The May rain began in sporadic drops, leaving spots of dirt where it dried. It grew steadier as the sky darkened. But the small group of men, women, and children demonstrating outside Jordan’s Parliament in Amman were undeterred. Some shielded their faces with flattened palms. Others pressed blue caps—emblazoned with the Arabic “My mother is Jordanian and her nationality is my right”—a little more snugly on their heads.

Their leader, Nima Habashna, is a Jordanian woman of Strega Nona proportions who in 2009 founded a grassroots campaign to give Jordanian women married to non-Jordanians the right to confer citizenship to their children. Habashna herself married a Moroccan, and legally their children cannot inherit her citizenship.

According to Jordan’s nationality law, a foreign woman married to a Jordanian man can obtain Jordanian nationality. But the same does not apply to a foreign man married to a Jordanian woman. As for the children of bi-national couples, the law reads simply, “The children of a Jordanian man shall be Jordanian wherever they are born.”

The effect on those living in Jordan with Jordanian mothers and non-Jordanian fathers can be devastating. Without Jordanian citizenship, their access to health care, education, and work is automatically limited, a status that can render families destitute. The government heavily subsidizes health care and education for citizens, but non-Jordanians pay extra for both. To work legally, non-Jordanians must obtain work permits that can cost up to 300 Jordanian dinars annually, about 5 percent of per capita GDP. For one of Habashna’s sons, statelessness has made Jordan “a virtual jail.” He works from home, and at times he fears leaving his house because if anything happens to him, he can’t seek help from the authorities. “You can’t go to the police, because you don’t have citizenship or an ID card,” he says.

Activists, lawyers, parliamentarians, and others favoring rights for women and families fall primarily into two camps: those seeking to mitigate immediate hardship by giving children civil rights, and those aiming to tackle the gender discrimination at the heart of the issue by amending Jordan’s constitution. They agree that either way, the battle is uphill and that success will require reframing the issue: opponents are not much interested in gender equality, citing instead the region’s most sensitive political challenge, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“It is a political issue, not connected to oppression or . . . rights,” as Nabil Ghishan, a prominent journalist and editor of the Jordanian newspaper Al Arab Al Yawm, sees it. Allowing women to pass on citizenship, he argues, would give Palestinians another path to Jordanian citizenship and constitute “a free service for the Israeli occupation” that would “empty occupied Palestine of its people.” This would, Ghishan concludes, send the faulty message “that Jordan accepts the idea of an alternate [Palestinian] homeland.”

For the stateless, Jordan has become ‘a virtual jail.’

For 32-year-old Ali, who wanted only his first name used for this article, the situation is not so abstract. “My entire life has been in Jordan,” says Ali, who was born to a Syrian father and Jordanian mother and is now married to a Jordanian woman. Ali grew up with all the economic, social, and logistical pains of being a foreigner in his home country. His four-year-old twin boys and eighteen-month-old son will have to do the same. He is already resigned to the fact that he will have to pay significantly more to enroll them in private school, because he explains that as a non-citizen, he must have a valid work permit before they can attend public school. But Ali, a graphic designer, says, “In my area of specialization, they won’t give me a permit. They give these jobs only to Jordanians.” Asked where he will find the money for private school, he can only shrug.

Ali also cannot own a home or get health insurance for his family. “When my son broke his arm, I had to pay 35 dinars for an X-ray that costs 6–8 dinars for ordinary Jordanians,” he explains. He estimates that, overall, he pays at least twice as much for medical treatment as Jordanian citizens do. His family hasn’t experienced more major injuries or illnesses, but Ali is convinced “it will happen someday.”

And still he is luckier than some because he has Syrian citizenship. He can carry a Syrian passport and, unlike Habashna’s stateless son, obtain identity documents for himself and his children. Ironically, daughters of Jordanian mothers and non-Jordanian fathers have a rare advantage over their brothers. After marrying a Jordanian, Ali’s sister obtained citizenship and no longer faces the same challenges.

Nationality as a Family Right
In June 2010 the Amman-based Arab Women’s Organization (AWO) published a study confirming what affected families had long known: lack of citizenship creates or exacerbates “difficulties in residence, education, health care, and all [related] daily life situations” and engenders negative social and psychological effects.

The Information and Research Center of the King Hussein Foundation in Amman has also found that changing the current nationality law would be cost effective. Their 2012 report shows that if children of the estimated 65,000 Jordanian women married to non-Jordanian men were given permanent residency and civil rights—including access to education, health care, and employment—the direct economic benefits alone would outweigh costs to the government by more than 9 million Jordanian dinars ($12.7 million). The report also condemned the law’s broader ramifications, including its rejection of “matrilineality as a legally valid relationship between potential citizens.” Today the Center advocates exclusively for establishing matrilineal citizenship, not the intermediate measure of promoting civil rights.

