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  • Lamis El Muhtaseb, Nathan J. Brown and Abdul-Wahab Kayyali

Do public policy debates between activists from different ideological camps in a nondemocratic and illiberal system bridge social divisions or deepen them? Focusing on three controversies regarding family law in Jordan, we argue that activist groups rarely talk to each other in public, and when they do, their discourses aim primarily at mobilizing support within their own camps rather than addressing each other's concerns. Through media analysis, discourse analysis, and in-depth field interviews, we find much polarization and few attempts to build bridges, but also limited though very suggestive exceptions. Those exceptions rely less on public and democratic mechanisms and more on entrepreneurial state actors working quietly, talking opportunistically to each side, and emerging as powerful institutional actors. Authoritarian states can provide sites of deliberation, but deliberation seems to lead to principled agreement beyond the platitudinous only when an institutional actor within the state takes the initiative to get involved.

Corresponding author
Lamis El Muhtaseb is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, Middle East University, Amman, Jordan, and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Siena, Siena, Italy; e-mail:;
Nathan J. Brown is a Professor in the Elliot School of International Affairs, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.; e-mail:;
Abdul-Wahab Kayyali is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.; e-mail:
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1 Browers Michaelle L., Political Ideology in the Arab World: Accommodation and Transformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 16 .

2 Rawls John, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 13 .

3 For the fullest elaboration of Rawls's approach, see ibid.

4 See, for instance, Habermas Jürgen, Between Facts and Norms (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996).

5 Comparable cases in the region may include other monarchies that have had functioning parliaments with opposition representation, such as Kuwait, Bahrain, and Morocco. The findings might also apply to presidential republics with a plurality of views and party life, such as Egypt. Our argument may not apply where the fora for these debates are too restricted or closed (absolute monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, or rigidly authoritarian republics such as Baʿthist Syria or Iraq).

6 Dumes Lieberman Jessica. Global Means, Local Ends?: A Case Study of Transnational Human Rights Networks in Jordan (PhD diss., George Washington University, 2006).

7 Asma Khader, one of the most notable figures in this camp, said in an interview that her work on a women's committee within the Cairo-based Arab Lawyers Union to revise personal status laws in 1978 developed “a shariʿa-based argument that there is nothing in shariʿa which would prevent raising the age of marriage. When we got this from a very conservative Arab League, representing everyone from Saudi Arabia to Mauritania, this meant that there was consensus that the provision was shariʿa compliant, and helped us later with our national struggles to raise the age of marriage.” Asma Khader, interview with the authors, Amman, Jordan, 19 August 2014.

8 Hayat al-Masimi is exemplary in this regard. A pharmacist from Zarqa of Palestinian origin who is a part-time lecturer in pharmacology at the Intermediate University College, al-Masimi reached parliament in 2003 through the women's quota (gathering an impressive 7,133 votes). Her decision to run for parliament in 2003 was based on the IAF's nomination, intended to show that “the Islamist movement does not discriminate against women.” She described the Islamist framework as providing “regulations, not hurdles for women's political activism” as long as that activism does not clash with women's primary occupation—motherhood. She also mentioned that the reference point for such activism is harmony with shariʿa, and that she was personally unconcerned about the opinions of women's associations on legislative issues. “Al-Naʾiba al-Islamiyya al-Urduniyya Hayat al-Masimi: al-Ikhwan La Yuʿaridun ʿAmal al-Marʾa al-Siyasi,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, 3 August 2006, accessed 6 July 2016,

9 Abla Abu ʿUlba, Secretary General of the Democratic People's Movement Party (Hashd), interview with the authors, Amman, Jordan, 2 September 2014; Hala Dib, interview with the authors, Amman, Jordan, 6 September 2014.

10 Schwedler Jillian and Clark Janine A., “Islamist–Leftist Cooperation in the Arab World,” ISIM Review 18 (2006): 2 .

11 Wasif al-Bakri, interview with the authors, Amman, Jordan, 19 August 2014.

12 The commission specifically asked for the khulʿ law.

13 Wasif al-Bakri, Dirasa Hawla Taʿdilat Qanun al-Ahwal al-Shakhsiyya allati Tammat bi-Mujib al-Qanun al-Muʾaqqat Raqam 82/2001, Mizan (Law Group for Human Rights), accessed 7 July 2016,

14 Implementation of this provision was notably difficult. Determining how much a woman seeking khulʿ had to pay her husband was particularly challenging for shariʿa judges. A clearer mechanism for calculating this compensation was not devised until the summer of 2003. “Judges Work Out Khuloe Mechanisms,” Jordan Times, 2 July 2003.

