x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Women in big election push to return to Oman's assembly

After a shut-out in the last election in 2007, 16 women will run for spots on the Majlis Shura, though all of them are contesting the 11 seats in Muscat.

MUSCAT // Asya Mansoor, one of a handful of Omani women running for seats on the Majlis Shura in upcoming elections, knows she is about to get tongues wagging.

The 36-year-old former high schoolteacher leans forward on a sofa next to an big bay window in her villa and lays out her strategy to win a seat on the sultanate's only elected body. Polls are scheduled for this autumn.

Mrs Mansoor, dressed in a somewhat daring purple silk hijab, taps a matching purple fingernail on a notebook detailing a plan of attack, including putting up smiling posters of herself, distributing flyers, going door-to-door and giving media interviews, that would be considered old hat in the West, but which even she herself might have considered too aggressive for an Omani woman not long ago.

"I am lucky to have the backing of my husband. He suggested that I should run the campaign more aggressively this time instead of relying on conveying my message verbally to women's groups," said Mrs Mansoor, a mother of three.

Mrs Mansoor was one of 21 women candidates in the previous elections in 2007 for the consultative assembly, which has limited powers to review and make recommendations on economic and social legislation, as well as to summon certain ministers for questions.

The candidates are nominated by local caucuses in each of the sultanate's 61 wilayats, or districts. The nominations are reviewed by a cabinet committee and personally approved by Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said.

Every one of the female candidates in the 2007 election lost, making the 84-member council all male for the first time since 1995, when the young advisory body held its second session. Mrs Mansoor and the 16 other women registered to run in this October's month-long ballot, along with 105 men, are determined to not allow that to happen again. Like last time, all the women are vying for seats in the capital, Muscat.

"My campaign will be elaborate but it will not be easy because 11 seats in Muscat are not that many, but I am determined to win one of them," said Mrs Mansoor, whose priorities include extending maternity leave to three months from 45 days and equal employment opportunities for women, who make up about a third of the workforce but who are generally limited to careers as secretaries, bank tellers, teachers and nurses.

"Men have a tendency to say that women cannot do engineering, mechanical or other technological jobs. So women graduates end up doing office jobs instead," she said.

Malak Hashil, 42, a head nurse at one of Muscat's government hospitals, is another woman who lost her bid to join the assembly four years ago. She says women - both voters and candidates - let themselves be intimidated.

"Most women think that elections are a man's world … they did not bother to turn up at the voting stations and those who did, voted for men, instead of fellow women. The women candidates also did not believe that they could win and that perhaps rubbed off on the voters," Mrs Hashil said.

This time, she has hired a public relations company to help her run her campaign. "I am new to this game and that's why I need a PR company to help me. It made me angry when no woman was voted in the last assembly. I am hoping to change that this time because I know what went wrong," said Mrs Hashil, sitting cross-legged on a wicker chair in her large garden, surrounded well-trimmed rose bushes.

She will also get her family involved this time she says, looking at her two teenage sons playing basketball nearby.

In each of the Majlis Shura's four-year sessions between 1995 and 2007, there were two women, all representing Muscat.

Oman has a good reputation among the Gulf states for advancing women's rights. Three members of its current cabinet, the ministers of higher education, social development, and tourism, are women. Many Omanis, both men and women, say they were surprised that the women candidates were shut out in 2007. Some say this led to issues such as health care and education getting short shrift in the last session.

A male candidate, Talib al Badri, from Barka ,north of Muscat, said that women representatives have been missed. "To have a balanced council, women must be in the shura, the more the better. I don't think men are threatened and I am happy that this time round [women] are being more aggressive in their candidacy," he said.

Election observers say that for women candidates to break through this time they will have to stop relying on the votes of other women and convince men that their issues are important.

Jihan al Lamki, a member of the Oman Journalists Association, told a recent women's forum on the issue: "This time, women must go for all voters, both men and women. They must also get the media on their side. Moreover, they need to expand their social network. That's what men are good at."

In rural areas, women reportedly had trouble getting to the ballot box in 2007 because their husbands refused to drive them. There were also reports of women voting as their husband dictated.

Women voters in Muscat said they hoped to have at least some women on the upcoming Majlis Shura, saying they do not believe men understand their concerns.

Thuraya Al Kindy, 34, a mother of three children, who suggested that women candidates in the capital would have a better chance of winning since their husbands tend to be better educated, said: "For example, 45 days maternity leave is not enough for a woman to get bonded with her baby. Some men are forcing their wives to cut short their careers out of jealousy.

"People outside Muscat are more conservative and their husbands are not willing to compromise. However, we expect [women] to come to the polling stations in larger number this time to vote," she said.