As one of the most water-scarce countries worldwide, Jordan mostly consists of a variety of different deserts. Fertile land is rare, but in the less known northern part of Jordan, where it borders the Golan Heights and Syria, two rivers and a Mediterranean climate are reasons for the comparatively green landscape. Given the friendly living conditions, it comes as no surprise that Jordan's second largest city located in this area holds a dear place in the hearts of its inhabitants.
For an outsider like me, Irbid might not immediately strike you as the most beautiful place in Jordan. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Irbid has hosted around 400 000 refugees from its neighbouring country, although exact figures do not exist. In just nine years, the city has doubled in population and quickly had to expand its infrastructure as well as housing. As a result, Irbid feels somewhat improvised and resembles a playground for bold architectural experiments. Restaurants in the shape of pyramids, a bustling, well visited, large 5 story café and restaurant, aligned to furniture outlets and with views over plains and scattered apartment buildings. It is also a city with lots of hidden gems, as I was about to find out.
As so often, the magic of this city lies with the generosity and creativity of its people. Two of our partner organisations operate in this area, and they have been successfully advocating for harmonious coexistence between Syrian refugees and Jordanian inhabitants. Because the government imposed Covid-19 related restrictions of movement in summer, it was difficult to organise meetings and workshops. But rather than sitting the crisis out, more and more initiatives surfaced in the country, reaching out to its people and connecting its social activists. The only difference to before is that this time it's all happening online. One of those digital events hosted a group of four young Jordanians from Irbid who introduced their newly established initiative Hokuke (Engl. My rights): An online platform aiming to simplify complicated legislation through fun videos and explanations, so they are understood by the communities. This way, they aim to help Jordanians to understand and utilize their legal rights. This is how we at forumZFD became aware of them and naturally HAD to meet them in person.
Fast forward a couple of months, restrictions in Jordan have lifted considerably and we finally arranged a meeting with Hokuke in a youth centre in Irbid, which they currently use as their office space. Following their directions, we stop next to a busy four lane road in a suburban area in front of a small supermarket, no youth centre in sight. This can’t be right, we thought. So after a quick phone call my colleague gets out of the car and waves to us, indicating to follow her. In the backyard behind the supermarket, we find a flight of stairs leading to a basement. Still hesitant whether this is the right location, the door suddenly opens, and we are looking at a spacious, airy and stylish co-working and culture space. The original character of the basement was kept: exposed concrete walls and metal beams all over the ceiling. There is a stage with guitars, the walls act as canvases for street art and a shop corner selling Jordanian fashion items. A photo shoot is taking place, and in the corner a large conference table is framed by bookshelves. At the conference table, the founders of Hokuke - Hamza, Rahme, Ahmad and Emad- await us with a big smile and offer us to join and sit down.
After commenting on the space, Rahme – who is a reporter by profession – nods enthusiastically and admits that once Hokuke has its own office, they would like it to look similar. I think this describes the character of this group very well. Hokuke strikes me as a very dynamic group, each one with a distinct skill complementing each other perfectly. There is Hamza – the lawyer – who explains the law to the team, the reporter Rahme, reformulating the unwieldy legislative language into approachable content, Ahmed – responsible for the catchy design in the videos and Emad, responsible for the social media account.
Hokuke believes that complicated law formulations often act as a barrier for people to access their rights, and hence laws are often misunderstood. There is a lot of daunting and sometimes false information on different laws, causing confusion and alienating Jordanians from the legal system. This however, is something Hokuke wants to change. Rather than accepting the status quo and surrendering to the common perception that the power of legal action only lies with certain people, every person in Jordan should view the law and the legal system as a potential ally.
To demonstrate this, each video Hokuke produces starts with vox pop asking people on the city streets what they know about certain laws. Afterwards, a member of Hokuke explains the actual meaning of the law and its implications, and how it relates to your rights. To ensure as many people as possible have access to their information, Hokuke has put subtitles in English (for non Arab residents and workers) as well as inserted sign language in the videos.
“Many people are simply not aware of their rights”, says Rahme, “I know a single mum who thought she had to give up her job, because there was no one to look after her child while the schools were closed due to Covid 19, as a result of the defence laws. But she didn’t know that in labour law there is a right that protects her and her child from having to make such decisions, and she would have been allowed to work from home - for the same wage as before - during this time. This unawareness is what we want to change”. Another current issue circulating around Jordan is the recent “cyber law”. This law increases the probability of making statements about political opinions posted on social media punishable by law. It was met with big apprehension and anger by the Jordanian population. Many saw it as a violation of freedom of expression. As a result, the fear of expressing opinions online grew. Hamza, Rahme and the team recognised this issue and created a video to explain the issue to its community. The cyber law was passed because social media platforms were continuously gaining more popularity, whilst remaining largely unregulated. With growing popularity and applications also came increased hate speech and fake news. “We decided to make a video showing which kind of statements could have negative legal consequences, and we showed alternatives on how you could formulate the statement so that it is not against the law”, explains Rahme. For example: Criticising official staff or a public figure could be considered defamation, but it depends on how one expresses the criticism. As the video explains, “Criticising objectively, meaning criticising the responsibilities of the figure, rather than his or her personal life, is within the means of your legal rights.” Hokuke wants to avoid people becoming legally accountable due to simply being unaware.
All topics Hokuke chooses to work on are highly relevant and current in Jordan. “We decide on the topics based on what we hear as issues on the streets” explains Hamza, “and based also on personal experiences. For example, we are currently in the process of registering Hokuke as an organisation, and this is a lengthy process. We are all figuring it out as we go. But we are also learning a lot about it. We want to also make a video, a step by step guide for other initiatives, so they can register as an organisation as well”. Or copyright law: Emad experienced first-hand how someone stole his idea and consequently researched copyright infringement. To spare others with this injustice and empower people who have experienced similar issues, Hokuke created a video on how people can protect their intellectual property.
While I am writing this article, Hokuke is already planning its next season of videos, trying to figure out better ways to reach more people. Current ideas circulate around divorce laws, and how women can protect themselves as well as financial laws. It's truly inspiring to listen to these four people and their approach to empower people. “We want people to know that they can use the law to their advantage, that they have rights, and that they can identify and shape their legal circumstances” concludes Rahme “We are very proud of what we have already achieved, but of course there is so much more to do! Hopefully in the future, when people are more aware of the laws, they will start to also shape the laws and contribute in changing or adding laws that aid towards a just society”. And as of that moment, I can’t help but to think of the law as a peaceful weapon for the people in this country.
We often think of peace as a direct harmonious interaction between people. Engaging in dialogue and building a relationship to one another. But who said relationships had to be between people only? If Hokuke continues to succeed, we might witness a society with a vivid relationship with its legal system, shaping and forming it to ensure a peaceful future in this country.