Jordanian parliament rejects raising early marriage age to 16

Jordan’s parliament voted against raising the minimum age of marriage in exceptional cases from 15 to 16, disappointing many women and human rights activists.

al-monitor A bride arrives at mass wedding, Amman, Jordan, Sept. 19, 2014.  Photo by Jordan Pix/ Getty Images.

Apr 17, 2019

AMMAN — The parliament’s vast majority voted April 8 against raising the minimum age of marriage in exceptional cases from 15 to 16 in a joint session of the upper and lower houses to end the dispute over the personal status bill. Under normal circumstances, the legal age for marriage in Jordan is 18.

In December 2018, the House of Deputies endorsed amendments to the personal status law that kept the exception for early marriage at the age of 15. The amendments were referred to the Senate for debate and vote.

On Dec. 27, the Senate adopted amendments proposed and backed by women and human rights groups that wanted to raise the minimum age of marriage in exceptional cases to 16.

Marriage under 18 is considered an exception by the personal status law, and special regulations issued by the Supreme Judge Department — which is in charge of the religious courts and its judges — controls the process of granting marriage permissions to “underaged” applicants. A committee of Sharia judges from the religious courts studies living conditions and education status of each applicant and accordingly decides to grant marriage permission or not. The decision greatly depends on the committee's estimation of whether the girl or the boy is ready for marriage.

However, under the exception, 10,000 cases of child marriage (under the age of 18) were recorded in 2017, according to the latest figures by the Supreme Judge Department. These constituted 13.4% of overall marriages in 2016.

The two chambers also had a dispute over the article of the personal status law concerned with grandchildren's inheritance rights that had to do with the gender of grandchildren's parents who have died.

While House of Deputies amendments proposed limiting the right to Al Wasiya Al Wajeba (obligatory bequest) in such cases only to the grandchildren of a person whose son has died, the Senate's version of amendments proposed granting equal inheritance rights to the grandchildren of a person whose daughter has died as well.

If a bill is approved by both the House of Deputies and the Senate, it then is submitted to the king, who can either grant consent by royal decree or return the bill unapproved with justifications. When the House and Senate do not agree, they can meet meet in joint session to end the dispute and then dispatch the bill to the king.

The House of Deputies disapproved the Senate’s bill on inheritance rights, and the two chambers met to end the dispute over the minimum marriage age and grandchildren's inheritance. The meeting resulted in votes to keep the minimum age in exceptional cases at 15 and a vote against granting equal gender inheritance rights in Al Wasiya Al Wajeba (the obligatory bequest).

Activists and civil society protested in front of the parliament ahead of the session in a last-ditch effort to support pro-women legislative amendments.

The session was heated with anger against nongovernmental organizations and activists’ demands for the minimum marriage age to be raised to 16 when it comes to exceptional cases. The majority of those who were allowed to speak at the session — headed by Senate President Faisal Fayez — expressed opinions that were against the Senate’s bill. Some members of parliament, such as Saddah Habashneh and Saleh Armouti, accused NGOs of wanting to change the values and traditions of Jordanian society, stressing that such demands are a breach of Islamic laws.

Sen. Fedaa al-Hmoud, the Senate’s Legal Committee rapporteur, was attacked by members of the parliament for trying to express an opposing opinion. Hmoud justified her opinion for the need to raise the minimum age for marriage in exceptional cases to 16, saying this is not against Islamic law.

Hmoud told Al-Monitor that the parliament was divided into two groups and that the debate around the topic was limited to the religious aspect. “If it was against the religion, the legal age of marriage would not have been raised from 15 to 18," she said.

The personal status law, which has been changed four times in Jordan, defines the legal age of marriage. In the 1976 version of the law, the legal age for marriage was 15. In 2010, the legal age was raised to 18.

“We don’t want to cancel the exception, we just want to raise the minimum age for that exception. Having reached puberty does not mean that these girls will be able to make families and raise kids,” she added.

Salma Nimes, the head of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, told Al-Monitor that as Jordan is experiencing economic, political and social crises, people have lost trust in the government and in the parliament. She said many of those opposed to the changes resorted to simplistic religious and populist arguments.

Human Rights Watch called on Jordan in an April 3 statement to end child marriage entirely and provide full equality for women in marriage, divorce and inheritance. The organization also urged the kingdom to seize the opportunity of the ongoing discussion inside the parliament to prevent child marriage and enforce the minimum marriage age of 18 without exception.

“Child marriage robs girls of their childhood and puts their health and education at risk,” Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in the April 3 statement, noting that “parliament should take this opportunity to put an end to this abusive practice.”

Princess Basma Bint Talal published a statement on her official Facebook page April 8 commending the efforts of everyone who supported the proposed amendments and expressing her disappointment at the outcome, which she said “does not represent the views of the greater part of Jordanian society.”

Basma added, “With due respect to the democratic process that resulted in the rejection of the two amendments put forward to parliament, it must be asserted that these neither conflict with the Jordanian Constitution nor Islamic law. Furthermore, these amendments were the studious effort of a large cross-section of society with full knowledge of the issues, as well as a keen sense of responsibility and ethics. This setback is not helpful in dealing with the negative outcomes and individual problems created by the existing laws.”

The joint decision was also disappointing to the “Bint 15” campaign (which translates into “A 15-year-old girl”), a youth advocacy drive against child marriage, said Nusayba Smadi, a member of the campaign. “The society’s needs for the marriage exceptions were not discussed. What is the need to tie the knot for a 15-year-old girl?” she asked during an interview with Al-Monitor over the phone.

However, Smadi, Hmoud and Nimes agreed that regardless of the results, there were discussions around a topic that has always been regarded as taboo, and this is a positive development for opening the way for future change.

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