15 In describing the Lower House's first rejection of the khulʿ amendment, human rights activist and renowned Jordanian women's advocate Asma Khader was quoted as saying, “This was simply a political bargain and a way to make a stand against the government. Unfortunately women's issues are always the weakest links.” “Women's Rights Activists, Local Pundits Express Shock and Dismay over Lower House Rulings,” Jordan Times, 9 August 2003.

16 Husseini Rana, Murder in the Name of Honour: The True Story of One Woman's Heroic Fight against an Unbelievable Crime (Oxford: One World, 2009), 79 . See also “Protesters Face Off with MPs at the Dome: ‘We Care about Women's Rights, as Much as You’ – Deputy,” Jordan Times, 11 August 2003.

17 “MPs Reject Khuloe Amendment, Which Allows Women to Divorce without Consent: Deputies Describe the Law as One of Most ‘Dangerous.’” Jordan Times, 4 August 2003.

18 Hala Dib, legal consultant to the Jordanian National Women's Union, interview with the authors, Amman, Jordan, 6 September 2014.

19 “MPs reject.”

20 Ibid.

21 Samar Haddadin, “Qanun al-Ahwal al-Shakhsiyya Yulghi al-Khulʿ wa-Yadaʿ Shurutan ʿala al-Zawaj al-Mubakir,” al-Raʾi, 28 September 2010.

22 Ayman Fadilat, “12 Alf Fatwa bi-l-Talaq khilal ʿAm wa-Irtifaʿ al-Talaq bi-Nisbat 12%,” al-Sabil, 27 March 2014.

23 In a meeting with parliamentarians who had recently voted against the khulʿ law, activist Kawthar Khalafat pleaded with them: “If you could only see the suffering caused by pending divorce cases you might be obliged to change your mind.” “Advocates Work to Focus MPs on Women's Rights as a Broader, National Issue: Khuloe Remains Sore Point amongst Constituents,” Jordan Times, 24 August 2003.

24 Shortly after the law was first rejected by the Lower House in August of 2003, women's rights activists organized a sit-in outside parliament and raised banners proclaiming: “We are partners not hostages. . . . What we are calling for is constitutional . . . we call on parliament to respect women's constitutional, human and shariʿa rights.” The protesters urged deputies entering the Dome to reconsider their actions “because [the laws in question] guarantee justice and equality for women and society.” Rana Husseini, “Protesters Face Off with MPs at the Dome: ‘We Care about Women's Rights, as Much as You’— Deputy,” Jordan Times, 11 August 2003.

25 Dib, interview.

26 Al-Bakri, Dirasa hawla Taʿdilat.

27 Al-Bakri, interview.

28 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), accessed 30 March 2015,

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 “Muʾtamar Sahafi li-Jabhat al-ʿAmal al-Islami hawla Ittifaqiyyat CEDAW,” YouTube video, posted 26 October 2011,

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid.

34 “Women Activists Call on Gov't to Lift Remaining Reservations on CEDAW,” Jordan Times, 3 May 2009.

35 Dib, interview.

36 The talk show was “al-Nisaʾ Qadimat,” broadcast on al-Tamyiz TV. The two guests were Maysun Darawsha (from the IAF) and Hala Dib. See “Taʿarud Baʿd Bunud al-Sidaw maʿ al-Shariʿa – Alif/Maysun al-Darawsha,” YouTube video, posted 26 October 2011, accessed 6 July 2016,

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid.

