'Nationality is my right': Jordanian women's long struggle for equal citizenship rights

Jordanian women's long struggle for nationality rights
7 min read
16 March, 2022
In-depth: In Jordan, women cannot legally pass on their nationality to their children. As a result, thousands of children are cast each year into citizenship limbo and exposed to a life of discrimination.

When Zeinab Abu Tabikh got married, she did not realise that she was about to embark on a lifelong journey to secure basic rights for her children. Zeinab is Jordanian, but her Egyptian husband never gained citizenship - even after working in Jordan for over forty years. Neither did the couple’s four children, who are, in Zeinab’s words, “foreigners in their own country.”

Over 355,000 people in Jordan are children of a Jordanian mother and a foreign father. Called “abna al urduniyat”, meaning “the children of Jordanian women”, they are considered non-citizens in the eyes of the state. As a result, their rights to work, own property, travel, and access healthcare and education are all severely restricted.

Their plight stems from discriminatory laws stating that women cannot pass on the Jordanian nationality - while men can confer theirs onto four wives and an unlimited number of children.

Over the past fifteen years, hundreds of Jordanian activists women and have fought for an end to gender-based discrimination in nationality laws. But despite a limited victory in 2015, Jordanian women are still unable to pass on their nationality, and their freedom to marry remains restricted by the fear of giving birth to non-citizens.

 "Despite a limited victory in 2015, Jordanian women are still unable to pass on their nationality, and their freedom to marry remains restricted by the fear of giving birth to non-citizens"

Gender-based discrimination

Nationality laws that discriminate based on gender are common across the Middle East. However, due to tireless activism over the past few decades, many Arab states - including Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria and Yemen - now give men and women equal rights to pass on their nationality.

But in Jordan, “the three most influential forces in society - religion, politics and tribes - are all against Jordanian women passing nationality to their children,” Rula al-Hroub, one of Jordan’s leading female politicians and a former MP, told The New Arab.

On December 28, a massive fistfight broke out in the Jordanian parliament over a proposition to explicitly add women to the constitution, and rephrase the beginning of Article 6 as: “Jordanian men and Jordanian women shall be equal before the law.”

Many opponents to the amendment feared that the phrase would call into question the constitutionality of Jordan’s nationality laws. And while many politicians resisted this idea for cultural reasons, some of the most virulent opposition actually stemmed from fears about demographic change.

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“Everyone is afraid of supporting the right of Jordanian women to give citizenship to their children because they don’t want to be accused of supporting the idea of an ‘alternative homeland’ for the Palestinian people,” al-Hroub highlighted.

The “alternative homeland” thesis encapsulates politicians’ fears that as the number of Palestinians in Jordan grows, the kingdom will increasingly be seen by the international community as an opportunity to permanently resettle the refugees - rather than pushing for their right to return to Palestine.

Jordan already hosts the highest concentration of Palestinian refugees worldwide. More than half of the population has Palestinian origins, and while hundreds of thousands of Palestinians refugees became Jordanian citizens over time, a sizable number did not.

They represent the bulk of non-Jordanians married to Jordanian women (62% according to government figures), meaning that 200,00 to 300,000 Palestinian children would become eligible for citizenship if their Jordanian mother could pass it on.

Activists have long called out the hypocrisy of this argument, since Jordanian men are free to pass on citizenship to their Palestinian wives, and foreign investors can apply for Jordanian citizenship regardless of their origin.

Jordanian women and their children protest for the right of mothers passing on their nationality to their children to mark International Women's Day in 2014 in Amman, Jordan. [Getty]
Jordanian women and their children protest for the right of mothers passing on their nationality to their children to mark International Women's Day in 2014 in Amman, Jordan. [Getty]

A mother’s burden

Many Jordanian women marry foreigners without knowing they will spend the rest of their lives battling financial and bureaucratic burdens on behalf of their children.

“It was very difficult for my mum to put me in school,” Darina*, whose mother is Jordanian and father is Palestinian, recalls. Without a Jordanian ID, abna al urduniyat are charged prohibitive fees for most public services. Many don’t even have documentation from their father’s country or, as is the case with many Palestinian refugees, the father is considered stateless.

