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In Jordan, 'house of safety' offers hope and freedom to at-risk women

Why We Wrote This

In traditional societies, the family is a safety net. So what happens when, as in the case of so-called honor killings, the threat comes from within the family itself? Jordan is devising an answer.

Taylor Luck
Raghda Azza, director of Dar Amneh, stands in the garden of the new guest house for at-risk women who are threatened by their families and communities in Jordan. The center aims to end a decades-long practice by Jordanian authorities of placing such women in protective custody, often for many years.

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Amira can no longer look at navy blue – the color of the prison uniform she wore for a decade and a half. She was living in prison for her own protection, placed in administrative detention after her brothers tried to kill her in a so-called honor crime. It’s a controversial practice Jordan has carried on for decades, for survivors who have nowhere else to turn. Amira still carries the physical scars from her brothers’ attack, including a bullet lodged in her chest. But it’s the psychological scars of prison that run deepest. For years, Jordan’s government and civil society groups have worked to create an alternative for survivors – to support rather than punish them and to change perceptions of at-risk women. Their solution is Dar Amneh, literally the “house of safety”: a jointly run guest house to help them build new lives. Dar Amneh, which opened this month, designs a program to prepare each guest to reconnect to society and, when possible, to reconcile with her family. Reminders of the threats residents face are never far, but it’s a world away from prison. “This center would have been rebirth for me … a new beginning,” Amira says.

On the outskirts of Amman, the guests have just arrived at a walled villa, a guesthouse with an idyllic garden of lemon, apricot, and pomegranate trees, a barbecue grill, and wicker lounges arranged around a 2-meter-high fountain.

Awaiting them inside – above the communal fireplace and granite countertop kitchen – are brand new individual apartments complete with fully stocked kitchens, flat-screen TVs, a children’s playroom, digital washing machines, even treadmills.

Although the residence houses guests, this is no hotel. This is the last refuge for women who have nowhere left to turn.

Dar Amneh, literally the “house of safety,” is a unique joint project by civil society groups and the Jordanian government to help women at the risk of violence from their own families build new lives.

In Jordan, some two dozen women are killed each year in so-called “honor” crimes, when a family member murders a female relative to clear the family name of a perceived stigma, such as pregnancy out of wedlock or purported promiscuity.

What often goes unreported are the dozens of additional attempted murders, death threats, and instances of physical abuse against women by their very own relatives.

But the newly opened guesthouse is more than just a solution for when tribal and family ties break down; activists and officials say it is a program geared to change perceptions of the at-risk women – including in their own communities – so that they are seen as victims.

The women’s plight is more than a simple matter of security and safety. In tribal societies such as Jordan, the family is a safety net; it provides for its members, protects them, and fills a welfare and security role often played by the state in the West.

“If you are threatened with violence or murder in Jordan, your family protects you and supports you – but what do you do when that threat comes from within the family itself?” says Raghda Azza, the Dar Amneh director and a longtime women’s activist.

“That is when the system breaks down,” she says, “and everyone, including the government, families and law enforcement, are out of options.”

The reality behind the 'honor'

What makes these crimes even more complicated is that while men claim to commit these acts out of so-called family honor, in reality most are motivated by money, inheritance, or at times simple jealousies and sibling rivalries – all masked in a way to benefit from a law that until recently granted leniency to “honor” killers.

Unable to return threatened women to their families or help them start a new life elsewhere, for decades the government did the only thing it could: place women in protective custody.

Taylor Luck
The sewing room at the Dar Amneh guest house for at-risk women, on the outskirts of Amman. In order to help the women become self-sufficient, the new center is working with organizations to provide courses in secretarial work, manufacturing, interview skills, and tutorials on how to set up their own small businesses or apply for grants.

Under a controversial measure called “administrative detention,” the local governor would hear each woman’s case and – if she were deemed at risk – place her in a woman’s prison “for her safety” for a one-year period, renewable each year.

With the government ill-equipped to facilitate reconciliation between these women and their families or to provide them with a new life, these detention periods are renewed indefinitely. Women have spent 7, 10, even 15 years in prison.

“The easy answer for both the family and the government to ‘close the file’ on these women was prison,” says Eva Abu Halaweh, director of the Mizan Law Group, which has advocated for these detained women for the last decade.

“Authorities don’t want to jail women, families don’t want to jail their daughters, they just don’t believe there is an alternative,” she says.

Although Jordan amended its laws in 2017 to close a loophole granting leniency to honor killers, and judges have passed down harsher sentences in recent months, the administrative detentions continue.

The practice has left dozens of women lost in the prison system. Women such as Amira.

Amira, now 55, who knows the plight of detained women all too well, still carries the physical scars from when her brothers attempted to kill her over a rumor: slash marks from a butcher’s knife cross her chest; a gunshot scar crinkles her chin; a bullet is lodged in her chest. But the psychological scars of spending 14 years in prison are what run deepest and resurface most often.

Amira can no longer wear or even look at navy blue, the color of the prison uniform she wore for a decade and a half. And spurred by years of being deprived of her favorite foods, she cooks extra at every meal: mounds of stuffed grape leaves – her favorite – and eggplant and chicken.

Many days she wakes up crying, unable to believe she has her own apartment and can move at her own free will. Amira does not live in Dar Amneh, but she participated in a pilot program that led to the creation of the shelter, and is part of a generation of an estimated hundreds of women who have lost decades in prison.

“There is not one day, not one hour, not one minute that goes by without me remembering my life in that place,” says Amira, who prefers to use a pseudonym for her protection.

Search for an alternative

For years, the government and civil society groups and activists worked to establish an alternative for women like Amira – to support rather than punish them. Their solution: a hybrid center combining NGOs’ experience with the government’s resources and authority.

Under the new model, civil society and women’s rights groups provide services, legal representation, case evaluation, and, when possible, family reconciliations. Under the umbrella of Jordan’s Ministry of Social Development, the state provides security and political backing, with the government carrying the legal responsibility for the women’s lives.

Working off the experiences of shelters in Tunisia and France, organizers fitted best practices to the more tribal Jordanian society and this month finally opened Dar Amneh to its first guests. Eight women are already there, and 22 are expected by the end of this month.

Women like Amira will no longer be sent to prison. They will be given a choice.

Amira was released from prison in 2008 to Mizan Law Group after an arrangement with the government. But she says if Dar Amneh had existed, she would have been spared “a lifetime” behind bars and a daily reminder of her trauma.

“This center [Dar Amneh] would have been rebirth for me … a new beginning,” she says.

Dar Amneh says its goal is to create a calm and relaxed atmosphere to create a sense of stability for women whose lives have been out of their control for years.

The center gives women an initial evaluation with a social worker, a lawyer, and women’s rights advocates. They design a specially tailored program to prepare each guest for a new life, to reconnect to society and, when possible, to reconcile with their family.

They are then asked if they consent to the program. They are free to leave the guest house at any time.

“These women have been deprived of choice,” Ms. Azza says, “our role is to give them the best options available and allow them to choose their future.”

Experts provide courses on life skills such as time management, anger management, communication, parenting, and social skills that may have been frayed by years behind bars.

In order to help the women become self-sufficient, Dar Amneh is working with organizations to provide courses in secretarial work, manufacturing, and interview skills, plus tutorials on how to set up their own small businesses or apply for grants from Microfund for Women and other organizations.

Once women and specialists agree they are able to leave the guest house and start their new life, after an estimated six months to two years, Dar Amneh will arrange with security services to place them in a neighborhood or town far from their family if they are still at risk.

Need for security

Yet despite Dar Amneh’s soothing pastel colors and luxurious amenities, reminders of the very real threat these women face is never too far.

A fiberglass barrier extends over the villa’s walls to prevent any neighbor from peering in or entering. An armed guard is on duty around the clock in a white security kiosk similar to those at diplomatic missions and embassies.

The compound is located at the very edge of a remote neighborhood on Amman’s outskirts; the staff use a driver to bring visitors to the center so as not to give out the address.

Inside, mobile phones are banned in case GPS-driven apps and social media “check-ins” reveal the location of staff members and guests. Everyone, including the administration, uses a landline to communicate with the outside world. But it is a world away from prison.

“Here they can see the sky; there is no sky in prison,” says Azza as she checks on the sprouting eggplants and bell peppers in the garden. “But that alone is not enough. Soon they will acclimate and want what everyone deserves – freedom.”

With Dar Amneh in place, Abu Halaweh and other activists say they are preparing to challenge the legality of administrative detentions in the courts and – by making it easier for women to report assault or intimidation by their family – strip away another layer of attackers’ impunity.

“When you make people aware that these women are victims and deserve support, it is a big step,” says Abu Halaweh, the women’s rights activist. “The next step is to end this practice and hold perpetrators to account.”

In a press statement Thursday, Jordan’s minister of social development, Hala Lattouf, announced that the detention of at-risk women will end completely by the end of the year, noting that the Dar Amneh “experience has proven the possibility of replacing administrative detention with rehabilitation, integration and reconciliation.”

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