Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state, and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence; to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence; and to promote reconciliation? The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...


The issue of female (dis)empowerment in the Middle East lies at the very core of the Arab-Islamic world’s contemporary troubles. While the marginalization, exploitation, and abuse of women as a result of sectarian and other forms of extremism harms the most vulnerable parts of society, it also holds back whole societies from being able to effectively confront severe challenges, including intractable conflict, entrenched and resurgent tyranny, and the compounding calamity of Covid-19. Most economists agree that significant levels of income inequality negatively impact economic growth and development, so why is it not commonly considered how significant inequality between genders might also diminish social and political outcomes? This essay explores this question of gender inequality and socio-political outcomes in the Sultanate of Oman and parses between the state, sect, and tribe to discuss the sources of reform and resistance to women’s empowerment.

The authoritarian and ostensibly secular state feminisms of countries such as pre-revolutionary Tunisia and Ba’athist Iraq did very little in the final analysis to advance the cause of gender equality and primarily exploited the issue as one of many regime maintenance strategies.[1] Ten years after new social and political forces were unleashed by the 2011 Arab uprisings — whether Islamist, secular nationalist, or counter revolutionary — the issue of gender parity remains as, if not more, vexed than any at any time previously. New paradigms need to be sought around the question of gender equality and political efficacy in the Arab-Islamic world. Until now most of the truly penetrative regional conversations around gender roles in society and politics in the Arab-Islamic world have in fact played out in the works of literary fiction rather than in the main threads of academic discourse. For example, the works of Egyptian writer Nawal El-Saadawi, Women at Point Zero, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, and The Fall of the Imam provoked intense political and philosophical debate about the status and role of women.[2] The Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh, who also lived in Egypt and the Arab Gulf, sparked questions around gender in sectarian conflict-stricken Lebanon and beyond with her 1986 book, The Story of Zahra, which was subsequently banned in several Middle Eastern countries.

For her part El-Saadawi railed against the entrenched social discourses regarding women in the Middle East, even when some voices tried to offer critical and ‘constructive’ criticism. For instance, in response to philosopher George Tarabishi’s suggestion that to win the gender war women must somehow transcend and annul that war, El-Saadawi replied: “how can women annul the war when they still have no political, military or social power?” … “[Tarabishi] would probably have us believe that women can stop the war through love, poetry and songs.”[3] The point is that women’s empowerment should not be read as some kind of essentially feminine antidote to the masculine problems of the world but rather, for very practical and universal reasons, there needs to be an equal burden across genders in terms of addressing political and social issues that infect the Arab-Islamic world. 

Some intellectual support for this proposition comes from unlikely sources. The nineteenth-century Syrian al-nahda activist ‘Abd al-Rahman Al-Kawākabī, admired by both authoritarian Arab nationalists and conservative Pan-Islamists alike, has often been misinterpreted and misappropriated. His most famous work was The Nature of Tyranny, which became (re)popularised in the Arab world in the wake of the stalled Arab uprisings and the global pandemic of 2020; here he posited that in order to escape the disease of tyranny

…it is necessary at first to revive the nation to feel the misery of tyranny, and then it should be encouraged to explore the basic political options that are available and most suitable to the situation and discuss them across all classes….[and] the objectives and the plan must be clearly declared according to the opinion of all.[4]

Whether his nineteenth-century mindset intended it or not, Al-Kawākibī’s claim suggests that effective political solutions requires the awareness and involvement of all of society. This can and should be read as including all genders, regardless of any universalist or cultural particularistic arguments.

Looking around the world today, a quick survey of the leadership of countries that have been most successful in tackling the Covid-19 challenge — Denmark, Finland, Germany, Taiwan, Iceland, and New Zealand — reveals one striking commonality: they all have female leaders. By contrast all the male-dominated leaderships of the Middle East, with the possible exception of Jordan, have struggled to contain the virus. Other cultural, political, and economic factors are of course in play, but the region can no longer afford to underutilize half of its human capital. 

The Sultanate of Oman is a critical, yet surprisingly under-observed case given the sheer speed of its transformation from ‘tradition’ to ‘modernity’ over the past half century. Oman provides a kind of fast-forwarded highlights reel of the impacts of social, economic, and political change in the Middle East. At the same time, in terms of immunity to sectarian and extremist elements, Oman continues to be somewhat of an outlier. Despite having levels of ethnic, religious, tribal, and sectarian sub-national diversity similar to those of countries such as Lebanon, Syria, or Iraq, Oman appears to maintain a kind of “immunity” against the ethno-sectarian afflictions of those countries.[5] Oman nonetheless faces severe challenges from a combination of budget deficits, youth unemployment, and whether or not the country can continue to transition smoothly from the half-century of rising modernity and prosperity under the former sultan, Qaboos bin Said (r. 1970 - 2020). During his rule, Sultan Qaboos gave heed to the value of gender equality as a foundation of nation-building in both his policies and rhetoric. Our question is whether Oman is subsequently doing better in its gender politics and whether this might place Oman in a better position to confront the challenges it faces?

Sultan Qaboos’ Nation-building Project

In its current geographic form and socio-political substance, the Sultanate of Oman is still in its youth. The modern Omani state is commonly associated with the rise to power via palace coup of the former sultan, Qaboos bin Said al-Said in 1970. Qaboos, with British help, managed to reverse the previous long period of instability and consolidated a robust absolute monarchy system by the mid-1970s.[6] A combination of amnesties, co-optation, and generous development programmes to previously rebellious regions and sub-national groups paved the way for a relatively broad consensus around the ensuing nation building project. The Qaboos regime became the cornerstone for all social, economic, and political transformation that occurred in the Sultanate over the following half century.[7]

Qaboos’s task was to weld together a rich and diverse country comprising many different religious, territorial, tribal, ethnic and sectarian identities;[8] a task, which by the time of his death, appeared largely complete. Qaboos sought to subordinate sub-national tendencies (without eliminating them) to a new ‘Omani’ nationalist impulse. The distribution of control and power throughout the various Ministries, government appointments, the military, police, and legislature was carefully calibrated to appease and invest diverse tribal, sectarian, regional and ethnic interests. This carving up the state in an implicit power-sharing arrangement among sub-national identities has, until now, immunized the Sultanate from any opening of the ethno-sectarian ‘Pandora’s Box.’ This successful integration relied heavily, however, on the economic foundations of Oman’s emergence as a rentier state in the 1970s. This is a key factor that casts a shadow of doubt upon the resilience of the young nation as it has been forced to diversify its economy at an uncomfortable rate from 2014 following the collapse of global oil prices. There is added urgency for economic transformation due to the global pandemic in 2020, which threatens to decimate the cheap expatriate labor-based portion of the economy.  

Oman’s Promise in Gender Politics

For centuries Oman was a closed book in terms of gender issues. An early glimpse into the cloistered world of elite Omani women, at least, was provided by Emily Ruete (née Salamah Bint Saïd), who published details of her life in the family harem of the Omani sultan in Zanzibar in the mid-nineteenth century.[9] Much later, another rare window into the lives of the ordinary Omani women came with the publication of the Man Booker International prize-winning book Celestial Bodies by Omani academic Jokha Alharthy in 2018.[10] Her novel portrayed a society propelled into ‘modernity’ at breakneck speed (slavery was only formally abolished in 1970) and the effect this had on families and women across generations straddling utterly different worlds.

From the start of his rule, Qaboos promised to improve the economic, political, educational, and social conditions of women. This fell within his overarching policy that placed Oman’s human capital as the main focus and engine for development. This policy, without doubt, positively impacted the status of women rights after years of restrictive, isolationist, and traditional inertia.[11] The rapid pace of change, drastic improvement in living standards, and restoration of Oman’s international standing raised the profile and popularity of Sultan Qaboos immensely into something akin to a “national hero.”[12] This provided political capital to push through progressive social policies in such areas as gender equality against resistance from traditional sectors.

Women’s issues therefore became one of the basic pillars of Oman’s human development. This was based on the principle that progress toward urbanized modernization cannot occur while half of society is stalled.[13] As a result, women were integrated into formal education after decades of male-only education. The number of schools in Oman was increased from three schools with fewer than 1,000 males to 1,124 schools for both genders in 2019.[14] The establishment of female schools continued parallel to male schools without discrimination, which led to a decrease in illiteracy rates among females from 85% in 1970 to 9.2% in 2013 — an achievement aided by the establishment of 90 dedicated female literacy centers by 2013.[15] The explosion of female education resulted in dramatic reductions in the social restrictions on women who were previously almost entirely confined to household duties. In a very short time, women found themselves engaged in public life, including in education and the labor force in both the public and private sectors. Another important factor is the policy of “Omanization,” which aims to replace expatriates with Omani nationals in different positions. This opened opportunities for women to join the workplace in place of foreign labor.[16] This policy may need to be accelerated with the exodus of expatriate workers due to the global pandemic in 2020.

Despite the support of the formal state institutions the emancipation of Omani women was not without limits. Modernity was imposed upon Omani society within a single generation, and society was still governed by customs and traditions that limit women from leaving their homes and mixing with men in ways not acceptable to the most segments of society. While the rapid development of the country brought profound pressures for a change in women’s status and the government provided legal rights for them to be involved in the public sphere, women faced resistance from the traditionalists who believe that women should be restricted to specific careers related to their ‘innate maternal role,’ such as teaching and nursing, and they did not accept women in leadership, political, and decision-making positions.

