Oman’s record on women’s rights is better than those of its GCC neighbours. But while female lives have improved, the prospects of marriage and motherhood still predominate, and the faces of most professionals and politicians are male. Team Y examines how far women have come, and how much distance is yet left to go.
Oman is not the richest country in the GCC region and may not have the highest levels of economic growth.
But there is one area in which the Sultanate has evolved further than its neighbours, and that is in terms of gender equality.
Today, the term refers to how the roles of women and men in society are perceived.
But the Sultanate has been at the forefront of women empowerment for centuries now in the GCC – and many may be unaware of this.
Oman has even been ruled by a woman: Sayyida Moza bint Ahmed bin Said al Busaidi.
While she only assumed the throne temporarily, she was known to be the mastermind that shaped the political and economic structure of Oman from 1806 to 1856 – and more importantly, was also the protector of Muscat from foreign threats.
In short, it was her resilience that paved the way for the Muscat that we see today.
In the eyes of one teacher, though, Sayyida Moza was more than a ruler. She turned out to be her inspiration and role model.
Salma bint Salim al Kharusi fumbles for words to describe her love for Oman, His Majesty, and her idol – Sayyida Moza. She claims to be one of the few women who experienced Oman’s far-reaching attitude first-hand.
“Omani women are blessed. They’re blessed when compared with those girls from other countries – even those in the west face a strong wave of competition among other women themselves,” she says.
The 88-year-old teacher from the Al Saidiya School may have hung up her cloak two decades ago but her memory is as sharp as a tack, and she recollects how Oman has always maintained and upheld gender equality.
“I remember the days when I had just taken up the role of an English teacher. I was the centre of attraction – and all the men were stunned by my language skills. Not many women spoke in English then and no one could even have imagined seeing a woman wear a burqa to school and teach students English,” she says, smiling.
“Work was never a burden – and I never felt like I was ever challenged. It [a job] wasn’t even hard to find, and my English would have allowed me to work in government jobs or even privately if I had wanted to,” she says, as she taps her hands on her husband’s shoulder in laughter.
She then looks at him and says: “He spent more time unemployed than I did.”
He nods in agreement, and then Salma then gets serious.
“This is what gender equality is. It isn’t a word I use often here in Oman or raise my voice to advocate. But, in my eyes, gender equality is achieved when women can do tasks and achieve laurels in what they want to do – and what men have been doing for centuries,” she explains.
Her idea is in line with that of the United Nations, which describes gender equality as “the state of equal ease of access to resources and opportunities regardless of gender, including economic participation and decision-making; and the state of valuing different behaviours, aspirations and needs equally, regardless of gender.”
“Arab women, especially those in Oman, have a great advantage on their side. They’re respected in all forms of life – be it at work or in schools.
“While several Muslim countries adopt strict laws against the women of their countries to chain them down, they now accept them with love and gratitude.
“The word ‘accept’ that I used upsets me, because that seems to be the norm in Arab culture. They’re only slowly being able to take up tasks that men would do years ago.
“For instance, in Bahrain, women have only been allowed to vote and stand in national elections since 2002; and in Saudi Arabia, they were only allowed to have driving licences starting this year. These were all rights that those of us here in Oman were enjoying for decades.”
She’s right, too. For instance, in 1994, the Sultanate became the first Gulf monarchy to give the women the right to vote.
All of this is reassuringly positive in a region that has long been known for female oppression. But there are still other concerns to consider.
For example, is suffrage and a place in the parliament enough to define women’s roles as leaders in Oman? And more importantly, are countries in the GCC, including Oman, really taking steps to create an equitable environment for women and men to share space without discrimination – or is it all propaganda to come up smelling of roses in the international media?
While Oman maintains a low-profile in mainstream media on this matter, countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been known to push for positive publicity.
For instance, the UAE newspaper Gulf News’, headlines on March 11, 2017 read: ‘UAE leads the way in GCC gender equality’.
While the story was in-depth on how both women and men were vital to achieving the UAE’s political goals, as women in the nation reportedly held 33 per cent leadership roles in the year, Omani life-coach and entrepreneur, Aisha al Barwani raises some serious questions.
Also read: Are women treated equal to men in Oman?
She asks us: “How can countries in the GCC say that they’re gender equal when rape victims are arrested based on ‘lack of evidence’ (?)”
“There are certain double standards that exist within our society today. I cannot say that I’m oppressed, or in any way, burdened by my gender. I’m a single woman and entrepreneur myself. But, we need to polish our thinking and mindset to accommodate the women of today’s generation.
“These are strong, independent, and self-sufficient women – and when they see countries pushing propaganda articles, we’ll see right through it.”
Aisha’s point is proven correct when a quick research reveals how a Norwegian woman, and Qatari expat, was arrested for “partaking in extramarital affairs” when she was reportedly raped by her colleague during a business trip to the UAE.
While the accused (who was subsequently proven guilty) rapist – a married Sudanese man – was handed a 13-month jail sentence, the woman was also sent to jail and her passport confiscated for being present during the act.
This led to a public outcry – and it was then up to the Norwegian embassy to bail her out. Nevertheless, she was deported, and had to return to Norway. She was also fired by her Qatari employer.
In an agitated tone, Aisha says: “This is against human rights. No one who has ever been traumatised by such an act should ever go through that – but it did happen… and in the GCC. So, how can we say that this region is gender-neutral?”
We speak to our source (who wishes to remain anonymous) at the Royal Oman Police (ROP) to understand whether or not the laws governing such gruesome acts differ in Oman and UAE. He tells us: “The laws governing sexual acts, including rapes, in Oman are very grave – and strict action will be taken on the offender.
“He or she will be jailed for the assault for a period no less than five years and no more than 15 years, and will also be fined RO5,000 as a fine.
“The number of rape cases reported to us is considerably less – and it’s because such acts are seen as a taboo and women fear that they would be jailed, too.
“But they will not be jailed.
“The accused will be called in for interrogation and we will not remand the offender if they are found innocent. Only when a woman is found to be falsely accusing another person will she be arrested. Until then, she will always be given the benefit of doubt,” he says.
“If a woman is afraid to reach out to the police, she can also request to speak with a female officer so that she can be more comfortable. We will always have them ready to take up calls and assist you.
He then adds: “Women are the lifeline of our society, and if they begin feeling that the law or the cultures aren’t supporting their cause, then we have failed as law enforcers.
“Also, the ROP, as a government entity, is very supportive of women – and a good sign that we’re now witnessing is that more Omani women – alongside the already strong female force – are expressing interest in joining us.”
Policewomen aren’t exclusive to the Sultanate, as all GCC countries have female officers. Even Saudi Arabia is expected to see women traffic officers join government forces soon.
But, Oman made history when the ROP appointed a senior female police officer, Lieutenant Colonel Shaikha bint Ashour al Hambasiyah, to oversee the operations at the Al Wattayah police station.
And that’s not all.
In Oman, as of the end of 2017, women made up 41.5 per cent of government employees – and more importantly, had equal pay (as per the National Centre for Statistics and Information). In total, women workers made up 138,716 of the total working population in the Sultanate in 2016, while the numbers stood at 135,000 in the same year in the UAE.
The statistics are certainly reassuring when compared to other GCC countries but are they telling the full story?
As it turns out, no.
In reality, an astounding 63 per cent of all job seekers in the Sultanate, and 62 per cent in the UAE, are women. This means more women are on the lookout for a job every year, and moreover, are failing to find work.
Due to restrictions, we can only approach interviewees here in Oman. And, Amal al Khindi, a 26-year-old Omani post-graduate degree holder from the London School of Business and Finance in the UK, says that she has failed to find a suitable job for over two years.
She tells us of her ordeal: “While the statistics that are published by the media are all very colourful, our lives here are not. There are several of us who have split up from our families for years, studied abroad and have come back to earn a living.
“But companies don’t want to take us. While many of them prefer hiring expats, I’ve also noticed that they’d prefer Omani men over us women. The only places where we’re hired without any hesitation are for secretarial, receptionist, promotional, and modelling jobs.
“While they come with their own set of challenges, it’s incredibly wicked of them to generalise women as incapable of holding other positions. My aim would be to try for the position of a junior level marketing executive – but even then, the hiring managers ask us why we wouldn’t want to take up a ‘simpler’ job.
