Beyond modesty: fighting sexual harassment in Jordan

Beyond modesty: fighting sexual harassment in Jordan
Until the penal code directly recognises sexual harassment as a punishable offence, nebulous concepts such as modesty, morals and customs will only mask an intricate matrix of discrimination against women.
5 min read
21 Dec, 2014
The modesty discourse is often used to blame women for inviting moral decay (Getty stock)
Has a near epidemic suddenly woken Jordan up to the issue of sexual harassment? An incident of mass sexual harassment, caught on video in the northern city of Irbid in July of this year, certainly caused public outrage and created considerable buzz.

It caused so much buzz, in fact, that it prompted the Jordanian government to announce it will take steps to revise the legal framework governing “acts which contradict the customs and morals of Jordanian society” – the assumption here is that harassment is one such act.
     That a previous prime minister referred to the minister of women’s affairs as his “sister” speaks volumes

Yet sexual harassment, and the Jordanian state’s response to it, remains grounded in such nebulous notions as “modesty”, “morals”, and “customs” instead of non-negotiable human rights. Furthermore, the nascent official and public interest in sexual harassment masks an intricate matrix of systematic discrimination against women and a lack of official seriousness in addressing it.

The Jordanian government’s answer to sexual harassment is tougher penalties and the possible public shaming of harassers. These measures fail to address one of the fundamental issues underlying the problem and therefore contribute to perpetuating them.

A problem of classification 

At the heart of the problem is the fact that the Jordanian Penal Code does not recognise sexual harassment in and of itself as a punishable offence. Article 306 is listed among others to do with “seduction, obscenity, and violating the sanctity of women’s-only places” (make of these categories what you will) and does not offer a definition for sexual harassment. Instead, it stipulates that acts or speech violating “modesty” are punishable either by a fine or a prison term of up to six months.

The problem of classification and definition is omnipresent in the Jordanian Penal Code, and it is hardly coincidental that articles addressing various forms of sexual violence are particularly plagued. In this instance, “modesty” is offered as an undefined, ambiguous term whose meaning depends on the interpreters’ inclinations. Likewise, charges of “offending public modesty” are loosely interpreted and resist definition. Proposals to merely toughen penalties yet continue to lump sexual harassment under Article 306 are therefore naïve and counterproductive.

To ground the debate on sexual harassment in any other terms than women’s right to be free and present in the public sphere without discrimination or limitation is futile. Using the language of “modesty” leaves the door open to abuse and appropriation. Take Article 306 for example; without a proper definition of sexual harassment that explicitly places it within the larger matrix of violence against women it remains tied to subjective interpretations of “modesty” and what constitutes trespasses against it.

In other words, it can potentially place harassers on an equal footing with the harassed in relation to that ever-elastic notion of said “modesty”: who is harassing whom? The man spewing sexist comments or the woman out on the street, wearing her choice of clothing, seen as “offending public modesty” by putting herself in this situation?

Shocking as this illogic may be, it is common. Media reports on sexual harassment often draw comments which confirm how widespread this attitude really is; and religious and social figures regularly appropriate the modesty discourse to blame women for such grand crimes as inviting moral decay and loosening the social fabric. Blaming victims for their own plight (because of their dress or location or behaviour) is too easy and too dangerous to remain codified in law through the language of modesty.

Legal revisions only one step

Recent initiatives, most notably by the Jordanian National Commission for Women, have offered a clear definition of sexual harassment to be included in the Jordanian Penal Code. It remains to be seen if these efforts will materialise into concrete gains, yet it is also worth remembering that this is not a problem that exists in isolation from other serious manifestations of gender inequality – and therefore that legal revisions remain a small part of the solution.

Jordan’s record on gender equality is anything but stellar. The World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Gender Gap Report ranks it 134 place out of the 142 countries surveyed. This is further compounded by the Jordanian state’s selective agenda of action and its hypocritical and piecemeal approach to women’s rights. Jordanian women are still unable to pass their nationality on to their children and are so poorly represented in politics that the country ranks amongst the worst in the world in this regard. That a previous prime minister referred to the minister of women’s affairs as his “sister” speaks volumes about the seriousness of the state’s egalitarian spiel.

The emergence of sexual harassment as a topic on the current agenda is reminiscent of the rise of so-called honour crimes as a policy issue and media phenomenon over the past two decades. Women’s experiences of both issues have existed long before this sudden awakening, and will continue after these issues fade from the public eye.

In both instances, moreover, the state’s knee-jerk reactions do nothing to challenge the roots of these practises and thus ensure their survival. And, most crucially, the two issues revolve around women’s right to assume their place as full citizens, as independent and embodied individuals, free from violence and discrimination under the pretext of “honour” or “modesty”. But until the Jordanian state proves that it is willing to affirm this right progress shall remain distant and, to put it mildly, modest.