Tradition and Cultural Beliefs Continue to Hobble Woman’s Rights in Middle East

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 “Read one book, and you know everything; read two, and you’re not so sure.” I was reminded of this quote after we sent off our blog post on “Piercing Cultural Stereotypes in Oman.” Our experiences there were followed by excursions in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. These tours made me rethink the liberal/modern interpretation I had adopted about the lives of women in this part of the world. I listened to one tour guide with interest, but have to admit that I joined in the chorus of women near the end of the trip who gave a resounding “boo” to him for saying, “Women in the UAE don’t have any hobbies or interests outside of the home. The only interest they have is SHOPPING, SHOPPING, SHOPPING!” Rather than simply dismiss him, I did a bit of investigating on my own to better understand the lives of women here. What I found was enlightening, but more than a bit disconcerting.

Susan Mubarak, an HR professional in the private sector of Salalah, Oman wrote about the advances of girls and women in the past several decades. Forty years ago, there were no schools for girls in Oman. Today there are more women than men enrolled in institutions of higher education; participation in the labor force increases daily; and the Basic Law of Oman prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender. However, family matters are governed by a Personal Status Law, which assigns men and women very different rights and responsibilities. Other articles I perused report ways in which women still face legal discrimination under the Personal Status Law. Let’s look at some examples in terms of Oman and the United Arab Emirates:

Any male member of a family can marry her off without her consent. 

A man can legally take on an additional wife without informing his first wife. He can also have up to four wives.

Muslim women are forbidden to marry non-Muslim men unless they convert; the reverse does not apply to Muslim men. 

Muslim women are free to choose their own marriage partners, but are expected to obtain family approval before marrying. 

Legally and traditionally, fathers and husbands are considered to be the heads of household. In the event of divorce, fathers retain custody of the children, except in certain circumstances (e.g., if the mother is breastfeeding). 

Women are only able to initiate divorce within a narrow range of circumstances (e.g. abandonment), whereas men have the right to divorce wives unilaterally.

Pregnancies outside of marriage are illegal, and children born to unmarried women are taken from their mothers and placed in alternative care, in order to ‘correct’ the woman’s immoral behavior.

Women can inherit, however, their share is generally smaller than that to which men are entitled. For example, female heirs inherit half as much as male heirs, unless a will specifies otherwise. Often, women’s inheritance rights are not respected, but women are reluctant to bring inheritance cases to court, for fear of causing conflict within the family.

Domestic violence is unacknowledged in the media or official reports, but is thought to be common. Despite the existence of shelters and hotlines to help protect women, domestic violence remains a pervasive problem. The Federal Supreme Court has upheld a husband’s right to “chastise” his wife and children with physical abuse. No methods permit women to report violence confidentially. Furthermore, women are discouraged by societal pressure from seeking help outside the family in domestic violence cases, and prosecutions are very rare.

Rape is a criminal offense; however, if a rape is reported, the victim may find that her actions are criminalized, as well as those of the perpetrator (for example, she may be viewed as having provoked the rape because of what she was wearing or her behavior). 

There is no legislation in place relating to sexual harassment, and women are often reluctant to report sexual harassment in the workplace for fear of being blamed themselves for “immodest” behavior.

While women’s culture in Oman and the UAE may be inching toward a more modern treatment of women, the role of women is still very much like old times and is dictated by the beliefs and culture in existence for hundreds of years.

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2 Responses to “Tradition and Cultural Beliefs Continue to Hobble Woman’s Rights in Middle East”

  1. The good old boys would like to have the same laws for women in the U.S. That is one reason so few women are elected to office and so many unqualified men are elected.

  2. I wonder if there are any thoughtful/thinking, considerate men in these countries who have the intellectual and emotional faculties, or whatever, to think of women as real people rather than chattels — of course, I imagine they could not be public in such views, in danger of being stoned themselves.

    It’s hard to imagine intelligently or sensitively that these views about women exist in a world of our current amazing communication methods.

    What percent of tourism dollars is gained by these countries — probably not much, compared with oil and gas revenues. I was wondering what impact could be gained if a wholesale ban on tourists to these women-bashing countries could be implemented …

    The matter is more than distressing …. We have had some of our politicians and politicians’ wives going to bat for women in Asia and Africa … progress will be long in appearing, it seems.

    I look forward to more appealing news from your next stop.

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