This is the case of Darina, who has renewed her residency annually for the past 21 years although she has nowhere else to go, since she has no foreign passport. To gain citizenship rights, she would have to marry a Jordanian, a risky bet since some husbands refuse to pass on their citizenship in order to prevent their wife from working or travelling abroad.

The legal discrimination and dependency of Jordanian mothers carries into adulthood, since she is the only one recognized as Jordanian by the authorities. When the mother passes away, simple procedures to renew residency papers, access health coverage or buy property can be jeopardised.

"Many Jordanian women marry foreigners without knowing they will spend the rest of their lives battling financial and bureaucratic burdens on behalf of their children"

A woman’s struggle

In 2008, women made a noticeable and vocal entry into the Jordanian public space with the campaign “My mother is Jordanian and her nationality is my right”, launched by the activist Nimah Habashneh to defend the rights of her children born from a Moroccan father.

Dozens of families and activists relentlessly campaigned for years on end, rallying in Amman’s streets, parks and roundabouts. In 2014, the campaign seemed to take a successful turn when several MPs called on the government to act.

But instead of reforming the nationality law, which would have required parliamentary approval, the cabinet issued a decision granting children of Jordanian women a set of “privileges” which remain well below the basic rights granted to citizen Jordanians.

Far from solving the issues faced by abna al urduniyat, the decision ended up creating two castes of non-citizen children: the ones who managed to access the meagre privileges, and those who didn’t.

“My four-year old daughter doesn’t have an abna al urduniyat ID, because to obtain it I would need to get her an Egyptian passport, which costs one hundred dinars ($140). I simply cannot afford it,” Zeinab told The New Arab. “She is supposed to start school in two years, and I don’t know how I will do without the ID.”

Like Zeinab, many women could not obtain the long list of documents required to apply for the special ID card designed by the government to recognize their children’s status. Three years after the system entered into force, authorities had issued around 72,000 IDs, reaching less than 20% of the eligible population.

Divorced and widowed women fell even deeper into the cracks of the system: without the participation of their husband, they could not obtain essential documents, like the father’s passport, required to secure the IDs.

Even those who managed to secure the precious card were soon disappointed. "Unfortunately, many fields and details were not mentioned in the decision, and many things were missing,” Rami al-Wakeel, the current coordinator of the campaign, told The New Arab.

“For example, those who need medical treatment and are older than 18 don’t get the same medical coverage as Jordanians. We are not even allowed to give blood to our own parents.”

The decision allowed abna al urduniyat to access public healthcare and education at the same rate as Jordanians, but only until the age of eighteen. It expanded the range of sectors in which they are allowed to work, but still required them to apply for a work permit. “With this ID, I can’t even apply for a Schengen visa. Embassies just see me as a Palestinian refugee: its kind of like I’m not a person,” Darina said.

"Despite their relentless efforts, women fighting for nationality rights continue to crash into walls of indifference and be stigmatised for marrying foreigners"

Losing hope

“We tried a thousand times, we protested, we took to the street in the cold and the heat and for Ramadan and for Mother’s Day,” Zeinab lamented.

Despite their relentless efforts, women fighting for nationality rights continue to crash into walls of indifference and be stigmatised for marrying foreigners. “People tell you: why did you marry an Egyptian, why did you marry a Japanese, why did you marry a Sudanese?” Zeinab added.

The constitutional amendments passed in December raised some hopes among activists. “One noteworthy addition to the constitution is in Article 6.6, which states the government should ensure women are protected from discrimination,” al-Hroub highlighted. She hopes this article could one day be interpreted in court to recognize the discrimination faced by mothers of non-citizen children.

Until then, al-Hroub regretted, “the suffering of Jordanian women and their children goes on, and there is no serious effort made [to remedy their situation].”

Lyse Mauvais is a freelance journalist based in Amman, Jordan. She covers environmental issues in the Middle East, with a focus on Syria and Jordan.

Follow her on Twitter: @lyse_mauvais