Marriages leave children stateless

Activists are demanding changes to the law that Jordanian women who marry foreigners cannot pass on their nationality to children.

Mukaram Zahra (L) dallies with her son Mohammed as her daughters Nimeh and Waed watch them, at their home in the town of Merheb, near Zarqa, Jordan February 24, 2009. (Salah Malkawi/ The National) *** Local Caption ***  SM004_Mother.jpg
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AMMAN // When Mukaram Zahra went to ask on behalf of her son for a girl's hand in marriage, she was turned down for only one reason: her husband was a Palestinian and therefore her son was not Jordanian.

Unlike men, women who marry a non-Jordanian cannot pass on their nationality to their children, leaving them without citizenship rights, including access to cheap government health insurance and education in state universities. "The first question they asked me," Mrs Zahra said, "was 'how are your grandchildren going to study in universities?'." Mrs Zahra, 42, lives in Mirheb, a less privileged village in Zarqa, north of Amman, with her husband, and five children, Ahmed, Nimmeh, Waed, Mohammed, Mahmoud and her mother-in-law.

It is estimated that 80,000 Jordanian women are married to non-Jordanians, 60,000 of whom are married to Palestinians. These women have for years campaigned against what they called discriminatory laws that do not equate them with men in citizenship rights. Most have shuttled between the intelligence department and the interior ministry for annual security clearances and yearly residency visas. Mrs Zahra is concerned about her daughter's education. "Nimmeh wants to study information technology, but she is not entitled to a place in public university and we cannot afford to pay twice as much for a private university. Yesterday she cried."

Her husband's job distributing eggs pays a monthly salary of between US$420 (Dh1,500) and $560. But it is hardly enough to sustain his family in a country where inflation reached 15.4 per cent last year. In eastern Amman, Um Wael, who is also married to a Palestinian, recalls how her son, Naji, 32, who was born with a heart problem, required surgery last year costing $18,000. She struggled hard to get a government exemption for his treatment, appealing to the ministry of health and the prime minister's office.

"My son doesn't have a national identity number, so they refused." She finally borrowed some money and sold her gold jewellery and that of her married daughter to pay for the surgery. She lives in a tiny two-room house that she shares with her two sons, their wives and children. Women's rights activists have renewed their demands this month for the government to amend the citizenship law to grant Jordanian women married to foreigners the same rights that men do when passing citizenship to their children.

"It is a continuous demand because there is suffering. There are women whose children are without a nationality or with a different nationality than their mothers, and their spouses have left them," said Asma Khader, the secretary general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women. "If there are constraints to protect national interests, we can understand them, provided that Jordanian men married to Palestinians and Jordanian women married to Palestinians are treated equally."

While some Arab countries such as Egypt have amended their citizenship laws, in Jordan, talk about doing so is a touchy subject due to political considerations. Jordan is home to nearly two million Palestinian refugees who flooded the country in the wake of the 1967 and 1948 Arab-Israeli wars. "We are not against women's rights, but we are talking about Jordan which is a unique case," Samir Habashneh, a senator and a former minister of the interior, said.

"The issue is related to Jordan's identity and the future of the Palestinian identity." There are fears that if Palestinians are given citizenship, it would weaken their struggle for the right of return. Jordan insists that UN Resolution 194, which calls for refugees to be allowed to return home and for compensation, be implemented. Those fears have also deepened in the wake of Israel's recent election and the likelihood that the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, will form a hawkish government, dashing hopes for a two-state solution. The rift between Hamas and Fatah has not helped the peace process either.

"Israel is against the right of return and its slogan is to settle the refugees in the countries that are hosting them," Mr Habashneh said. Jordan's Queen Rania announced at an Arab women's summit in 2003 that the office of the prime minister had endorsed amendments to the citizenship law that would guarantee women the same rights as men. But the announcement sparked furore amid concerns it would upset the demographic balance of the country - where 50 per cent of the population is of Palestinian origin - and render Jordanians from the eastern bank of the river a minority in the kingdom. So the law was shelved.