A LEGAL battle being waged by Islamic fundamentalists against one of Jordan's most outspoken women's rights activists has added a dark and unexpected twist to the country's first national election campaign in a generation. The case of Toujan Faisal, one of a dozen groundbreaking women candidates for parliament, became an instant cause c'el`ebre Saturday after two conservative Muslims asked a religious court in Amman to punish Ms. Faisal for ``apostasy,'' by declaring her incompetent, dissolving her marriage, and granting immunity to anyone who sheds her blood.
With less than a week to go before elections, the case has exposed strains in a country pulled in opposite directions by forces of modernization and religious reaction. The charges against Faisal have been quietly backed by some Jordanians as a means of keeping the country ``intact, conservative, and not so liberal as Western societies,'' says a former Jordanian Cabinet minister.
But for the most part, reaction to the trial, which is being openly compared to the 18th-century American witchcraft trials in Salem, Mass., has been one of acute embarrassment for Jordanians.
``It's not just Faisal,'' observes a Western source in Amman. ``It's an effort to draw a line to keep secularizing pressures from going too far, too fast.''
The two plaintiffs in the case, including a mufti (religious leader) in Jordan's Army, declined to indicate in court who they represented, saying only that the case was filed ``in the name of the people and in defense of Islam.''
King Hussein is said to find the case particularly upsetting and recently warned against those ``who exploit religion for political designs.'' He urged Jordanians ``never to condone the paralyzation of the potential of half the society or be lenient with the supercilious attitude toward our mothers, daughters, and sisters.''
The lively controversy was launched Sept. 21 by a newspaper article in an Arabic daily headlined, ``They curse us and we elect them,'' in which Faisal said that critics of women's rights had misinterpreted the Koran.
``I draw on Islamic laws to defend women's rights; this is why they [the fundamentalists] have launched their campaign against me,'' says the mother of three who stands in the middle of Jordan's biggest election-year controversy. ``They felt threatened in their own domain.''
According to widely accepted Koranic interpretation, the ability of women to pray and fast, and therefore to be as devout as men, is hindered by biological functions. Many Muslims also believe women to be inferior intellectually to men, a notion that has led some to judge women incompetent to run for parliament.
Twelve women are among 650 candidates competing for 80 seats in the lower house. Women received the right to vote in 1974, but this is the first time they have been allowed to stand for office.
Between 45 and 60 candidates representing various fundamentalist Muslim trends are also running, ranging from those who want Jordan to be a theocracy like Iran to others who merely rely on Islam to shape societal values.
The trial has raised the legal question of whether sharia (Islamic law) courts, which normally deal only with family matters such as divorce and child custody, are competent to rule on apostasy. The case is unprecedented and there are no Jordanian laws dealing with apostasy.
It also raises the troubling question of how far religion should be allowed to intrude into the realm of politics.
According to documents read at the court hearing Oct. 28, conservative Islamic prosecutors are also demanding that Faisal's property be confiscated, that she be stripped of all legal rights, and that her publications be banned.
Plaintiffs add that Faisal should not be allowed to repent, a right normally granted to Muslims charged with apostasy.
Meanwhile, the demand for legal immunity for anyone seeking to kill Faisal has provided Jordan with its own version of the Salman Rushdie affair. Nine months ago, Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini urged Muslims to take the life of Mr. Rushdie, a British-based Indian novelist, for defaming Islam.
``It's good that this has come out: If they reach parliament, we now know what to expect,'' says Faisal, who insists she remains a Muslim. ``If their laws are going to rule, women will lose their security and rights - even their marriages. Now we know what they mean by their Islamic law.''
The case is said to be intended as a warning shot to retard secularizing trends unleashed by the election and championed by a group of influential Jordanian women close to the royal palace.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest of several fundamentalist Islamic groups in Jordan, has opposed the case on tactical grounds. ``They don't want to lose the female votes,'' says a source close to the Brotherhood. ``They see that the trend is behind Toujan.''
Faisal, who until recently moderated a television show on women's issues that treated such controversial topics as child abuse and wife beating, says that since she announced her candidacy she has received several telephone warnings to withdraw and renounce her views.
Her newspaper article was part of a series in which she says ``progressive'' and ``conservative'' Jordanians debated the issue of the ability of women to participate in political life. Faisal charged that people who hold that men should have a monopoly on political and economic life believed in ``discrimination'' and ``slavery.''
The prosecution's recommendation to postpone the hearing until Nov. 9, the day after the vote, is believed to reflect concern that continued publicity could boost Faisal's chances at the polls.
Although even Muslim candidates have paid lip service to equal rights to attract women voters, few candidates of any stripe are committed to genuine reform.
Supporters of women's rights are seeking to change the inequalities in Jordanian law relating to rights in the workplace and to divorce, inheritances, child custody, and travel. But as the Faisal case hints, the environment is not conducive to sweeping change.