For a self-determined life

Under pressure from women′s organisations, several women′s refuges for survivors of domestic violence have been set up in Amman. As long as the state continues to offer insufficient protection, initiatives like Lina Khalifeh′s "Shefighter" will focus on strengthening the individual. By Claudia Mende in Amman

By Claudia Mende

It′s a house without a name. An unobtrusive block of concrete in a faceless part of the city of Amman. A narrow staircase leads to the top floor, where the residential rooms can be made especially secure with an iron door. Today, the door is open. Around 20 women can be protected here. Protected from violent husbands, father, brothers, employers.

Wafaa came here after leaving her husband; there was violence involved. She couldn′t go back to her family, as they didn′t agree with the separation. Wafaa – not her real name – didn′t know where to turn; in desperation she called the hotline for women run by the Jordanian Women′s Union. The social worker she spoke to on the phone advised her to get herself to safety in the women′s refuge for the time being. She could find some peace of mind there. It took Wafaa some time to find her feet again, says social worker Alia Heelan, a woman of around 50. For a while, the young woman was at rock bottom. The fact that her family broke off contact was very painful for her.

After eighteen months in the women′s refuge, the social workers helped Wafaa to become independent and find a job. She looked for a flat in a suitable neighbourhood, together with another single woman. It still isn′t always easy for women to live alone in Amman. The area has to accept the women, or it doesn′t work. "It′s possible in Amman, but not outside the capital," says Alia Heelan. "Even now, women are sometimes put in prison in rural areas for their own protection, without having committed any crime." It′s just that there is no other way to protect them.

Starting a new life

″Violence against women″ training seminar in the Jordanian town of Karak (photo: Omama Al Shameilah)
"Violence against women" training seminar in Jordanian Karak: women in Jordan continue to face legislative and everyday discrimination in Jordan and are insufficiently protected against ″family honour″ crimes and other acts of violence

But Wafaa has been able to start a new life. Not all their cases work out this well, but Alia Heelan and her seven female colleagues try to help as much as the money from private donations and international funders allows. They get between 15 and 25 calls for help every day via the hotline in Amman. The calls come from Jordanian women fleeing from violence and sexual attacks in their families, but also from domestic workers from East Africa, the Philippines or Bangladesh, who are being exploited by their employers, not to mention Syrian women who have been forced into early marriages or prostitution.

Domestic violence and sexual harassment are widespread in Jordan, but are no longer taboo subjects. Intense debates about them have been taking place in the media and on social networks for years. There are no reliable statistics as to the extent of violence against women, nor has it taken on the same epidemic proportions as in Egypt. But it affects all layers of society and all ethnic and religious communities.

For a long time, a veil of silence was drawn over the problem, but since the late 1990s the government has come under increasing pressure to do something about it. In reaction to this, three refuges in Amman and a special unit of the police force have been set up to combat violence in the family – the "Family Protection Units". A new institution for the victims of human trafficking and prostitution has also come into operation in the last year.

Alongside the Jordanian Women′s Union women′s refuge in inner-city Amman, the ministry for social affairs has another two houses under its own control. These, however, are dominated by a very harsh atmosphere, the social worker Alia Heelan says critically. For example, women are not permitted to leave the facility voluntarily. "We, on the other hand, place value on making women strong for a self-determined life."

″Shefighter″ poster in Amman (photo: Claudia Mende)
Helping women to help themselves: a few months ago Lina Khalifeh founded the self-defence initiative "Shefighter". Women who attend learn Asian martial arts such as tae kwon do. "Shefighter" is said to be the only studio of its kind in the region. To date, Lina Khalifeh and her 15 female instructors have trained some 14,000 women

The "Family Protection Units" were set up in the late 1990s, though their initial focus was more on abused children. They are staffed by teams of plain clothes police officers, working in co-operation with social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and forensic scientists, who undertake tasks such as collecting evidence after a rape. The first office was set up in Amman in 1998 and today the institution exists in all nine administrative regions.

Martial arts for women

In addition to criminal proceedings, the units offer mediation: officers make house visits to families to find solutions to family problems and relationship disputes. Working with the Danish branch of Save the Children, employees have developed hugely over the past few years. Despite some doubts as to whether all officers genuinely have a positive attitude to women′s rights, Alia Heelan sees the FPUs as leading the way in Jordan.

Lina Khalifeh has also discreetly recommended to women that they turn to a "Family Protection Unit". Such as the time when one of the participants on her course, who was always covered in bruises, tried to tell her she had just walked into something. The 32-year-old, who is of Palestinian origin, founded "Shefighter" in 2012, a studio where women can learn Asian fighting techniques like tae kwon do for self-defence. Khalifeh says that so far, "Shefighter" is the only studio of its kind in the region. To date, she and her 15 female instructors have trained around 14,000 women. Some in their studio in North Amman, but also in special training sessions for non-governmental organisations, such as those for disabled women or female refugees. Khalifeh is now considering expanding into other Arab countries.

The right self-defence techniques give women much more than just the ability to deal with precarious situations, says Khalifeh. They also acquire the necessary self-confidence to escape sexual harassment. "Women here have to be in a position to defend themselves", she adds, since the Jordanian legal system doesn′t offer them sufficient protection. All too often, the perpetrators still escape punishment.

Admittedly, the government has made important changes to the law. In future, anyone subjecting a woman to harassment will be punished with up to six months in prison or a fine. After years of pressure from women′s organisations, the cabinet now wants to change the particularly controversial Article 308 in the penal code. The paragraph says that sexual offenders can avoid punishment if they marry their victims. Admittedly, the government has placed one limitation on this: Article 308 will continue to apply to victims between 15 and 18 years old, as long as they agree to a marriage – a tribute to the conservative forces in the country. The parliament also still has to pass the proposed changes to the legislation.

Claudia Mende

© 2016

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin