As Wafa Bani Mustafa commands a circle of male parliamentarians in an informal chat before a Jordanian parliament session, a male colleague looking on points to her saying “I call her the Iron Lady”.
In her third term as a member of parliament, Bani Mustafa knows how to get her point across with her powerful, unmistakable voice and accompanying hand gestures that get more animated as she discusses women’s rights.
“I am a fighter … I don’t stop,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview at her sister’s house in her home town of Jerash just north of the capital Amman.
Her most recent, high-profile victory was in August when Jordanian lawmakers voted to abolish a law that let rapists off the hook if they married their victims – a change spearheaded by Bani Mustafa since 2013.
She said parents often agreed to such marriages to minimize “family shame”, but she said no girl should be “presented as a gift” to her rapist.
“(It was) the second time I (ever) cried in the parliament … I felt like I was a mother again – it’s my baby,” said Bani Mustafa recalling the day the law changed.
Bani Mustafa always dreamt of being a leader and as a young girl ran in elections for student council in Jerash.
She ended up becoming a lawyer but made her leadership ambitions a reality in 2010 when she became the then youngest member of parliament representing Jerash governorate and determined to ensure women’s issues were put centre stage.
Bani Mustafa, 38, said being part of a group representing lawyers in Jerash governorate motivated her to join politics.
“This was my first experience in serving and representing people … (and) I found that I (was) capable of doing something for them,” said Bani Mustafa.
The city of Jerash, famous for its Roman ruins and known for its olive groves and fruit orchards, has a population of more than 230,000 in a country with 9.5 million people, according to local figures. This includes nearly 660,000 Syrian refugees, according to the latest UN figures.
Atop Jerash’s lush rolling hills, Bani Mustafa and her husband raise their two sons, aged 11 and nine, with her love of her children shining through as she playfully banters with them.
However, her mood turns serious when she talks about balancing motherhood and political life, which she believes wouldn’t be an issue if she was a man.
“I know that even within public service I am creating a better mother for them who can provide them with something better,” she said.
Before Bani Mustafa leaves home for her hour-long commute to Amman from Jerash she always makes sure there are two books in her bag – the Jordanian constitution and parliament’s bylaws.
She uses these as weapons when someone tries to interrupt her as she refuses to let anyone stand in her way.
“Believe me, you don’t want to be,” she said, laughing.
The determined lawmaker describes herself as someone who is never in the “grey”, having strong views on issues she is passionate about.
This can range from her push to amend Jordan’s nationality law so children of Jordanian mothers married to non-Jordanians can get citizenship, to ensuring that sexual harassment is made a crime in the penal code.
Bani Mustafa has also fought for women facing divorce.
“In Jordan and the Arab world women in politics should focus on women’s rights, and not be ashamed to focus on women’s rights,” she said. “I can’t see the things around me and be silent.”
In parliament Bani Mustafa is in her element, navigating a sea of mostly male MPs through various conversations, telling jokes but making her point when the discussion turns serious.
Women are the minority in the room with 20 women in the 130 seat House of Representatives of which 15 are reserved by a quota. Bani Mustafa tried to increase this quota last year to 23 seats, but was voted down.
There are also nine women in the 65 seat Senate.
It is important that women are present in all positions, all places, including decision-making and leadership positions,
said Bani Mustafa.
The politician is on a committee for sustainable development and believes in working with her female colleagues to understand the United Nations’ latest set of global goals – and for her male colleagues to know more about goal five, she said.
The fifth of the 17 goals is aimed at achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls by 2030, which she said will be easier to accomplish with everyone on the same team.
“If you give women the chance I think they will be more creative and solve more problems in Jordan,” she said, adding that there was a long way to go for women’s rights in the kingdom where a third of women are unemployed.
“We don’t invest in their skills, capabilities, their education. This sort of thing isn’t just a loss for women, it is a loss for the whole country.”