Earlier this week, the Jordanian parliament voted to repeal a provision of the penal code that allows rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims.
The controversial debate over Article 308, which stipulates that rape perpetrators may be pardoned if they marry their victims and stay with them for at least three years, has plagued the nation for decades. It has divided Jordan between those who believe the law is necessary to rid women of the social stigma associated with having intercourse outside of marriage, and others who describe the law as a major human rights violation.
Al Jazeera spoke with Wafa Bani Mustafa, a women’s rights champion and parliament member who was the first to propose an end to the provision. She says the fight for women’s rights is not over.
Al Jazeera: Can you give us a bit of background on where this article and other laws that affect the status of women in Jordan come from?
The introduction of such laws in the Arab world happened largely through a mix of colonialism and through the experiences of other countries in the region. Many of the countries used Egypt as an example, which got its laws through the Ottomans and the French colonial involvement in Egypt.
But in essence, it is a European product. The important thing to focus on is that such articles have no religious or societal justification – they only discriminate against women.
Al Jazeera: Why do you think it took this long for Jordan to abolish this article?
Bani Mustafa: To be honest, raising awareness of women’s rights and the battles to change laws largely depends on the movements within the parliament and women’s movements in civil society and the pressure they put.
I was the first to propose a parliamentary memorandum to abolish Article 308 in December 2013. At the time, a number of deputies signed with me and there was a discussion with the government about formulating a committee to review the penal code. The issue was shoved aside when a new parliament and a new government came into place.
But after it was proposed, a movement started in Jordan to push for abolishing the law. The campaigns tried to unify Jordanians – even well-known academics, journalists and activists participated in this campaign.
They would go to every district in Jordan and campaign in universities, in media, and raise awareness. Several organisations worked hard to produce statistics and conduct studies on this issue. And they came out with numbers that were very powerful.
We also worked on this article on the regional level. We worked with the Arab inter-parliamentary union and we met with heads of state to get rid of this article in all of the Arab countries.
Al Jazeera: Why did you choose to focus on Article 308 at this moment in time?
Bani Mustafa: It was my duty as a legislator to adopt such an issue. As a parliamentarian, I have the right, by the constitution, to propose new laws or amendments to laws. And it was my ability to impact as an activist and as a lawmaker, and through my close relationship with civil society and women’s groups, being able to oversee some of the cases that they dealt with – of victims that were exposed to oppression and injustice as a result of them being forced to marry under 308 – that led me to focus on 308.
I used to oversee a lot of the cases. I was in contact with the victims and their families. And I used to see how society used to pressure them using this article to brush the issue under the rug.
I think the hardest thing is that we leave our girls with no options; her options are either to marry her rapist, or to marry her rapist. Marriage is a very sacred thing. It is too sacred for it to be used as a tool for punishment. When I took up this issue, I did so because I was convinced that we would win this battle legally and from my experience within society.
Al Jazeera: Some people would argue that although the article was abolished, this does not change the mindset of the society. What do you say to that?
Bani Mustafa: I think that changing the legislation is a vital part of changing society. Now that 308 has been abolished, we should wait and see how society will react.
More importantly, the law to give reduced charges to crimes involving the murder of women [Article 98] has also been abolished, and this is a strong message to society that there will not be any legal leniency in such crimes. There will be no legal cover for perpetrators.
The message we’re sending to society is a correct one, that builds on the issue of equality – that equality is the right of the whole society. If they are not punished, they will do it again. We have managed to protect women and now it is the job of the state to protect and support these women, to provide care and empowerment for them and to work on accepting them into society as victims and survivors and not as being guilty.
Al Jazeera: What do you say to those who have criticised Jordan for taking so long to repeal such a clause?
Bani Mustafa: Yes, it’s unfortunate that we took this long, but we have managed to take this step and there are other countries that haven’t until now. I think it is a major achievement.
What is important now is to follow up and to achieve equality [for] the victims and for society … This issue isn’t specific to Jordan or to the Arab world. There are countries around the world that continue to stigmatise women. There are countries that have very developed legislation, yet in practice do not treat women equally. There are countries out there where women suffer way more than they do in the Arab world in similar crimes.
This interview has been edited for length.