39 The talk show Kalam fi al-Samim was broadcasted on Jo-Sat. See “Ittifaqiyyat CEDAW,” Parts 1 and 2, posted 12 August 2009, accessed 6 July 2016,;;

40 Ibid.

41 Asma Khader, interview.

42 For data on the increasing number of women participants in Islamist political movements and parties, see Hassan Abu Hanieh, “Women and Politics: From the Perspective of Islamist Movements in Jordan” (Amman: Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung, 2008), accessed 6 July 2016,

43 Maysun Darawsha, IAF member and spokesperson (CEDAW), interview with the authors, Amman, Jordan, 31 August 2014.

44 Sajida Abu Faris, IAF member, interview with the authors, 20 August 2014, Amman, Jordan.

45 “Al-Marʾa al-Muslima fi Zaman al-ʿAwlama/Maysun al-Darawsha,” an interview with Maysun Darawsha broadcast on Al-Jazeera TV, YouTube video, posted 24 November 2011,

46 Jamaʿiyyat al-ʿAfaf al-Khayriyya Facebook page, accessed 6 July 2016,

47 Muna Abu Hammur, “Kitab Yastaʿrad CEDAW,” al-Ghad, 17 June 2011.

48 The text of the fatwa was published on the website of the Iftaʾ Department, 10 May 2010, accessed 6 July 2016,

49 He also referred to Article 16.

50 Judge Mansur al-Tawalba, Director of Shariʿa Jurisprudence Institute, interview with the authors, Amman, Jordan, 14 January 2016.

51 Ibid.

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid.

54 Ibid.

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid.

57 Ibid.

58 This is according to an interview by the authors with Judge al-Bakri (19 August 2014). However, according to a recent phone interview by the authors with Hala Dib (6 December 2014), the law was modified by the parliament's former legal committee. The committee protested one modification which eased restrictions on visitation rights of spouses (especially women) because it saw it and other modifications like it as limiting men's rights and “authority.” Women activists are now pressuring the parliament for further modifications so that the law is referred again to the new parliamentary legal committee before being voted on.

59 The text of the law can be viewed at, accessed 7 July 2016.

60 Talfīq has never been considered fully by the religious department. This is according to Judge al-Bakri, but also to Judge Salih al-Muhtasib, former president of the Shariʿa Appeal Court, interview with the authors, 24 September 2015, Amman, Jordan.

61 Chief Islamic Justice Ahmad Hulayyil was quoted as saying, “We have placed many restrictions and the new law will only be applied in limited cases and once a panel of Shariʿa judges decides that such a marriage is necessary.” Rana Husseini, “New Personal Status Law Strengthens Jordanian families—Hilayel,” Jordan Times, 28 September 2010.

62 They asked for no exceptions.

63 Hulayyil said the new law kept the essence of khulʿ, an expedited means by which a woman can divorce her husband, but removed the word khulʿ in order to protect the children of women who invoke the law from the social stigma associated with it. Husseini, “New Personal Status Law.”

64 This is one reason given by the department. “We believe that the khuloe law only serves the rich, as only women who are financially able can pay back their husbands’ dowry or wedding expenses,” al-Bakri told activists and lawyers at a meeting to discuss the law. “Chief Islamic Justice Department to ‘Reconsider’ Khuloe Law,” Jordan Times, 3 May 2010.

65 The khulʿ law of 2001 remained controversial among political activists and the general public.

66 Al-Bakri's comment from a debate over the law with women activists sums up this position: “This modern law was not drafted for women, children, or men, but for the stability and security of the Jordanian family.” Rana Hussieni, “Debate Continues over Personal Status Law,” Jordan Times, 20 October 2010.

67 Khader, interview.

68 Hussieni, “Debate Continues.”

69 Wasif al-Bakri, interview with the authors, Amman, Jordan, 1 September 2014.

70 Ranya al-Sarayra, “Dirasa: al-Ahwal al-Shakhsiyya al-Akthar Tamyizan didd al-Nisaʾ,” al-Ghad, 27 August 2014.

71 Ibid.

72 Abu ʿUlba, interview.

73 “Asma Khader wa-Nahi al-Muʿayta Tatahaddathan ʿan Daʿm al-Marʾa,” from Dunya ya Dunya Talk Show, Ruʾya Television, YouTube video, posted 26 May 2012,

74 Ibid.

75 “Barnamaj Fa-Isʾalu Ahl al-Dhikr—Qanun al-Ahwal al-Shakhsiyya Raqm 76 li-Sanat 2010,” from Fa-Isʾalu Ahl al-Dhikr Talk Show, JRTV Channel, You Tube video, posted 9 January 2014,

76 Muhammad Abu Faris, interview with the authors, October 2014, Amman, Jordan.

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International Journal of Middle East Studies
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  • EISSN: 1471-6380
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