Women in the judiciary: Oman

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Oman always likes to boast that it has made great strides in women’s rights, unlike the other Gulf states or the Arab world in general, yet women in Oman still find themselves facing many restrictions, whether for legal, religious or social reasons.

One of these restrictions is that no woman to date has been appointed as a judge, despite there being a plethora of women in senior legal positions such as public prosecutor or head of public prosecution.

Article 12 of the Basic Law of the State, Oman’s Constitution, states:

“Citizens are considered equal in taking up public employment according to the provisions of the Law.”

Likewise Article 17 bans gender-based discrimination.

Article 21 of the Judicial Authority Law, which sets out the criteria for appointment to judicial positions, does not specify a particular gender.

The Civil Service Law, issued by Royal Decree 120/2004, explicitly states that women should enjoy the same employment opportunities as men, as well as equal pay and benefits.

Oman has signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which stipulates that there should be no discrimination against women.

Compared with men, only a very small proportion of positions in legal institutions are held by women, no more than 20%.

Of the 34 members of the Omani Council of Ministers, only four – just 11% – are women; and women make up only 17% of the (unelected) Council of State.

But let’s take a look at some of the real obstacles that have thus far prevented women from becoming judges:

Politically, women are still just seen as window-dressing. The extent to which they can enter the political fray and hold political positions depends on the level of participation the government wants them to have in order to burnish its image abroad.

In religious terms, the issue is still shrouded in ambiguity, because there is a hadith related by Bukhari that says: “No people will ever prosper who make a woman their ruler.” Many prominent religious elders also agitate against women, saying that it is not permissible for them to do certain jobs, especially those that involve mixing with men.

Then there is the physiological argument put forward by some people, citing studies by Arab researchers, that the hormonal changes in women’s bodies are a fundamental obstacle to their holding positions as judges, because these will affect their mood and as a consequence their judgement.

And socially, the “honour” code is still a powerful force in Oman, where society sees the role of judges as men’s work, not something that women do: a woman’s place is in the home.

Having women in the judiciary and working as judges would be the best possible way to demonstrate that there is indeed no difference between them and men in any occupation. It might even be a step in the right direction towards developing the law with respect to women, and looking into the issues that affect them.

However the reluctance to date of the “lawmaker” in Oman to appoint women as judges or admit them to the judiciary is something that raises questions as to whether the “lawmaker” in Oman is afraid of a backlash from religious “leaders”, or whether it’s just a matter of taking the empowerment of women gradually!

How do you think women might change the judiciary, or the law generally, if they worked as judges?