“My last interview was conducted by an Omani lady from a leading petrochemical company, and she couldn’t believe that I was applying for such a position. Her words stung me: ‘You’re very young and are figuring out what you want as a career. What if you wake up tomorrow and want to quit, or get married?’”
“That’s when I realised that the greatest challenge a woman faces in her field is her gender. Along with being a woman comes several stereotypes, and that’s what holds her down. I’m not having any of that. I gave up on my job search after that interview and decided to draw up plans for my own company – an advertising agency.
“It is now my challenge to become the best businesswoman in Oman. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth – but I am surely not going to let that stop me.”
That said, it’s not just women like Amal that face oppression past their schooling. One of Aisha’s patients, 19-year-old Laila – who willingly opens about her struggles at home – says: “I finished my [high] school last year and wanted to go to university.
“I had drawn up plans to move to Seeb, and take up a course in Art and Culture at the Sultan Qaboos University. However, the plan was immediately scotched by my father. He said that the ‘responsible’ thing to do was to get married.
“It was like my whole life came to a stop. A man that I adored with my life had just – out of pressure from our relatives – suggested that I get married. At first, I didn’t think much of it, but as time went by, I realised that things were getting more serious.
“They were even asking me to meet potential grooms. It was too much for me.
So, in the June of 2018, she ran away from home – vowing never to return.
“I didn’t know what to do but I just stayed with a few friends. That’s also when I met Aisha (the life-coach).”
Laila has since been reunited with her parents, but after strict orders by her grandparents and uncles, she has been asked not to pursue further studies or work.
Despite that, she secretly teaches young children how to play the guitar. She also charges a small amount for her services.
Aisha weighs in: “Among all the GCC countries, Omani women experience the most freedom. They can dress in their own way, spend time with their friends, opt to live their own lives, and do what pleases them. However, there are cultural restrictions that tie us down – and that’s where things take a turn.
“So, everything that we are entitled to is flushed down the drain; that’s one side of the story. On the other hand, though, there’s another great hindrance: oneself.”
She then elaborates: “There are women growing up in society who are lucky enough to experience the art of freedom. So, they would not be held down by their families and can chase their dreams.
“But, what upsets me is that their dreams aren’t real. And bear with me when I say this: they all want to become social media influencers and fashionistas. It’s all a numbers’ game – and it sucks them into an abyss.
“That’s not a terrible thing – but it does lead several down a very dark path. Taking photos of oneself, posting them online and then striking a great deal of likes; that’s what this is all about. So, to strike the perfect photo, these women begin to experiment on their bodies from a very young age.
“Some families are even supportive of this. I’ve counselled girls as young as 12 and 14 who have had cosmetic surgery to fuel their social media desires. These women quickly enter the limelight, create waves, and then¬ disappear.
“This can lead them into a spiral of depression, to begin using narcotics, or even begin entering a darker alley to make money. Some of my patients do go through that.
“Oman, being the country that it is, needs to begin implementing counselling sessions for women from a young age so that they can be trained and moulded to follow a path that’s right for them.
“They say that the price of freedom is death – and that could very well be the case here.”
When we raise some of these concerns with our earlier interviewee Salma al Kharusi, she nods her head, pauses for a second, and says: “Aisha is right. What this country needs are women with dreams – and dreams that are big enough to create a sense of unity among each other so as to feel like they’re all working towards the betterment of their country… and ultimately themselves.
“Flaunting your beauty and making money out of it is one thing, but doing so because of peer pressure or the need for attention is another.
“Women in the GCC have only slowly started receiving the support from their countries and we still have much to prove. And the fact that a country like the Sultanate – that has long been at the forefront of gender equality in the GCC – also has much to work on before it can deem itself gender-neutral is testament enough that we’re only starting an uphill battle.
“Maybe, on the face of it, we’ve achieved so much here in terms of productivity at our homes and at work in such a short time, but only time will tell how all our efforts will impact on our societies in the future.
“We’ve long been blessed to be bearers of the future. So, it’s only fair that we enjoy equal rights as our sons. But when will we get there? That’s something I assure you I can’t see in my lifetime.”