The Omani feminist movement: Between the hammer of government and the anvil of society

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In December 2020, the Omani public were shocked to hear that a young Omani woman in the flower of her youth, Zuwaina al-Hinai, had committed suicide. The news started trending on Twitter, with large numbers of people tweeting on both sides, either sympathetically or in condemnation. Particularly controversial was the message Zuwaina left behind, explaining her reasons for ending her life and how she had reached the point of despair.

Zuwaina’s case raised a number of questions about the domestic violence practised by many families against their daughters in Oman. There is no law to protect young women and girls from violence at the hands of their parents, and the authorities (such as the Ministry of Social Development) still do not provide a hotline to protect or rescue victims of such violence.

From the evidence and documents we have received, the Omani Centre for Human Rights (OCHR) has been able to establish that the main reason for Zuwaina’s suicide was the violence she suffered from her family – not a state of depression caused by reading [Egyptian feminist] Nawal El Saadawi’s books or sharing feminist ideas with her female colleagues, as a lot of people have tried to persuade the public.

The Omani Penal Code allows parents to use violence against their children if they are acting “in good faith”. Article 44 states:

An action committed in good faith in enjoyment of a lawful right or in performance of a lawful duty shall not be deemed a crime.  It shall be deemed enjoyment of a right when:

(a) parents and those in loco parentis chastise under-age children within the limits recognised by Sharia or statute law.

Such violence, however, extends even to adult women and girls above the age of 18. According to complaints notified to the OCHR, victims often go to the police or public prosecution to make complaints, but their complaints are usually rejected, and the young women are advised not to try to get into a legal tangle with their parents! Several young women have also told the Centre that they tried to contact the Ministry of Social Development to plead for protection, but got no reply.

The Centre has also seen an organised attack and defamation campaign on social media seeking to discredit women and girls active in the feminist movement or even on women’s rights. At the forefront of this organised attack are a number of high-profile figures in Omani society – intellectuals, journalists and either current or former officials in thrall to the government.  A lot of girls have chosen, as a result of cyber bullying and direct attacks on them, to back down and drop out of public sight, either for their own safety or because of pressure on them from their families.

The OCHR also notes that the government’s reluctance to grant the rights that feminists and women’s rights activists are calling for, or to provide young women and girls with the necessary protection from family violence, contributes directly to cases of depression and despair in girls and young women, which may lead them to think seriously about either leaving the country or harming themselves.

“I’ve tried, and I’ve tried to stop the pain, but I couldn’t, it’s unbearable. If you were in my place, you would understand. And now I need to stop it. I’m worn out, and it’s time for me to rest.”

          – Excerpt from Zuwaina’s last message before she killed herself

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