Photo: iStock
In parts of the Middle East, violence against women is so pervasive that physically harming a spouse is relatively common. Photo: iStock

The recent killing of Eman Ersheed, a 21-year-old university student, has once again brought attention to the harsh reality that gender-based violence remains a shameful and entrenched problem in Jordan and other parts of the Middle East.

Her attacker, Oday Hassan, 37, shot her at least five times at a university campus in Irbid. A few days later, the perpetrator shot himself dead after he was asked to surrender by police.

Eman’s murder came days after a similar crime in Egypt, where Nayera Ashraf, a 21-year-old university student in Mansoura, was stabbed to death after she declined a marriage proposal from her attacker.

While social media have played a role in exposing such gruesome crimes against women, sadly, many cases of gender-based violence in Jordan and beyond remain underreported.

Violence against women is so pervasive that physically harming a spouse is relatively common. Most alarming, it is widely accepted. A government survey published in 2019 found that 69% of men and 46% of women agreed that wife-beating could be justified.

According to UN Women, 37% of women in the Arab world have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime, although indicators suggest the figure could be higher. This compares with 21% in Western Europe and 25% in North America, both regions where the situation is far from perfect.

Unfortunately, women in Jordan are often reluctant to report male abusers. They fear they will retaliate and they remain skeptical that the systems and institutions within the patriarchal society will protect them. 

Besides, a rhetoric that blames the victim rather than the perpetrator for sexual assault persists.

Jordan has one of the world’s lowest female labor-force participation rates at 13%, meaning that most women rely on their spouses for financial support. This leaves them with limited options when they want to leave an abusive partner.

Social stigma also does not help. Many families are not keen on having their divorced daughter return home. They often ask her to leave the children with the father so he can provide for them.

That’s why the vast majority of battered women continue to suffer in silence. This obscures their plight and encourages men to push, shove and slap their wives, sisters or daughters, or even kill them.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Jordan in March 2020, there was a surge in domestic violence cases, like in many other countries. The Family Protection Department, a police unit working to combat domestic and sexual violence, reported 1,534 cases of domestic abuse, a 33% increase, during the first month of a lockdown.

But few women had the courage to make their voices heard. One was Eman al-Khatib, a 36-year-old single mother who shared harrowing details of abuse at the hands of her brother and mother. She was forced to flee the home with her 13-year-old son in April 2020 and was later relocated to a safe house.

Even before the pandemic, the 2017-18 Population and Family Health Survey found that 26% of married women aged between 15 and 49 were exposed to physical or verbal abuse and sexual violence at least once by their spouses. But the attacks are also coming from other male family members.

Two years ago, Ahlam, a 40-year-old woman, was killed by her father with a brick in broad daylight. Local media reports said he smoked a cigarette and drank tea next to her body as he waited for police to arrive.

In another horrific incident in 2019, a 31-year-old man blinded his wife by gouging her eyes.

These high-profile cases sparked outcry and have prompted Jordan to take action. 

The Family Protection Department has beefed up its efforts to provide stronger protection for abused women. In addition to its 24-hour hotline, it made it easier for victims to file complaints through social media and a police app.

But efforts to stem gender-based violence have not gone far enough. 

A Domestic Violence Protection Act, which was adopted in 2017, does not have a definition of what constitutes violence against women. Marital rape is not even considered a crime.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provide legal aid and support but they continue to struggle with limited resources. There are a number of economic empowerment programs to equip women with skills, but they are not enough to pay the bills or take care of children.

Besides, couples are encouraged by the Family Protection Department to settle disputes if the abuse was not a criminal offense. Some men who learn that hurting a woman is not OK may stop, but others continue, particularly if the woman has no family to support her.

Since most women report abuse as the final straw, reconciling with the attacker seems at best unlikely to succeed and at worst extremely dangerous.

Some abused women I talked to wished their husbands dead. Others who managed to leave are staying at shelters, facing a bleak future. I have met some women who struggled at first, but thanks to support from their families and NGOs, they were able to stand on their own two feet.

For Jordan and the wider Middle East to combat gender-based violence, social norms and attitudes need to change and laws need to be reformed. Mothers need to teach their sons that it is not acceptable to hurt women.

Perhaps most important, women must strive to be financially independent or at least have a job to help support themselves.

Until then, tragic cases like that of Eman Ersheed will remain all too common.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Suha Maayeh

Suha Maayeh is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan. Her work has been published in Foreign Policy and CTC Sentinel. She also reports for The Wall Street Journal and other publications on Jordan and southern Syria.