Recently, I had the chance to interview Professor Ibtesam Al Atiyat about her experience doing research in Jordan, during which time she focused on body politics and the legal system in that country. Her research looked at three main topics: family law policies, honor killings, and rape. She was interested in the difference between how these three issues were described legally and how they actually played out in reality.
She began by giving me some background on her area of study and explained some of the different legal and cultural structures that frame the body in terms of politics relating to gender and sexuality. This is what is meant by the term “body politics.” She then outlined how the law and legal processes frame issues relating to family law, including marriage, divorce, and child custody.
She noted that Jordan is heavily influenced by postcolonial law, which is a type of hybrid legal system that combines local laws, Western legal practices, and postcolonial traditions. Historically, Islamic Sharia was a negotiable and interactive legal system, but after the laws were written in the style of the Western legal system, Islamic Sharia became more fixed and nonnegotiable. This prevents people from seeking multiple opinions on a legal issue, as they had been able to do before the time of colonialism. Islamic Sharia is clearly subject to time and space, and the impact of colonialism must be taken into account when studying how it is understood today. Civil law (including laws pertaining to theft, fraud, and murder) is separate from the facets of family law mentioned above. Islamic Sharia affects family law by dictating how those laws are constructed and currently understood.
Ibtesam then went on to tell me a bit more about the specific issues she wanted to study. First was honor killings, which she told me have prevalence in certain countries and are viewed by feminists in both the United States and in the Arab world as a priority issue. She wanted to learn how the law frames and regulates honor killings and also look at a sociological analysis of the law in relation to honor killings. Honor killing, she explained, is not an ahistorical phenomenon that came into existence without context, nor is it merely an ancient practice that occurs in “underdeveloped” societies. Therefore, it is important to see honor killing as a modern phenomenon and not as an historical, outdated tribal practice.
In order to study rape, she interviewed women’s activists, parliamentarians, lawyers, politicians, and police in order to see how each group frames rape and deals with it. She told me about a recent debate in Jordan regarding the amendment of the penal code that governs rape and honor killings. However, the government’s attempt at reforming the penal code did not come out of the belief that the code was insufficient, but instead came from a demand by the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund). The government was complicit with the demand to reevaluate the penal code in order to further develop Jordan’s economy.
Women’s activism groups in Jordan demand the elimination of the current statutes regulating rape. There is one specific article within the law that defines rape as something that only happens to women; men are excluded from being considered victims of rape. And, according to the law, a rapist can be set free on the orders of a judge if he marries his victim. If this were the only way that the law worked- in practice and on paper- it would be a double reward for the rapist, since he would get to rape a woman once, and would then be allowed to escape punishment-free after marrying her.
However, in her interviews with police, judges, lawyers, and women at shelters, Ibtesam found a difference in the way the law was written and the actual practice of it. There was a large difference between what the feminist groups identified as being problems and what happens in reality. The activists present the example of a 50-year-old man raping a 13-year-old girl and then being rewarded by marrying her. While there could be a case like that, the majority of actual “cases” involve teenagers experimenting with sex. Also, there are other “cases” where women will have consensual sex in order to force their parents to accept their lovers. In that case, the women are not being oppressed by a law that forces them to marry their rapists, but instead are putting pressure back on their patriarchal families by finding ways to marry the men they love, and are able to find empowerment by using the law to their own advantage.
In cases of incest or pedophilia, judges are of course reserved in their decision to allow the rapist to marry his victim. This decision is treated on a case-by-case basis; there is no way a judge would allow a father to marry his daughter. Neither would he allow the theoretical 50-year-old man and the 13-year-old girl to be married. In cases like these, the legal punishments for rape would be enforced.
This issue therefore is much more complex than what the feminist discourse details. Some feminist activists say that the law allowing a rapist and his victim to marry should not exist on principal because it sets a bad precedence. However, their argument does not really capture the real issue and how the subject matter manifests in reality.
The law needs to change to include both men and women in the rape definition and allow for instances of consensual sex. Then, there should be harsher judgements in cases of actual rape. The wording of the law needs to capture the practices in reality.
From this research, Ibtesam now plans to work on a series of articles that will eventually turn into a book based on her three areas of study: family law, honor killings and rape. When I asked if she saw any changes in the laws happening in the near future, she said she did not, because the feminist organizations are very influential within the government and in getting international funding. Their way of framing the subject matters around issues of cultural and religious oppression will win the attention of the government and funders. Since her research looks at the aforementioned issues in a more complex way than the current discourses produced by various feminist groups, it may take some time for her research to impact the attitudes of those who have the ability to influence discourse. She says that it is the attitudes of colonialism and postcolonialism that contribute to oppression more than religion and culture; if women and women’s issues are reduced to religion and culture, the complexity of such issues becomes lost and the discourse remains unchallenged.
It was abundantly clear during the time I spent talking with her just how passionate she is about her research. These are important issues that should not be ignored or simplified, and I was amazed at how much thoughtful work she was able to accomplish in only one semester’s sabbatical time. If you are interested in knowing more about what she did, just stop in and visit with her.