Jordan is over halfway toward abolishing a law that pardoned rapists if they married their victim, but activists in Jordan recognize there is one key legal hurdle still to overcome. The law, Article 308 of Jordan’s half-century old Penal Code, states that “if a correct marriage contract is concluded” between the victim and perpetrator of a whole array of sexual assault crimes, they shall be free from prosecution or if the prosecution has already occurred, that their sentence shall be commuted. Crimes that fall under Article 308 include propositioning minors, “seduction of a virgin” with the false promise of marriage, sexual assault, abduction and rape.
The whole Penal Code of Jordan is up for review at present. King Abdullah II created a committee in October 2016 designed to examine the entire code and reform Jordan’s judiciary system. However, Article 308 has come up independently of this review as a result of a long period of campaigning by women’s rights activists within Jordan and similar decisions in neighbouring countries. Morocco repealed a similar law in 2014, following the 2012 suicide of a 16-year-old girl who was forced to marry her rapist. It sparked outrage, both domestically and internationally, and huge pressure was put on the Moroccan government.
In Jordan, feminist activist and writer Rana Husseini was understandably pleased, both by the fact that the issue was being discussed and that the cabinet voted to repeal Article 308. “It’s a huge step on the part of the government. It shows commitment. Usually, women’s issues in Jordan are shoved to the back, but the government showed some seriousness with this vote. This is a very important and long-awaited step.”
Other activists remain wary, however, like Amal Jaber al-Atrash. “The decision that’s been made now is the result of years of activism for better legal protection for women. But as important as this is, there are still numerous loopholes in the law. Women who get pregnant as a result of rape are still unprotected because the rapist is not obligated to provide for a child that is born out of rape.”
There also remains the matter of Jordan’s parliament to contend with, who may not be willing to follow the lead of the cabinet. For a law to be repealed, a majority is required in both the cabinet and lower parliament, and that majority is still unproven. Parliamentarian Wafaa Bani Mustafa said this week’s discussions in parliament on the topic worried her. “There were some voices speaking against the removal of this article. Many MPs still believe that this law is needed to ‘protect’ women and ‘guard their honour’, which is an opinion I strongly disagree with. This is one of the ugliest laws targeting women.” Without majority support in parliament, Article 308 will remain on the books.
Outside of the legal aspect, there are still societal challenges to be examined. Article 308 is seen by many as the only chance a woman who has lost her virginity has to find a husband. Without a legal husband, she will remain a part of her parents’ family her whole life, which is seen as an undue burden on her father and a stain on the family honour. As women’s activist Ghada Saba puts it, “We have to change the way our society thinks in parallel. This law protects the rapist – 308 is not just in law, it’s in our heads.”