Jordan overturns archaic labour code provision that discriminates against working women

Jordan overturns archaic labour code provision that discriminates against working women
#IWD2020: On International Women's Day, Jordanian activists celebrate the adoption of a law eliminating labour discrimination against women.
6 min read
06 March, 2020
Women in Jordan will be celebrating the legislative victory against Article 69 [AFP/Getty]
As near and distant corners of the globe celebrate International Women's Day on March 8, women in Jordan's Hashemite celebrate a landmark legislative victory against article 69 of the kingdom's labour law, where an archaic view of women and pigeonholing of genders has been reversed by newly approved amendments by the parliamentary labour committee. 

Years of lobbying by a coalition of activists turned-up the heat up on the government. Advocates and torchbearers hoped the senate would heed their calls and scrap the article altogether, but "this week's outcome is perhaps better than what we anticipated," campaign leader Mayyada Abu-Jaber told The New Arab, "for it favours women".

Head of the parliamentary labour and social development committee, Khaled Abu Hassan, said the latest legislative amendments will "stimulate private sector employment and accommodate women's career choices" in "alignment to international agreements".

Instructions for pregnant women working night shifts issued by the minister of labour will also accompany the newest amendments. 

Since 1998, the long-disputed provision granted labour minister discretion over occupations, industries and work hours deemed suitable for women.

Women's health and protection have been held up as reasons to keep legislative hurdles in place, as championed by the Islamic Action Front, who stand opposed to female night work. In late February the Islamist party issued a statement iterating it's "categorical rejection for the removal of article 69… but stand in favour of job opportunities commensurate to women's privacy". 

Despite competing readings of these legal prohibitions under article 69, liberalists and Islamists could not ignore rising contention against gender-specific regulations that discriminate not against both genders, but exclusively women. After months of voracious debate, differences were allayed. 

This is pure discrimination. [These Jordanian laws] restrict women's freedom of choice over the job they wish to enrol in

Jordanian activist-journalist and author of the book Murder in the Name of Honour, Rana Husseini summarised the sentiment that has helped bridge ideologically opposed feminist camps. 

"This is pure discrimination," Husseini said describing Jordanian laws which, in her own words "restrict women's freedom of choice over the job they wish to enrol in". 

Official amendments drafted by the labour committee last Wednesday, that The New Arab obtained a copy of, intends to level the gendered playing field across all sectors. 

Changes to the text mean that article 69 no longer gives the minister of labour sole guardianship over women. Instead it restores women's freedom of choice.

"No woman may be compelled to work during the night or in physically arduous jobs, against her will," is to be added to the article. 

The onus lies now on the labour minister to ensure suitable working conditions for labourers of all stripes, irrespective of gender. 

Limiting the scope of employment choices in today's world "is frankly unthinkable," Abu-Jaber said, whose career path was adversely impacted under the original article.

Abu-Jaber said that an upcoming vote in coming days will codify these amendments but told The New Arab that "the modified text still lacks gender neutrality, so we're still pushing but it's unlikely for them to remove the article altogether."

Aged 24, Abu-Jaber returned to Jordan having completed higher education in America, only to stow away her dream of practising geology in spite of her qualifications.

At the time of Mayyada's return, the proportion of women that made up the mining workforce was barely visible and continued to dwindle. 

Direct assignments in quarries and smelters were off limits for women, even Mayyada, something that employers charged with discretionary powers under article 69 determined.

Lustrous job offers in neighbouring Gulf Arab states presented viable options for Abu-Jaber who chose to stay in her native-Jordan to redress gender imbalances in the economic sphere.

In 2016 she established NGO, World of Letters in 2016 to train and encourage women to advance in their chosen careers. 

Amendments are intended to lift restrictions for women across the following industries; underground work, mines and quarries, industrial and chemical engineering, the field of explosives, smelting, port labour lifting operations and asphalt paving. 

The prohibition against shifts that fall between 6pm and 10am has also been eased. 

Any law that defers the freedom of choice to anyone other than the woman herself "reinforces the patriarchal mentality that tries to control choices and aspirations and advancement in the lives of women," Hussein said, emphasising how intimately personal career choices are to women. 

Abu-Jaber's organisation championed these causes as part of a 60-person strong alliance, aligned to powerful female politicians and advocates. This, Abu-Jaber explains, paved the way towards their success. 

Prominent figures such as human rights activist and lawyer Asma Khader, former parliamentarian Reem Badran, gender consultant Reem Aslam, among others from the Jordanian National Commission for Women and civil society, have been at the forefront – pushing back against discriminatory labour law articles that pedal age-old tropes that hold up women as "vulnerable" and "meek" trophies. 

Abu-Jaber spoke of ideological differences between activities which caused the campaign to ebb and flow, at times losing focus in the last five since it was activated. 

However, the tally of successes their efforts have yielded are pleasing to all actors involved. 

"Each woman worked on different aspects of the campaign from helping us to draft our legal position paper to meetings with officials in high places including parliamentarians that have more power than the minister," Abu-Jaber told The New Arab.

The labour committee also approved amendments to article 29, "which many campaigners pursued tirelessly".

Modification to article 29 included the removal of the term "sexual harassment" from the criteria of circumstances under which a women can terminate her employment contract. 

As an emblem of technological progress and entrepreneurship in a region heavily saturated in conflict, Labour Code amendments straighten the country's path towards gender equality, but more is needed to eradicate attitudes dictating how women choose to live.

It seems that the line between protection and submission is ever so thin

Islamic Movement MP Dima Tahboub had shown wavering commitment to the movement's call to abolish the article.

In response to a question she posed to members of the public on her official Twitter, many users displayed mixed messages and unsympathetic views couched in excuses of "unsuitability" and "traditionalism" against women's right or choice to work late hours.

It seems that the line between protection and submission is ever so thin. 

The latest change to Jordan's labour law drives the population further along its path to equal access to the labour market, by moving further away from legislation and attitudes that render the female labour force docile or worse, consigns them to domestic-labour, as though a life sentence. 

These attitudes directly impinge on Jordan's local labour market, where female labour force participation sits at 15.8 percent.

In 2018 Jordan ranked 38th out of 144 countries on the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Index, but many hope the labour debate will recharge Jordan's feminist economy and allow women to pioneer services that allow them to work without compromising on childcare or motherhood. 

Female activists have called on the government to establish daycare centres that would allow more women to work. They have urged authorities to transform day care into a public good by reducing taxes for those looking to set them up.

Perhaps this is the next hurdle to climb for feminist activists at large inside Jordan and its allies abroad. 

Ideological differences are less pronounced in Jordan than other neighbouring states but do exist.

The campaign over article 69 succeeded in uniting liberalists and Islamists over legal amendments that honour women and celebrate their contribution in the local labour market.

As Abu-Jaber concludes, "This is the first step of many more speed bumps that we will overcome."

Nazli Tarzi is a freelance British-Iraqi journalist, specialising in Middle East politics, with a particular interest in Iraqi affairs

Follow her on Twitter: @NazliTarzi