offer to postpone the meeting, now aware of the events unfolding near the parliament, we continue as planned. Widjan explains that while women’s organizations, including the association, have long endeavored to eliminate discriminatory laws, the recent effort to abolish Article 308 was unique in its constitution of a targeted coalition that operated through a network of organizations concerned with “women’s rights.” Especially compelling here is her indirect insistence that women’s organizations have the collective capacity to stimulate change; working cooperatively, these associations can figure the law as a legitimate target of civic activism in ways that echo historic struggles against gendered discrimination. For Widjan, to perceive women’s organizations as passive is to distract from their grassroots political negotiations and contribute to the perception of such associations as hemmed by state interests. That presumption, she clarifies, does not align with her own sense of the association or similar organizations: “There are some restrictions, or course, but they do not prevent our work. It is really about knowing what to do and when to do it.” As she speaks, I cannot help but think that her description presents women’s organizations as strategic, their work strengthened though the operations of tactical alliances. Undeniable governmental regulations upon public assembly have encouraged the development of creative mechanisms for political activity and activism; by intertwining their efforts, the objectives of women’s organizations permeate formal political discourse in ways that purportedly alter the lives of women throughout the country. “We work very hard,” Widjan decisively states before turning to her phone, abridging our conversation and, effectively, concluding our meeting.
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In her essay, “Fighting Honor Crimes,” Stefanie Nanes (2003) presents civil society, including women’s organizations, in Jordan as bounded by governmental regulations; within this framework such associations are only ever directed by, and therefore, never directive of, the course of change. While it is true that state interests, at least partially conditioned by external precepts, may contribute to the capacity of specifically women’s organizations to mobilize support around a particular issue, to see the work of these associations as only passive is to ignore the careful ways in which they operate to seemingly effective ends. To be sure, rising regional pressure and progressive international stipulations prompted attention to Article 308 as part of the government’s ongoing judicial reform. Yet the deliberate operations of women’s organizations, here especially, demand attention. Over the course of my fieldwork, it seemed as though almost every association with which I interacted was, although not overtly political, in some way engaged in politicized discussions; my attention to such engagements cohered around the undeniable occupation of women’s organizations in efforts concentrated on the abolishment of Article 308. Thus, against prevailing conceptualizations, the introductory vignette above provided important insights into the shape of Jordanian women’s activism which continue to ground my evolving dissertation.
On the one hand, the conversation with Widjan Ahmed brought into focus the routine functioning of organizational work and the ways such operations are (re)negotiated at particular moments in time. Although many scholars have broadly attended to the complexities of women’s organizing in the Middle East (for a foundational discussion, see Abu-Lughod 1998; Brand 1998), the everyday practices of such associations are regularly seen as outside of the predominate sphere of analysis. In response, it is upon those mundane, yet signifying, practices that my dissertation is focused. On the other hand, and, perhaps more importantly, the long-anticipated meeting with Widjan illuminated much about how, through coalitionary efforts, women’s organizations might attune processes of justice system reform to specific discriminatory laws. These emergent themes have become increasingly pronounced over the course of preliminary data analysis and, therefore, constitute the connective threads that link the many disparate experiences in the field. By considering those moments, both independently and jointly, it is possible to rethink women’s organizations as tactical, conscious of, rather than controlled by, the sociopolitical conditions in which they operate. The first encounter with Widjan during the preliminary stages of my research, now the bower of my evolving dissertation, thus provides some direction to the development of a relational analysis that views women’s organizations as a collective catalyst for legislative change.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1998. Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Brand, Laurie. 1998. Women, the State, and Political Liberalization: Middle Eastern and North African Experiences. New York: Columbia University Press.
 To protect the identities of my research participants, and their organizational affiliations, the names included in this essay are pseudonyms.
 Article 308 of the Jordanian Penal Code stipulated that perpetrators of particular crimes, including rape, could avoid severe criminal sentencing if they married the targets of their sexual abuse; thus, among activists invested in the abolishment of the law, the article came to be known as the “marriage rape law.”
 The campaign to abolish Article 308 was part of a regional effort to eliminate similar laws, heightened following the repeal of a comparable article in Tunisia in late July 2017, and was organized as part of the Civic Initiative Support Program sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development.
Josephine Chaet is a doctoral candidate in the anthropology department at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and was ACOR-CAORC pre-doctoral fellow for the summer and fall of 2019. Prior to her recent fellowship at ACOR, Josephine was a Fulbright Research Scholar in Jordan during the 2018–2019 academic year. Her research while at ACOR focused on the historical and contemporary experiences of women’s organizations and on the public actions of those associations over time.