x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Campaign for women's Shura quota ignites debate in Muscat

Only five women have won seats since the council was formed in 1991.

MUSCAT // After winning just one seat in last month's Shura election, some Omani women are campaigning for a quota of council seats reserved for females to guarantee them better representation.

The suggestion has sparked a robust debate among leading women and the broader Omani community: is guaranteeing women a minimum number of seats the best way to address their Shura status, or would it cheapen the position?

Nu'amah Al Busaidy, elected to the 84-seat assembly in last month's elections, is only the fifth woman to win a seat since the Shura was established in 1991.

Two women were elected in 1999 and two in 2003. There have been no others.

"I don't favour special quota for women," Ms Al Busaidy said.

"I would like to see the present set-up continue where voters decide who they want to choose rather than be forced to have people representing them on their behalf even for a small percentage. This is how democracy should be."

Buthaina Al Zadjali, who failed to win a seat - only 116 people voted for her - said quotas were the only way to change Oman's entrenched political system.

"We had high hopes this time, but many things were against us, yet again," she said of the last election.

"Influential people got elected as well as the wealthy and those who belong to certain aristocratic families.

"It is a familiar story since 1991 and nothing will change that unless we get a quota to secure a decent number of seats."

Said a woman voter in Muscat, Hala Al Fori: "The male dominance will always prevail in our elections and the only way we can get women in a bigger number in the Majlis Al Shura is to lobby for a quota to make sure we get a fair representation."

But what would be a fair quota for the council that was granted legislative powers in October though the laws they pass still are subject to the approval of Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

"It is not a matter of what will satisfy women but what is the fair percentage. I think 20 per cent is a reasonable target to aim for," Ms Zadjali said.

A 20 per cent quota would guarantee women at least 17 seats in the Shura.

"That number should not include those women who win outright on their own merits," Ms Zadjali added.

Saif Al Hajri, one of the government election committee's observers, supports a quota for women.

"Women make up about 50 per cent of our population and it would be right if a quota to guarantee them certain seats is introduced," he said.

"If other countries do it, then I don't see why we should not do it in Oman?"

Mr Al Hajri said that for a quota to become law, the Shura and the Sultan both would have to approve it. He said no one has proposed such legislation, but he thought it would get serious consideration.

But for some women involved in politics, a quota undermines the very democracy they are working for.

"A quota would mean special treatment for women and that is not what democracy is all about," Sheikha Al Habsi, a failed candidate in the election - she won just 9 per cent of the vote in her electorate.

"I will not support it since a certain percentage of seats would be handed over on a silver platter for us."

Maryam Ismaeel, a woman who ran and lost in the 2007 election, said women had to earn their seats.

"It will put women in a weak position if a quota is introduced," said Ms Ismaeel, who was beaten by her male opponent by just 132 votes.

"It will also send a message that women need to be protected even in politics when we know decision-making is a shared responsibility.

"No, a quota is never a good idea and women must contest alongside men and win those votes."