Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Cracking A Men-Only Culture Arabian Rights

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Cracking A Men-Only Culture Arabian Rights

Article excerpt

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. …

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