International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global occasion celebrating the achievements of women in areas such as politics and economics. The United Nations began commemorating it in 1975, and two years later the UN General Assembly formalised it as an annual observance.
The UN says that globally 2.7 billion women have been denied access to the same choice of jobs as men. As of 2019, fewer than 25 per cent of parliamentarians around the world were women, and one in three women still experience gender-based violence.
Among the problems women face worldwide today, the UN highlights the following points:
- Despite some progress, real change has been agonizingly slow for the majority of women and girls in the world.
- Multiple obstacles remain unchanged in law and in culture.
- Many women work more and earn less than men.
- Many women experience multiple forms of violence at home and in public spaces.
- There is a significant threat of rollback of hard-won feminist gains.
Some observers consider women in Oman to enjoy greater rights and privileges than in other Arab countries. In reality, and indeed in law, they are much like women elsewhere in the Arab world, in that they do not have gender equality and the same rights and privileges as men.
In this briefing paper the Omani Centre for Human Rights would like to draw attention to a number of points that represent a challenge to or violation of women’s rights in Oman.
- Women in Oman still face many more restrictions than men, since the country’s laws, based on Islamic Sharia law, give men higher status and more rights than women.
- Article 17 of Oman’s Basic Statute (constitution) prohibits gender-based discrimination, but there are parts of laws like the Personal Status Law and the Omani Penal Code that violate women’s rights.
- Although Article 7 of the Personal Status Law sets the minimum age for marriage at 18, Article 10 of the same law allows judges to authorise the marriage of underage girls if this is deemed to be in their best interests. Women, incidentally, are not allowed to work as judges.
- A man has the right under the Personal Status Law to be married to four women concurrently, while a woman’s duties to her husband include obeying his wishes.
- There is no statutory punishment for, or even legal definition of, marital rape in Omani law, since women have a duty to follow their husbands’ wishes.
- A mother is unable to obtain official documents relating to her children, such as passports or identity cards, unless authorised by the father, whereas the father is able to obtain these things without her.
- Mothers are denied custody of their children in the event of divorce.
- Girls living in student accommodation have their movements tightly restricted. They are not allowed in or out without permission from their legal guardian – and according to the Personal Status Law a guardian has to be male.
- Girls and young women have no protection from domestic violence in Oman. Article 44 of the Omani Penal Code even states that an act of violence towards an underage child “shall not be deemed a crime” so long as it is “committed in good faith”.
- Although Oman signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2006, it maintains reservations to a number of its provisions, such as the paragraph granting women equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children, which would mean giving an Omani woman the right to pass on her citizenship to her children if she is married to a non-Omani.
- There are many obstacles and legal complications for an Omani woman marrying a non-Omani man, whereas Omani men marrying non-Omani women enjoy certain advantages that make the process somewhat easier for them. Yet both men and women suffer the most blatant violation of their rights when it comes to marrying someone who is not an Omani citizen. Furthermore, a woman does not have the right to marry without permission of her male guardian, while men do not need such permission to get married.
- Men have the right to divorce their wives at any time without needing to give a reason, while women have to provide some justification for seeking divorce, such as the husband being absent for a specified period of time, or else it will not be granted. Women, moreover, are often treated harshly in the courts, and are subjected to humiliation and verbal abuse from judges under various pretexts, such as attempts at conciliation or to avoid depriving children of their fathers.
- Although the country’s Child Protection Law criminalises and penalises the practice of female genital mutilation, representatives of the official religious establishment in Oman, such as the Grand Mufti, continue to pronounce it lawful and even encourage it, without any intervention from the government.
The laws of Oman, and those responsible for them, do not respect women’s rights and indeed continue to violate them. The government’s excuse is always that the CEDAW provisions to which Oman has made reservations conflict with Sharia law, and fail to take account of the “special characteristics” of Muslim society that flow from it.
Meanwhile, the regime uses the ploy of appointing women to official positions to try to make it appear to the international community that it respects women’s rights!
“Change isn’t just about big headline moments, legal victories and international agreements,” says the UN. “The way we talk, think, and act every day can create a ripple effect that benefits everyone.”
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