These varied streams of research and activism formally converged in February 2013, when the Center, the AWO, Habashna’s campaign, and other groups and individuals launched a coalition demanding that women in Jordan be given rights equal to men in conferring citizenship, targeting what they considered the root of the problem: Article 6 of the Jordanian constitution.

“Jordanians shall be equal before the law,” it reads. “There shall be no discrimination . . . on grounds of race, language or religion.” “Gender” is conspicuously missing, but the coalition is working on changing that, or else clarifying that “Jordanians” in Arabic refers to both males and females. Either move would render the nationality law unconstitutional.

Pressure has come from outside Jordan, too. The international human rights organization Equality Now recently featured Jordan as one of three case studies in a report on significantly discriminatory nationality laws. And reviews by the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which Jordan is a signatory, repeatedly call on the country to reform the law.

Empty Promises of Reform
Jordan’s failure to treat men and women equally in the nationality arena is at odds with King Abdullah II’s promises of democratic reform. “We are building our future on the solid foundation of majority consensus, minority rights, a democratic culture of active citizenship, and peaceful, evolutionary change,” the king asserted at the UN General Assembly in September, in a speech that made no mention of women.

Talk of democracy aside, Habashna believes “the solution lies in the hands of the king.” Parliament, she contends, “is very weak and can’t pass anything without outside orders.” Even MPs who want to change the law are stuck.

Two such MPs are Wafa Bani Mustafa and Mustafa Hamarneh, who co-sponsored a proposal to grant civil rights to children born to Jordanian women and foreign husbands. The proposal was submitted in March to Parliament’s legal committee, where it will sit until Parliament reconvenes at the beginning of November. The road from there is full of procedural switchbacks between committee, Parliament, Senate, cabinet, and king. But if the initiative “came from the [cabinet] rather than the Parliament, these stages would be shortened,” Bani Mustafa says.

‘People fail to see that this issue is everyone’s problem.’ Anyone’s ‘daughter could marry a non-Jordanian.’

Hamarneh would like to see full citizenship granted, but until that’s feasible, “We at least go for civil rights . . . to allow these people to lead a dignified life.” But even that may be too much to ask. Hamarneh and Bani Mustafa agree that the March proposal received a “very negative response” from the public. “There wasn’t enthusiastic support for it,” Hamarneh recalls. “People are still afraid to come out in support of ideals like these.”

Myassar Sardiyyah—the first female MP from her region, the northern Badia (desert)—is an “original” Jordanian, not of Palestinian heritage, and flatly against Bani Mustafa and Hamarneh’s proposal for civil rights. She also opposes granting nationality to children with Jordanian mothers because doing so would, Sardiyyah believes, “transform original Jordanians into a minority” and lead to “the disappearance of Jordanian identity” while creating an alternate homeland for Palestine. She sees conferring citizenship as “the right of Jordanian men” because in Islam, a child’s blood follows that of the father. “The problem is a creation of those women and not a problem of the state of Jordan,” she insists.

Hamarneh, though, sees no merit in these claims about preserving demographic balance or support for a Palestinian homeland—claims he finds “bigoted,” “exclusivist,” and “rooted in anti-Palestinianism.” Samar Dudin, a community organizer who serves on the coalition steering committee, agrees. “If you have a political issue, you do not create more complications for your citizens because of that issue,” Dudin says. Dealing with it “should never be at the cost of total equity between men and women.” She calls the current law “a shocking case of gender discrimination” in a country that is “always talking about reform.”

Searching for Support
Although the coalition’s membership has grown, lack of active popular support remains a challenge. Aida Essaid, who directs the Information and Research Center, believes awareness is still a major problem. “There are many people who haven’t even heard of this issue,” she says. “It’s not even a matter of them being the opposition.”

“People fail to see that this issue is everyone’s problem,” adds Aroub al-Soubh, the coalition’s spokesperson. Anyone’s “daughter could marry a non-Jordanian.” Dudin is more critical. “I find it really scary that we have not been able to organize a people power campaign to really challenge this,” she says.

Habashna has seen firsthand how difficult it can be to recruit supporters to the campaign. In the movement’s early days, she was contacted by a friend who wanted to broadcast a radio program on the issue. Habashna found fifteen women who agreed to share their stories. But when the time came to record them, only two showed. “The rest said, ‘I can’t—the government will punish me,’” Habashna recalls. At her first demonstration two years later, she was joined only by her two daughters.

By comparison, the drizzly May demonstration, with about two dozen attendees, reflected progress. But no one could claim to be satisfied. Habashna mingled, exchanging greetings and sighs with participants. “There are so few people,” one of them, 32-year-old Ahmed, thought.

The rain kept falling, blighting handmade posters as the guards at the gates of Parliament looked on.