Ahmed Zubeidi is a living ghost.
The 23-year-old is unable to get a job, enter a hospital, or own a mobile phone. He cannot marry or even leave his village on the desert outskirts of the city of Mafraq by the Jordan-Syria border.
He has no passport, no national ID. For Jordan, it was as if he had never existed. But his mother is a Jordanian.
“I am not a refugee or an [internally displaced person],” Mr. Zubeidi says from his cousin’s home. “I am a Jordanian, the son of a Jordanian. But they don’t see it that way.”
Zubeidi is one of an estimated hundreds of Jordanian residents who have been left stateless, and one of hundreds of thousands denied basic rights – all because their Jordanian mothers chose to marry foreign or unregistered fathers. He requested his first name be altered due to the social stigma of being stateless.
Despite making huge breakthroughs in women’s rights this year, scrapping a marry-your-rapist law and criminalizing sexual harassment, Jordan remains far behind other Arab countries whose female citizens now confer citizenship on their children.
Jordan's lag has much to do with its complex demographics, as opposed to its attitudes toward women. Yet it goes against Jordan’s image as a progressive nation, and despite government attempts to grant them special “privileges,” the children of Jordanian women and non-citizen fathers continue to demand basic civil rights.
Despite boasting constitutions enshrining equal rights to all citizens, most post-colonial Arab and African states added citizenship laws in the 1950s and '60s that defined a citizen as the son or daughter of a male citizen.
“This citizenship law is against the basic principles of human rights, we fought it then and are fighting it now,” says Layla Naffa of the Arab Women Organization of Jordan, which advocates for women’s citizenship rights.
Egypt became the first Arab country to amend its law in 2004 to redefine citizenship as being passed down by either parent, followed by Algeria in 2005, Iraq in 2006, Morocco in 2007, and Tunisia in 2010. Even Saudi Arabia, regarded as one of the most closed, conservative Arab states, announced last month that its Interior Ministry and its advisory Shura Council were studying a measure giving citizenship to the children born of Saudi mothers and foreign fathers.
Yet in Jordan and Lebanon, the law remains unchanged. Some 85,000 Jordanian women married to foreigners cannot pass on their citizenship to an estimated 400,000 children.
Lost in the system
Many of their offspring, like Zubiedi, fall into gaps in the system.
Zubeidi’s parents were cousins, Jordanians hailing from the same tribe. Yet while his mother was registered as a Jordanian citizen at birth, his father was never registered due to his nomadic Bedouin lifestyle. Zubeidi’s father died prematurely while Zubeidi was an infant, and the boy was later listed as stateless as his father was not present when the birth certificate was issued.
Many Jordanian women marry foreign workers who staff the industrial cities near Mafraq and Amman: Egyptian, Pakistani, and Bengali workers. Yet should their husbands return to their home countries, be deported, or die before registering their children, they, like Zubeidi, would be stateless. Those husbands who remain with their Jordanian wives pass on only their foreign citizenship.
Even for those with foreign passports, life in Jordan is not easy.
Children of Jordanian women and foreign fathers cannot own property, buy a home, or open a business. They are not allowed to work in many professions – including as doctors, lawyers, and engineers, fields reserved for “Jordanians.” Deemed “foreigners,” they are allowed to do menial work in the agriculture, construction, and service sectors.
Non-Jordanians also do not have the right to an inheritance. This is a huge issue for many, as they are forced to register their homes, cars, and businesses in their Jordanian mother’s name. Should their mother pass away, their property, homes, and cars they purchased go to their mother’s brothers and other “Jordanian” male relatives, leaving many destitute.
“When I am gone, my sons will lose everything,” says Zainab Abu Tabeekh, whose family home, bakery, and car are registered in her name – and cannot be passed on to her three sons or Egyptian husband.
But in Jordan, opposition to changing the citizenship law has little to do with women’s rights, and everything to do with demographics.
Jordan is home to an estimated 3 million Palestinian refugees who have been granted full citizenship and are nearly equal in number to the 3.5 million Jordanians of tribal origins, who pride themselves as being the “original” Jordanians.
Opponents of revising the law fear that the 150,000 Gazans in Jordan, the only Palestinian refugees who have never been naturalized, would use the measure to gain citizenship for them and their families. Then there are concerns that many of Jordan’s 1.3 million Syrians would intermarry with Jordanians, outnumbering “original” tribes.
This has made the issue a rallying cry for nationalists and tribalists who want to appeal to “original Jordanians” and rile up their base, transforming the humanitarian issue into a political football.
The topic has divided loyalties and created strange political bedfellows in Jordan; many lawmakers for women’s rights are against citizenship rights, many conservative Islamists are standing with feminists for the very first time.
“I am all for women’s rights and equality, but the naturalization of Jordanian women is a political issue, not a humanitarian one,” says Nabil Gheishan, a member of parliament at the forefront of women’s rights who helped spearhead Jordan’s recent scrapping of its marry-your-rapist law.
“For a century, Jordan has been the sponge that has soaked up the humanitarian crises and wars in the region,” says Mr. Gheishan. “The sponge is full, it just can’t take any more people.”
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood finds itself in a rare position: on the side of the Jordanian women’s movement.
“This is nothing less than a catastrophe,” says Dima Tahboub, MP for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front party and one of the group’s two women in parliament.
“We as a movement are completely against this practice, as it makes women second-class citizens under the law.”
Opponents point out that energy- and water-poor Jordan lurches from one budgetary crisis to another. With the government already raising taxes to avoid insolvency, how would Jordan deal with another 400,000 Jordanians in need of services – a 20 percent increase in citizens?
“Jordan is the only country where outsiders are as many as the original inhabitants,” says Abdul Hadi Majali, a former ambassador to the US, former parliament speaker, and powerful tribal power-broker.
“Let me put it this way, would the Trump administration grant citizenship to 70 million Mexican migrants?” Majali said. “In terms of demographics and percentages in Jordan, that is what we are talking about.”
Privileges, not rights
In 2014, in response to four years of protests by Jordanian women inspired by the Arab Spring, the government agreed to grant “privileges” to the children of Jordanian women to facilitate yearly renewable residency permits and their entry into public schools and government health centers.
Yet activists and children of Jordanian women, some 65,000 of whom have signed up for the benefits, say it does not go far enough.
Non-citizen children of Jordanian women still lack the Jordanian equivalent of a social security number, without which they cannot sign work contracts in either the public or private sector. And they cannot own property without approval from the cabinet itself.
“I think the problem is with the concept of the privileges themselves,” says Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Middle East researcher for Equality Now in Jordan, a US-based women’s rights advocacy group that is campaigning for changes to the nationality law in Jordan.
“At any moment, any minister can come and say we don’t need these privileges and repeal them,” she said. “If they have civil rights, they have it forever – whether future governments or politicians want it nor not.”
The Interior Ministry says it works to enforce the privileges and, to ensure compliance, even has a special committee to hear the complaints of those who have not received their privileges from various government agencies.
“These are persons living on Jordanian soil, and they have the right to a dignified life,” says Abdul Salem Qadhi, head of the Interior Ministry’s human rights directorate.
One way to overcome the legislative hurdles would be a show of support from King Abdullah. Were he to endorse the change, many MPs might feel pressured to vote along with his wishes.
But even then, the decision – as it touches social, tribal, and nationalist nerves – may be dead on arrival in parliament, leaving residents like Zubeidi despairing.
“When I meet my maker and God asks me: what have you done with your life, what will I say?” says Zubeidi.
“I sat in my home like a ghost.”