Where can Omani women turn to address or discuss women’s issues? Despite the fact that there are more than 60 Omani women’s associations registered with the Ministry of Social Development, no independent body exists to advocate for women’s issues or defend their rights at the national or local level. Omani women are on their own as they face deep contradictions in terms of their rights and representation.

During Oman’s session at the Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights on January 21, 2021, Oman’s state delegation highlighted national achievements in gender justice and women’s rights. However, the delegation ignored some entrenched discriminatory laws and policies while justifying others. Oman’s Minister of Justice and Legal Affairs Abdullah Al-Saeedi justified discrimination in conferring citizenship based on gender, saying Omani law specifies that only fathers can confer Omani nationality on their children. One issue that did not even come up was chronic discrimination in higher education—in which male students are admitted to Sultan Qaboos University with lower grades than females—which illustrates the pervasive social challenges faced by Omani women.

In Oman, there are two groups who speak about women’s rights, but they do not share a common goal. One group supports all government policies toward women and does not criticize discriminatory laws or traditions that deny women justice and equal rights. The other group criticizes unfair laws and policies, and calls on the state to adopt more just and equitable practices. The critics face many obstacles, including accusations from high-ranking officials that they fail to acknowledge the state’s efforts. Critics also are disorganized and divided, a challenge compounded by the opposition they encounter within society, often based on claims that critics serve Western or external agendas incompatible with the customs and traditions of Omani society.

Critics also are often not covered by government and traditional media outlets, who instead cover those who do not critique the status quo and therefore enjoy social and official immunity. Meanwhile critical voices are confined to social media to share views and ideas that challenge the norms and cultural structures of the country. Such voices not only present new ideas and controversial views, criticizing the authority of the state and society’s control over women, but also criticize those who advocate and promote discriminatory policies. 

Using these different platforms, the two groups discussing women’s issues struggle for public opinion. The pro-government group argues that Omani women have obtained all their rights, and the government is making efforts to push women into leadership positions as well as the education and labor market. Meanwhile, the critics argue that despite what has been achieved, the rights of Omani women are still incomplete due to laws and policies that enshrine social and cultural values that afford males a higher status than females. Laws and policies designate males as heads of families and grant them rights that are not afforded to women, such as the right to pass their nationality to their children. Moreover, the Personal Status Law contains articles discriminating between men and women: women cannot marry without a male guardian, and a marriage is not complete without two male witnesses. In addition to the discriminatory articles in the nationality law and the Personal status law, Oman has expressed reservation toward in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), such as reservations on articles 1, 9, and 11 related to the Nationality law and articles 1,2, 15, and 16  to the Personal Status law. In the Universal Periodic Review 2021, the Omani Minister of Justice and Legal Affairs indicated that the Sultanate is constantly reviewing its laws to be consistent with the international conventions that Oman signed and ratified, and he noted in particular that the Omani Nationality Law is one of these laws—something that women in Oman should watch.

Omani women’s associations (OWAs), spread across every district of the country, are major actors that could play a substantial role in advancing the representation of women and voices expressing their views. Given the restrictions on OWAs, critical perspectives are largely absent from their discussions and decisions—despite their supposed role in offering a voice to Omani women in all communities. Regardless, it is striking in this context that many of the female candidates for the Shura Council elections came from local OWAs. Their direct and personal knowledge of women’s issues stems from the challenges in daily life as widowers, divorcees, or suffering in alimony cases. And despite the moderately increased participation of women in the labor market, these female leaders will draw on their experiences in difficulties accessing justice as well as unequal treatment under the law in labor as well as family cases. 

Given their official status, OWAs are sometimes seen as failing to represent actual women’s issues, seemingly they are concerned with superficial challenges distracting from true progress. While this accusation might be true, the blame should not fall on the heads of associations or the members. Rather, the Omani NGO law should be held responsible. In Articles 4 and 5, the law restricts the areas of work for OWAs. It explicitly withholds the freedom to engage with issues that the government may consider inappropriate. Given these associations fall directly under the supervision of the Ministry of Social Development, and they receive subsidies from the ministry, government oversight and restrictions diminish their capacity for influence and popular reputation. 

In general, when considering the role of civil society in Oman, one cannot ignore the extreme limitations it faces. The government has the authority to give or withhold official designation as a civil society organization, and laws restrict activities of all organizations, including the OWAs. Recognition of any association or body as a civil organization requires approval from the government for it to be a legal NGO and thus to be able to conduct activities. In most cases, such licenses are not granted to anyone who is expected to pose a challenge to the government’s authority. The limits imposed on freedom of opinion and expression in the country, further compound the restriction on the NGOs’ movement and activities. 

Due to all the restrictions on civil society, the political representation of women is of particular importance to improving the conditions of women, demanding their rights, and nullifying discriminatory laws. Therefore, the number of women in the Shura Council, the State Council, and the executive government should be increased. The last ministerial reshuffle, announced in August 2020, keeps the number of women in decision-making positions consistent: 3 female ministers out of 26 ministers in the government cabinet, and 3 female deputy ministers. Meanwhile, there are only 15 women in the 85-member State Council and two in the 86-member Shura Council.

So far, the Omani government has not established a quota for womens’ representation in critical decision making for a and in fact has devoted efforts to convincing Omani women that a quota is not in their interests. Nor is there a national strategy for women with specific goals, aside from a broad "Social Work Strategy 2016-2025," which includes children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and women. 

In Oman and all the Gulf states, political decisions that comes from the highest level are the most effective in empowering women. Citizens of these rentier societies are accustomed to receiving gifts, favors, laws, and policies from their ruling elites, and they are accustomed to accommodating authority in many ways, including obeying rulers and refraining from criticism out of fear. In this context, women in Oman were able, in part, to exercise their right to vote and run for election for the first time in 1994, before all other Gulf women, and this (albeit partial) suffrage was made possible by an executive political decision. In Kuwait, this unfolded in 2005 with the then-emir interfering with a political decision to grant women their political right, after the Majlis al-Umma (National Assembly) failed to do so several times. Therefore, the quickest way to advance women’s rights at this stage is via a high-level political decision rather than via pressure from women’s rights activists and human rights defenders. The only way to enhance political empowerment of women and increasing their representation in elected and appointed councils or the executive government will be through strong political leadership and will. 

Since Sultan Haitham took power on January 11, 2020, the visibility of his wife, Ahed Al-Busaidi has been a welcome change. On some occasions and celebrations, al Busaidi appears as the First Lady—a first for an Omani woman, which has generally been well received. The First Lady honored several women on Omani Women’s Day, October 17, 2020, but did not indicate in her ceremonial speech what could (or should) be done regarding the status of women in the country through special interests or specific aspirations for her own policies. As Oman’s first First Lady, Ahed Al-Busaidi, can play a pivotal and essential role in representing women’s issues, pushing them into the spotlight, and placing them on the government's policy priorities list. Whether she will actually do so, however, or even if she would like this more influential role or would prefer only a ceremonial role, is as yet unclear.

Rafiah Al Talei is the acting Editor-in-Chief for Sada in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, follow her on Twitter @raltalei.