Cracking A Men-Only Culture

Arabian Rights

When Mohammed al-Ghammary, a merchant in the Arabian state of Oman, decided to send his eldest daughter to university in Egypt in the late 1960s, his family scoffed. "Save your money for the boys," his brother counseled. "If you want to help her, find her a husband."

But Mr. Ghammary was undeterred. Late one day in the summer of 1969, Ghammary and his wife bade farewell to their daughter, Shukoor, who boarded a plane to cosmopolitan Cairo, set to become the first woman in her family to receive a university education.

"We were not rich," explains Shukoor al-Ghammary, now president of the Omani Women's Association. "My father simply thought that my sisters and I should be educated, so one day we could support ourselves."

Exactly 25 years later, this chemistry graduate of Egypt's prestigious Al-Azhar University became the first woman to hold elected office in Oman, a notable feat in this Kansas-sized Persian Gulf state that still expects its women to be primarily child-bearers, often posting the world's highest birth rate.

Ghammary was elected to the Majlis As-Shura, a consultative council which, while it has no legislative power, has the authority to question government ministers. Last month she was reelected for another three-year term.

Ghammary hoped to seize upon the opportunity granted by Oman's relatively enlightened ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Sa'id, who allowed women to stand for election and vote in the area near Muscat, Oman's capital.

"This is the point I am trying to make," Ghammary explains, perched on a cream couch in the living room of her home. "Fathers and brothers and husbands need to be enlightened, or else the old traditions will never be changed."

Next: a woman minister?

Sultan Qaboos, a British-educated leader whose own father was the stereotype of the unenlightened despot, is well-known for his moderate views on women along with his independent foreign policies. The sultan even declared 1995 the "Year of the Woman."

"I have long held the belief that to exclude women from playing a meaningful role in the life of their country," the sultan was quoted as saying recently, "amounts, in essence, to excluding 50 percent of the country's potential."

This year's elections for the Majlis Ash-Shura, held Oct. 16, were open to women from all over the country, not just the capital, and women voters were given the same rights as men. "This is an important step," says Ghammary. "Next, we may see a woman minister."

The same two women who won posts in 1994 were reelected this year. The other 26 women candidates failed.

In nearby Kuwait, women have unsuccessfully agitated for the right to vote. And in neighboring arch-conservative Saudi Arabia, women are still prohibited from driving and, in many cases, from working. Among Persian Gulf states, only non-Arab Iran exceeds Oman in female political participation.

To be sure, Majlis Ash-Shura elections are not Western-style democracy. Candidates are vetted by government committees according to education levels, and eligible voters are confined to "those with an education," as one Omani official put it.

As such, candidates with a history of antigovernment agitation might not be eligible. The names of the top three vote-getters are sent to the sultan, who makes the final selection.

Still, gains for women are noticeable. Omani women can be seen in all spheres of public- and private-sector activity, from working in mid-level to senior government positions, to taking orders at the Muscat McDonald's.

Honeina al-Mugheiry, the Director of Oman's Center for Export Development and Investment, puts it this way: "Nothing stands in our way. We can do the same jobs men can and, unlike in the West, we get paid the same amount." Ms. Mugheiry is a graduate of New York University and the University of Cairo.

More education, more choices

Other examples of success stories abound. Fatima Kheroussi, described by one banker as "one of Oman's most powerful persons, male or female," is the finance manager of Petroleum Development Oman, the semi-government-owned oil exploration and production company, widely regarded as the lifeblood of the economy. Rajiha bint Adul Ameer, undersecretary for statistics, is likely to become the first woman minister, analysts say.

Of course, away from the bustling, modern capital, women are still largely illiterate, and liberal-minded men like Mohammed Ghammary are few. A visit to a Bedouin settlement in Oman's Wahiba desert displays Omani women's traditional roles. Fully cloaked in black veils shielding everything but the eyes, mother and teenage daughter remain outside. The men eat dates with a foreign visitor while Abdullah, an eight-year-old Bedouin, sings of his family's glory, praising the strength of his brother, the wisdom of his father - and the fertility of his mother.

But, as a sign of the times and of government policy, Bedouin children - both boys and girls - are required to attend school.

Meanwhile, Sultan Qaboos University, opened in 1987, has more than 5,000 students, 52 percent of them women, according to the Ministry of Development. There is no need to go to more liberal Arab societies in cities like Amman, Jordan, or Cairo anymore, women's rights activists say, so fathers no longer have an excuse to hold their daughters back.

"I think women should be given the choice," says Ghammary, who quit her job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1975 to take care of her children. "If you want to work, you should be allowed. If you want to study, there should be opportunities."

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