Women’s Personal Narratives of Remand Prisons in Jordan
‘You have had the chance to see it from the inside, journalists and researchers would kill for such an opportunity,’ a colleague told me after having spent a night in a women’s remand prison in Amman, the capital of Jordan. I recognised my privileged research access the moment I was taken into custody. I also realised that I had been so privileged knowing that my stay was only limited to a few hours, and my exit would be relatively smooth in comparison to others, whose stories and fate haunted me, ever since I left al-Juwaideh remand prison for women. My incarceration has been due to an administrative matter, which would normally be resolved on the same day. To my luck, however, I was taken into custody on a weekend, meaning that all administrative judicial departments were closed. Before my incarceration, I had been given the chance to make phone calls using my mobile phone in order to arrange for a lawyer to prepare needed documents and follow on procedures. Despite the fact that I was privileged, and I had access to legal support, I still felt anxious and intimidated by the idea of spending a night in prison. To add to my anxiety, none of the security actors explained procedures to me or explained where I was being taken. One of them said: ‘you will spend the night in a room with policewomen, do not worry.’ Another said: ‘you will go to prison, you might want to say goodbye to your family.’ My lawyer and family reassured me that it is only a matter of procedures and that I could have been released the same day had it not been a weekend. I felt slightly reassured knowing that I am not on my own; I had family, friends, work colleagues and a lawyer on my side. Yet the idea of spending the night in limbo was terrifying.
Ethnographer On Remand
In 2015, Dignity published a report on Conditions for Women Detention in Jordan. The authors of the report explain that they were not allowed to visit al-Juwaideh temporary detention facility, and that data on that particular facility was very limited. It does not surprise me anymore why researchers and journalists do not have access to this particular facility- the one I had been privileged enough to spend a night talking to and interviewing women detainees. The moment I was informed that I was being taken to al-Juwaideh, I decided to wear my ethnographer’s hat, an act of self-protection and an opportunistic attitude making the most out of my anxiety and misery. I was taken in a police car with another woman, whose story was challenging a traffic police officer making unwelcomed remarks about the clothing of other women with her in the car.
Arriving in al-Juwaideh, we were handed by the policemen to policewomen, who started the process of searching. I had a rucksack on me, containing a book, notebook and a laptop. The search happens over two stages, a search of belongings and a physical search. I was asked to take everything out of my rucksack. I had chewing gum, which I had forgotten about, the policewoman rudely asked me to throw it in the garbage bin. After taking everything out, I was asked to untie my shoelaces, put them in the rucksack, along with the book and the notebook and take my laptop and mobile phone into another room. I asked whether I could take a book to read, or a notebook to write, and the policewoman said: ‘where do you think you are?’ Obediently, I went to the other room, where another policewoman awaits to take the ‘expensive’ belongings and place them into lockers. I had to give up my laptop, my mobile phone and most of the cash I had on me, except for five Jordanian Dinars, as she explained I might need them. Afterwards, detainees are asked to go to a dark damp room for a strip search. I was led to that room, I only remember that there were five other detainees in a corner putting their clothes on and that the floor was wet, because my socks got wet. The woman prison officer addressed me saying: ‘stand in the corner and flash them’. I did not understand at the beginning, but later I realised after her tone became harsher as she repeated her sentence, that I had to flash my breasts. After the flashing of the breasts, detainees are asked to pull down their trousers and underwear, and squat a few times. Putting on my ethnographer’s hat made the search feel less humiliating than it could have been. However, anxiety kicked in once I was taken into the actual detention centre. It was 5 pm, dinnertime at the detention centre; women from all different backgrounds were queuing in a courtyard for a piece of stale bread, an egg and some tea served in plastic cups. One of the women prison guards shouted at me, saying: ‘go to the Arabs chamber.’
Tell Us Your Story
I headed to the room she pointed towards; entering slowly and carefully, I saluted the inmates in the Arab’s room, who greeted me back by saying ‘tell us your story.’ The cold room included eight double bunk metal beds, with small covers on each and a pillow. Some of the beds were not useable, and others did not have mattresses on them. The room was full of beds, except for a small space that does not exceed one square meter in size. Within that square meter women sat on their covers smoking, chatting and telling their stories, which were all a manifestation of a system that under privileges women and places them in precarious situations. The first to speak was a Jordanian woman of Palestinian origin; I will call her Nasma here. Nasma in tears took us back to a time, when she and her husband were living comfortably.
In Nasma’s Words
‘Things were really good, he had a business and we were well off, and we built a family together. Suddenly, he decided to take on a second wife. I accepted it. We lived together. She was his secretary, and we finally grew accustomed to each other. Years went by, and the business started falling apart. He started asking people for debts, and started signing blank checks. A few months ago, the debtors decided to take him to court, and he was imprisoned for failing to pay. I wanted to visit him in prison, with my co-wife. My youngest child begged me not to go and leave her behind that day. I just went ahead. As we entered the prison to visit him, I was asked to provide an ID, and I gave the policeman mine. He looked at me suspiciously, as he entered my name into a computer, and said: ‘Nasma?’ I said: ‘yes, sir, that is me.’ He said: ‘you are wanted by the police.’ I was in shock, I had no idea what was going on, and I still have no idea. The policemen explained that I have been sentenced to prison in absentia for not paying debtors. I never took any money from anyone myself. It must be my husband who did. He took 260,000 Jordanian Dinars, using my name. You know he is my guardian, so he can easily take my ID, and sign checks in my name. The police said I could only get out if we pay that amount, but I do not have that much money. My kids, I worry about my kids…’
You Have Family Outside
As Nasma finished her sentence, and started sobbing, Kamilia said: ‘do not worry you have family outside.’ Kamilia told us her story, and started by saying: ‘look, there are five of us Tunisian women here, and our families are in Tunisia.’ Kamilia explained that some of the Tunisian women in detention have been there for over three months for overstaying their visas. She said: ‘they ask us to pay penalties for overstaying and pay for our tickets back home. Some of us here cannot afford to pay that, so we are stuck in limbo.’ One of the Tunisian women explained that she is married to a man from Gaza, who by law cannot grant her a residence permit in Jordan. She went on to say: ‘I have kids I have not seen, in I do not know how long now. My husband is poor; he cannot help me. The only way out for me is to find someone to pay that money, and I just go to Tunis and leave everything here behind.’
For these women, staying in detention for lengthy periods of time means that their overstay penalties are increasing on a daily basis. This also means that their lives are on hold, they are kept in detention with no agency at all to even manage to get the money they owe the government. Many of them explained as well that they are concerned about their families outside, and that they do not have access to means of communications in detention. One of them said: ‘you know, permanent prisons are much better, food is better, you have a set time for communications, and you know how long you will be staying there, you know when it would end. Here is the worst of all places.’
Home is Worse Sometimes
‘I do not think so,’ Ghada said, ‘sometimes home is worse than here.’ Ghada, resorted to the police to protect her from her family, who are threatening to kill her, because she fell in love with the ‘wrong’ man. In Jordan, due to the lack of shelters and protection facilities, women, who report abuse from their families, find themselves thrown in remand detention centres. Again, the system does not only fail to protect women, but also criminalises them instead. Hours after I had arrived in al-Juwaideh, a woman in her early thirties entered, looking traumatised and panicky. Asked about her story, she explained that three men had raped her, and when her family found out they plotted her murder. She explained that she ran away, and when she resorted to the police, she was thrown in prison. Honour crimes are common in Jordan, and those who murder their female-relatives, claiming that the women broke their families’ honour code, by engaging or being forced to engage in sexual activity, are given a reduced sentence in prison. In so many ways, women are criminalised under such laws, even if they were victims to rape or sexual violence. Whereas these women have become victims to their families, some cases criminalise families, who attempt to protect their daughters.
Manipulating the System
Towards the end of the night, the room got more and more crowded. More than 30 women constrained to a room that is barely enough for 16. The last arrivals included a woman and her teenage daughter. They were accused of fraud and forging governmental documents. Salma, the mother, said: ‘a few months ago, my daughter got pregnant outside of wedlock. I panicked and wanted to support her. I asked her if she wanted to keep it, and she expressed a desire to have the baby. She had a beautiful baby daughter. By law, you cannot register children born out of wedlock, and my daughter could have gotten imprisoned if authorities had known. I had to register her daughter under my name. On the birth certificate, I told them that the mother’s name was Salma, and I went the next day to register the baby. Authorities heard about it somehow, I suspect one of the neighbours informed the police. Now we are facing fraud charges.’ Salma said that she does not regret doing it, but also expressed fears with regards to the future and the future of the child, who was taken into care by the authorities. Whereas forging governmental document and fraud are serious crimes, it is very difficult in such cases not to sympathise with those who became ‘criminals’ due to a system that oppresses women’s sexuality and places barriers on them.
Behind Concrete Walls
It was very difficult to tell what time it was, when we heard Um Hussein, an eighty-year old Palestinian woman, shout and cry in the courtyard. Um Hussein was brought in charged with begging, despite her bad health and old age, the officers who found her had no regard for that, and she had to spend the night in a room with no space or mattresses. I tried to ask the prison officers for extra mattresses for the increasing number of women in the room, but the officer shouted at me and said: ‘do you think you are in five star a hotel?’ I went back to the room disgruntled, and one of the Tunisian women said: ‘you know we are lucky; they treat non-Arab women even worse. I witnessed a Sri Lankan woman being tortured, she was thrown onto the floor, kicked, beaten and they threw cold water over her.’ Behind these concrete walls there are stories, many stories that need to be heard. Issues that need to be addressed, and an overall system reform is required to guarantee women basic rights. Behind these concrete walls, I spent the night listening to women’s stories. The early morning hours waiting to be called by officers to be released after sorting out my papers were the most difficult and longest. They called my name, I would say around 10:30 in the morning the next day. I picked up my belongings from the prison officer and was taken into a police car to the judicial administrative unit. On the way, a police officer said: ‘if you have mobile phones on you, call your families and lawyers, because if they are not there already, you will be sent back to detention.’ I panicked despite my trust that my papers had already been prepared. I tried to switch on my out of battery mobile phone, for what felt like hours. The police officers would not allow anyone to use their phones. The half an hour drive felt like two hours, but as soon as I arrived I saw my lawyer and my release papers. My name on my identity card resembled another woman’s name wanted for so-called justice. And, that left me wondering, how many victims to the system are there who will never achieve justice for themselves? How can we break these concrete walls and hear their real stories?