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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Omani women have high hopes for shura elections

Just 21 out of 674 candidates for October 25 poll are women, but they are campaigning hard to make their voices heard.
A woman has her fingerprint scanned before voting at a polling station in Muscat during Oman’s last shura council election on October 15, 2011. Said Al Bahri / Reuters
A woman has her fingerprint scanned before voting at a polling station in Muscat during Oman’s last shura council election on October 15, 2011. Said Al Bahri / Reuters

MUSCAT // Omani women say they are determined to have greater representation in the next Majlis Al Shura, even though the proportion of female candidates in the lower house of parliament has dropped by half from the last election four years ago.

Only 21 women are running for the council’s 84 seats compared with 653 men, making up just 3.1 per cent of candidates for the October 25 election.

In the 2011 election, 77 women ran for seats in the council, making up of 6.8 per cent of the 1,133 candidates, but only one was elected.

“With all the advancement in the country, women still fail to get into the Majlis Al Shura in a big way. This time, we are all determined to be elected and we are using all the campaign tactics to push ourselves forward,” said Aida Al Habsi, a 43-year-old schoolteacher and mother of four, who is one of the candidates in Muscat. “If elected, I know I will make a difference for the benefit of the people who voted for me.”

Signalling their determination not to be pushed to the political sidelines, 14 of the female candidates have put up campaign posters in the streets next to those of their male rivals. In the last election only three women put up posters.

“I wanted my poster to be fully visible, bright colours and next to my male challenger,” said 36-year-old mother-of-two Rahma Al Harthy, a candidate from north Muscat.

Ms Al Harthy even took leave from work so that she could dedicate as much time as possible to campaigning, which began six weeks ago.

“The campaign is seven days a week for me. I took six weeks leave from my office to campaign from nine in the morning to nine in the night with my election managers,” said Ms Al Harthy. “I got myself interviewed in nine different newspapers and magazines as well as by radio stations and on television. I even walk door-to-door to the houses in my constituency to send the message in their homes.

Candidates are allowed to use their own money to finance campaigns, with no limit on how much they can spend.

“It cost me over 12,000 rials [Dh114,400] in the past six weeks,” Ms Al Harthy said. “It also doesn’t do any good to my health, but it will be worth it if I get elected.”

She said it was important to her to get elected so that she could make changes on gender equality, children’s welfare and discrimination in employment.

Meanwhile, Fatma Al Saifi, an activist on women’s issues, said men cannot understand women’s problems and that is why the political balance has to change.

“Women make up an equal number of the Omani population but we are treated as a minority because we cannot get ourselves elected,” Ms Saifi told The National.

“We have different issues than men, such as maternity leave, raising children, marriage problems and discrimination in the workplace. Getting women in the political scenario is not a matter of pride but of necessity and equality.”

In 2011, Sultan Qaboos granted the shura council greater powers, including proposing and amending legislation, and summoning ministers for questioning – arguably making it better placed to address problems faced by women.

But some women say male bigotry is preventing greater female representation in the council, with tradition still playing a major role in Oman’s politics.

“We want to vote for fellow women but the men in our lives prevent us from doing so. They take our ID cards and go to the polls and vote on our behalf,” said Maryam Al Rahbi, a resident of Sohar. “Men don’t vote for people who are competent but for tribal connection or friendship. They sit together smoking shisha in restaurants or coffee shops. These are the places where they nominate themselves and make electoral decisions.”

However, Khalid Al Balushi, a political commentator and freelance journalist, said women were letting themselves down by allowing men to make political decisions for them.

“If men don’t vote for women because of tribal connections or friendship, then why women don’t vote for other women? And if they allow their husbands, fathers or brothers to vote for people they don’t want to vote for, then whose fault is it?” Mr Al Balushi said.

“It is time for female voters to take their own stance and refuse to bow to men’s pressures,” added Mr Al Balushi. “Otherwise we will have no improvement of the number of women serving in the shura.”

Over 436,000 women were eligible to vote in the 2011 council election. But just over 42,000 were recorded as casting their ballots. In comparison, of the 644,000 men who were eligible to vote, about 410,000 did so.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae