Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Women's Rights in Oman

Published March 27, 2011 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view the article.

Following my column two weeks ago on International Women’s Day, today I'm tackling something closer to heart… women's rights.

Oman has been a pioneer in the Gulf when it comes to women's rights. His Majesty the Sultan has worked hard to guarantee equal rights and opportunities for women. Forty years ago there were no schools for girls in Oman. Today, there are more women than men enrolled in institutions of higher education. Our participation in the labour force is also increasing on a daily basis.

However, like most countries we have our issues when it comes to women. Although the Basic Law of Oman prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, women still face legal discrimination under the personal status law of Oman.

It's a sore subject because Oman's interpretation of the Islamic Sharia law is what controls the personal status law in all matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody. I have great respect for the Sharia law, but I think people should have a choice.

It bothers me that it’s legally possible in Oman for any male member of my family to marry me off without my consent. No woman I know in Dhofar has ever signed any marriage papers.

The men of the family ‘arrange’ it all. It’s also irritating to know that a husband can grab two strangers off the street and make them sign a divorce document in court as witnesses. The court doesn't even bother to make sure the woman gets a copy of the divorce paper.

It’s legally possible in Oman for a man to divorce his wife with two witnesses, then go home and pretend nothing happened. Who's going to tell her? There are definitely gaps in the system, and according to my sources some practices tend to vary by province.

The reason this issue isn’t discussed publicly is because very few men abuse their privileges when it comes to marriage and divorce, but that does not in any way justify these discriminatory practices.

As far as I'm concerned, every human has the right to be in control of their own life. Obtaining a woman’s signature on her marriage and divorce papers should be mandatory.

Another issue that drives me up the wall is that a man can legally take on an additional wife without informing his first wife. I know for a fact that many men abuse this right. The personal status law of Oman is very vague about polygamy.

It only specifies that a man should treat all his wives equally. It also bothers me that inheritance laws of Oman discriminate against women. Again, I think people should have a choice.

Several international human rights' reports state that women in Oman are legally restricted from travelling abroad without the permission of a male relative. From my experience, I know this is not true.

However, according to my humble knowledge, a male relative can stop a woman from leaving the country if he wishes. I have searched high and low but cannot find a legal document confirming this. If you know anything about this, please share.

Yet another sore subject is marriage to foreigners. It is nearly impossible for an Omani woman to marry a foreigner. There are seven billion people on this planet, but my country tells me I'm only allowed to marry one of the several hundred thousand men who hold an Omani passport.

In the rare case where approval is granted, the woman faces an even bigger battle involving child custody and the ability to sponsor her own kids in Oman. The ironic part is that if you have a child from an 'unknown father', then that child automatically gets citizenship. What is wrong with this picture?

It is worth noting that Oman is one of the very few remaining UN members that has not fully ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Oman presented a report to CEDAW in October 2011 but stipulated reservations on several issues including women’s right to move freely, granting nationality to children with Omani mothers, and other CEDAW provisions that are not in accordance with Sharia laws.

There are a few other issues that I would like to highlight, but I’m running out of space. Stay tuned for another feminist outburst!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Role of Women (International Women's Day)

Published March 13, 2012 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view article on the newspaper's website.

Last Thursday the world observed International Women's Day. Rallies, seminars, and parties were held around the globe to celebrate women's achievements and to address their struggles. In Salalah, the occasion slipped by without much notice. I celebrated quietly at a barbecue under the full moon in the mountains of Dhofar with friends.

The past year has been an interesting one for women around the globe. Some countries took a step forward; others took ten steps backwards.

Arab women were publicly shaping their countries and fighting for democracy in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya during the Arab Spring. Many are still fighting to this very day in countries like Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Furthermore, three remarkable women were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

On the other hand, just last week Afghanistan's highest Islamic authority issued an edict saying that women were worth less than men - a statement released by Karzai's office and then endorsed by the president.

"Men are fundamental and women are secondary," it said, adding women should avoid "mingling with strange men in various social activities such as education, in offices and other aspects of life". We are secondary now, are we? I'm glad Hamid Karzai is not my president!

His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said has always been an avid supporter of women in Oman. We are truly blessed to have such an enlightened leader.

From the very first day he took over from his father in a bloodless coup over 40 years ago, he has been encouraging Omani women to empower themselves and become active members of society. In fact, in Oman we get to celebrate Omani Women's Day on October 17 as well as International Women's Day on March 8.

What's it like being a woman in Oman? I get asked this question a lot. Foreigners with very little knowledge of Oman tend to think we live isolated lives like women in Saudi Arabia simply because we're next door neighbours. They couldn't be more wrong!

Oman has taken significant measures to ensure women's rights in most areas. Women in Oman can work, drive, vote, own property and hold office. We also have equal opportunities when it comes to education.

When I was working on my undergraduate degree here in Oman, more than half of the students enrolled at my university were females. For a town as conservative as Salalah, this was quite something.

However, like most women around the world we have our share of struggles. Having two female ministers and a handful of ambassadors doesn't mean all Omani women are empowered. Many forms of discrimination still exist against women in Oman.

Drive into any village or small town outside the capital and observe how the women live. There is a lot to be done. First and foremost, women in rural areas need to know what their rights are.

The main issue we face in places like Dhofar is society's attitude towards women. The majorities of men down south disapprove of working women and prefer their women to be at home where no other male can see them. Naturally, the glass ceiling is also a big issue for working women in the public and private sectors.
There are also some aspects of the law that discriminate against women in Oman especially when it comes to marriage, divorce and inheritance. They aren't major issues but they matter a lot. I will save that argument for my next column.

Today I am focusing on the positive and paying tribute to all the incredible women in Oman who have helped shape this country and who continue to prove themselves on a daily basis. Happy Women's Day!