Legal Status of Omani Women

Oman’s Basic Law (1996) officially prohibits gender discrimination. Sultan Qaboos underlined the principle gender of equality when he decreed universal suffrage in 2002. Equal pay was legislated in the public and private sectors regardless of gender. The government’s commitment to women's issues was further underlined when the Sultanate ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2005. Article (12) of the Basic Law guarantees equality in appointments to public positions, Article (11) grants women the right to own property and access to financial services, and Royal Decree 87/84 of the Social Security Law gives women the right to a pension under specific circumstances where women are without adequate income.[17] Omani law is nonetheless grounded in Sharia and Islamic principles. For instance, Royal Decree number 35/2003 of the Omani Labor Law, asserted equality in the workplace but with special circumstances for women based on the ‘biological’ and ‘logical’ differences between women and men.

When it comes to the Personal Status Law, there is cause for concern. Women can be divorced without their knowledge and it is not mandatory for women to sign their marriage document.[18] Polygamy without informing the first wife is legally permitted. Inheritance laws are based on sharia, which discriminate on gender in apportioning estates. It is very difficult for Omani women to marry a foreigner without the permission of the state, which restricts their marriage choices; however, even if they were permitted to do so, the marriage’s offspring would not receive Omani citizenship.[19] Omani women also risk losing custody of their children if they decide to remarry. Finally, Omani women still face restrictions around their rights of movement. For example, university students must stay on campus and cannot freely move without the consent of her male guardian.

Gender Inequality in Oman: Sectarian or Tribal Roots?

Oman is divided into two main Islamic communities, the Ibādis and Sunnis, with a very small minority of Shi’a. While it is commonly assumed that the culture of religious toleration in Oman derives from Ibādism, across both main religious communities, the sultanate maintains deep-rooted patriarchal structures and perceptions regarding women's role within society. The domination of males over the hierarchal decision-making processes has slowed governmental efforts to equally engage women in public activities. Moreover, the outlook of men regarding women’s roles is deeply rooted in perceptions of inferiority. Many Omani men believe that women rank lower than they do in status and ability. Thus, they think that women are incapable of taking charge of complicated social, economic, and political issues. Although women enjoy full rights by law, society still considers them as newcomers to the public and semi-public milieus. This discriminatory outlook was shown clearly in the fortunes of graduating political science students from Sultan Qaboos University in 2018. The top ten graduates by cumulative grades point average were all females, yet none were immediately recruited by government agencies into full time employment.

Due to this resilient sociocultural marginalization, Omani women have leaned heavily on the support of the palace. Only via the former sultan’s direct appointment have women become ministers, ambassadors or members in the upper house of the parliament. Sustainable achievement of gender equality requires the collective acceptance of the society; this presents very specific challenges to Omani women. The effects of gendered sectarianism or tribalism are yet to be disposed of. In some rural regions and within some tribal families, women-related issues are considered as taboos that should not even be raised for discussion. In contrast, in the urban area of Muscat there are varied attitudes to gender issues.

Nonetheless, the gender divide and the vexed question of women's presence in the public sphere appears not to be related strongly to sectarian ideologies. This is possibly due to the successful “immunisation”, thus far, of Omani society from internal sectarianism and sectarian-related regional conflicts. The implicit power sharing and retention of traditional forces by Sultan Qaboos did however maintain the importance of tribes. It is telling that the more social weight and societal power a tribe has, the more restrictions female members of that tribe will have. This relates to gendered community boundaries, which are intertwined with a tribe’s sense of honour, morality and reputation. In addition, such practices are rooted in traditional culture and frame the way gendered, sectarian and ethnic relations are constructed within and among society members. The original Omani tribes who consider themselves to be of pure Omani blood tend to impose greater restrictions on their female members in terms of marriage/divorce, dress code, freedom of movement, which contrasts with the more permissive attitude of tribes that immigrated to mainland Oman in later times. For instance, women from Oman’s ‘Zanzibari’ community are overrepresented in such political roles as ambassadors and candidates for the elected Majlis al-Shura compared to women from ‘pure’ Omani tribal origins.

However, the lack of sectarian discrimination in Oman, compared to countries such as Lebanon, is clearly reflected in intermarriage decisions. In the past, Omani men often married women from Africa, but more recently socio-political changes have seen a preference for marriages to ethnic Arab partners from the same tribe, regardless of sectarian identity. For example, Sunnis and Ibādis who are part of a larger tribe very often get married without any restrictions. Also, some families prefer to permit their females to marry within their own regions for traditional and cultural reasons. Overall, the effect of Omani women’s socio-cultural background continues to determine the horizons of their life opportunities.[20]

Conclusion

The negative effects of extremist sectarianism are not well-rooted in Oman. A culture of tolerance and peaceful coexistence, combined with an implicit power-sharing model in the state, has given rise to a burgeoning but resilient national identity. This has prevented the spread of divisive sectarian ideologies to date. However, the tribe remains the base of the political system in Oman. Thus, tribalism, not sectarianism, remains the key factor in women’s issues within the Sultanate.

Oman has invested heavily in its human capital via education for all genders and has (partly) enshrined this gender equality into law and official political discourse. Oman must now look to fully harness this capacity and give concrete reality to the discourse of gender equality to optimize its ability to face the country’s economic and political challenges. In the first months of 2020, the new sultan, Haitham bin Tariq al-Saïd (r. 2020 -), has shown glimpses of reformist tendencies. His policy of retiring long-standing public office holders and deeply restructuring the government administration opens an opportunity to promote a professional meritocratic civil service with a full complement of talent in its recruitment purview. The question remains whether the new sultan can consolidate a new government without having to appease the powerful tribal and traditional forces that until now have resisted the emergence of gender equality and stalled half of Oman’s valuable human capital.

 

[1] Mark Gasiorowski and Sean Yom (eds.), The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa (New York: Routledge, 2017), 38-41.
 

[2] George Tarabishi, Women Against Her Sex: A Critique of Nawal El-Saadawi (London: Saqi, 1988).
 

[3] Ibid.
 

[4] ‘Abd al-Rahman Al-Kawākibī, Tabai al-Istibdad wa-Masari al-Isti’bad (Cairo, 1901). Emphasis added by the authors.
 

[5] Leon Goldsmith, “Immunizing Against Sectarian ‘Sickness’: The Case of Oman,” Middle East Institute, Nov. 12, 2020, https://www.mei.edu/publications/immunizing-against-sectarian-sickness-case-oman

[6] Ali Al-Riyami, Harb Al-Jabal Al-Akhdar (Syria: Dar Al-Farqad Printing and Publishing, 2018).
 

[7] Calvin H. Allen and Lynn W. Rigsbee, Oman under Qaboos: from coup to constitution, 1970-1996 (Oxon: Routledge, 2002).
 

[8] Yusuf Al-Balushi, “The Renaissance of Oman and the Approach of the Sultan,” Al Bayan, July 28, 2013, https://www.albayan.ae/opinions/orbit/2013-07-28-1.1931104.
 

[9] Emily Ruete, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess, trans. Lionel Strachey (Beirut and Cairo: Beirut Bookshop, 2013 [1886]).
 

[10] Jokha Al-Harthy, Celestial Bodies, trans. Marilyn Booth (Inverness: Sandstone Press, 2018).
 

[11] Linda Funsch, “The Historical Role of Women in Oman’s Development,” Gulf International Forum, June 18, 2018, https://gulfif.org/the-historical-role-of-women-in-omans-development/.
 

[12] Joseph Kéchichian, “A Vision of Oman: State of the Sultanate Speeches by Qaboos Bin Said, 1970-2006,” Middle East Policy 15, no. 4, https://mepc.org/journal/vision-oman-state-sultananate-speeches-qaboos-bin-said-1970-2006.
 

[13] Amal Al-Shanfari, “Omani Women between Past, Present and Future,” Aswaq al-Arab, Jan. 10, 2015, https://www.asswak-alarab.com/archives/7368.
 

[14] Omani Educational Council, 2019.
 

[15] “The National Centre for Statistics and Information Announces Education Statistics in the Sultanate for the Year 2013,” Note, June 1, 2014, http://note-mag.com/archives/2371.
 

[16] Gail J. Burtoff, Nawra Al-Lawati, and Bozena C. Welborne, “Cursed No More? The Resource Curse, Gender, and Labour Nationalization Policies in the GCC,” Journal of Arabian Studies 8, no. 1 (2018): 65-86.

[17] Salah Al-Muqbali, “How Omani Law Safeguards the Status of Women,” Atheer, https://www.atheer.om/en/2709/how-omani-law-safeguards-the-status-of-women/#ixzz6VtYWQmbh.
 

[18] Khalid Al-Azri, Social and Gender Inequality in Oman: The Power of Religious and Political Tradition (Oxon: Routledge 2013). See also Susan Al-Shahri, “Women's Rights in Oman,” https://susanalshahri.blogspot.com/2012/03/womens-rights-in-oman.html.
 

[19] Human Rights Watch, “Oman, Events of 2018,” https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/oman.

[20] Muneer Karadsheh, Safia Al-Ma’amari & Nasser Al-Mawali, “Attitudes of Omani Society towards some Career Patterns Desired by Women: A Field Study on a Sample of Omani Society Members,”  Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences (in Arabic), Vol. 46, Supplement, 2019, 161-181, http://search.mandumah.com/Record/949852.