December 1, 2007 Special Dispatch No. 1775

Public Debate in the Gulf: Why Aren't Women Being Elected to Parliament?

December 1, 2007
Special Dispatch No. 1775

In Oman's October 27, 2007 Shura Council elections, 20 of the 632 candidates were women, but not one of them was elected. In contrast, in 2003 elections in the country, two women were voted into parliament.

While the women candidates' loss in the 2007 elections received little attention in the Omani press, it sparked a debate in the Gulf and Arab press. Columnists asked why women, not only in Oman but in other Gulf states and in many Arab counties, are not being elected to representative institutions and thus are not participating in decision making and policy shaping processes.

In explaining this, the columnists evoked the traditional and tribal nature of Arab society, which is still ruled by men and which has not yet internalized democratic values. They called for integrating women into the government, and presented this integration as an essential step in the advancement and development of society. They also criticized the women voters in the Arab countries for failing to support women candidates.

The following are excerpts from the articles:


Women Do Not Support Women Candidates

In an article in the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Omani columnist Muhammad Al-Shehri called to incorporate women in the political bodies as a crucial step in the development and strengthening of society:

"... We must ask ourselves why women are absent [from the Omani parliament]. Is it the fault of the women [citizens], who failed to vote for their sisters [i.e. the women candidates]... and thus prevented them from attaining the honorable title of Member of Parliament? Is it because the voice of the women is marginalized, and there is no awareness of their importance and presence in society? Or [is it because] the woman expects nothing of herself, [and believes that her only role in society] is to be a skillful cook and homemaker?

"If the woman believes that her role is limited to [caring for] the home and that it is there that she must remain, it [only] reveals her oppression by men, and her inferior status [in our society].

"[The woman's] presence in the centers of power is regarded as contrary to tribal custom and divine law. Thus, the woman's voice is silenced – to the point where she [herself] comes to believe that she was created from a crooked rib, and that she is destined to be the man's subordinate, rather than his partner in leading society. In this situation, the woman unconsciously subjects herself to self-inflicted oppression, which discourages her and completely saps her creativity...

"This is what happened to the Kuwaiti women who [failed to vote for women candidates in the Kuwaiti parliamentary elections, and thus] prevented their sisters from attaining a seat in parliament... The women who refrained from voting for the women [candidates]... bear some of the responsibility [for their electoral loss]. [This also applies to] the Omani women who abandoned their sisters during the elections [in Oman]...

"We hope that society will vote for the woman, elect her, and push her forward, and that the men will be forced [to accept] the presence of their sisters, mothers, daughters and wives on the [Shura] Council. [It is not right] for women to be appointed [to parliament] by the authorities, and to be used, like furniture, to decorate government institutions in order to influence public opinion and create the impression that democracy is being realized and women's rights are being granted.

"The woman's status should be bolstered and strengthened, her voice must be heard, and the tribal authorities must allow her to enter the centers of leadership – because no progress will be [made] until the man stands alongside the woman and acknowledges her importance, her presence, [and her contribution] to the process of building up society and promoting growth and success...

"When society is controlled by tribal [mentality], [this mentality] impedes the [development and activity] of the civil institutions that must exist in any society that seeks to be democratic... We hope that women will not be absent from our regional and local councils, and that the women members will be active and not [just] nominal [members] – because their presence is one of the signs of a healthy society.

"In any society, the absence of women [from the centers of power] is [a sign that other sectors] are marginalized and absent [as well]."[1]

The Women Candidates Lost Because Our Society has Not Yet Internalized the Culture of Democracy

Dr. Muhammad Al-Sa'id Idris wrote in the UAE daily Al-Khaleej that the women candidates' electoral loss stemmed from the discrepancy between the character of the Arab states and the nature of their societies. He said that although the states have adopted modern democratic institutions, the societies are still ruled by tribal and traditional values.

"The outcome of the election for the sixth Shura Council in Oman, and especially the blatant loss... of the women [candidates], gives rise to many questions and observations that apply not only to Oman's attempt at democracy... but also to most of the [other] Gulf states and to many Arab countries...

"The most important question has to do with the relationship between society and the state, and with the connection between democratic institutions [on the one hand] and democratic thinking, consciousness and culture [on the other]... Presumably, there are concrete reasons that led the Omani voters – both men and women – as well as the Kuwaiti and Bahraini voters, to refrain from electing women [candidates].

"The first and foremost reason for the failure of the democratic experiment in many Arab countries is the discrepancy between the level of social development and the level of the state's development. Modern [political] institutions have developed [in the Gulf states]... but Gulf society... is still essentially traditional, ruled by tribal values and relationships handed down from generation to generation. This lasting discrepancy between the modern [character] of the state and the traditional [character] of society necessarily leads to the perpetuation of negative phenomena, [as reflected by] the recent election results...

"In the second sphere – that is, the connection between democratic institutions [on the one hand] and democratic consciousness and culture [on the other] – we see the same discrepancy. It is not enough to have a parliament and to recognize the principle of elections and political representation, which most of the Gulf states have done. [There is also need for] a democratic political culture and an awareness of democratic rights. [These, however,] are still limited to a narrow educated elite, and have not [spread] to society at large. Moreover, some of the officials who run [our] democratic institutions [have not internalized these values].[2]

Saudi Columnist on Al-Arabiya Website: When Will Saudis Be Allowed to Elect Their Representatives?

In an article posted on the Al-Arabiya TV website, Saudi writer Saleh Ibrahim Al-Tariqi discussed the election in Oman, comparing the situation there to that of Saudi Arabia. Al-Tariqi criticized the fact that, unlike the Omanis, the Saudis have no right at all to elect their leaders, and thus cannot take part in shaping their country's future.

"...I was happy [to learn] that most Omani citizens have attained a level of mental maturity that allows them to elect their representatives to the Shura Council without oversight... But in my happiness, I asked myself: 'When will Saudi citizens attain the mental maturity required to elect their own representatives to the Shura Council?... An [even] more important question is: 'What has [Saudi] society, with all its various sectors, done in order to mature in its thinking, which is [currently characterized by] tribalism and sexism?'

"A look at the education system, which is the primary tool for creating minds that are capable of understanding the meaning of elections... shows that it has done nothing [toward achieving this end]. It has not, [for example,] taught the children to elect pupils who will represent them and speak on their behalf... It has not taught them to use their minds in electing [representatives], and that the best candidate is not necessarily their friend or relative...

"If we examine what most of our [society's] thinkers are writing, we discover that they are arguing over whether coeducation is permitted or forbidden, and whether [allowing] women to drive would boost the economy or cause greater corruption [in society]. Our society persecutes women and treats them like underage girls. Most of the thinkers who support this position fail to notice that society also persecutes men, treating them like underage boys who require supervision and are therefore incapable of choosing [their own leaders]...

"The problems [currently] on the agenda, [such as women's driving and coeducation,] are not unimportant or pointless. But I believe that [debate] on these matters will lead nowhere as long as we do not have a Shura Council elected by the people. These questions need to be presented to an [elected Shura] Council, which will vote on them and thus either decide the matter or end the debate. [The council's resolution] will represent the majority in society, and [then] no thinker or writer will be able to claim that he himself represents the silent majority...

"I believe that stagnation and lack of change have caused [our society] to become less advanced than other [societies]... Twenty years ago, the Saudi education ministry sent [Saudi] teachers to Oman at the request of the Oman, which had a teacher shortage. Today, Omani society is several steps ahead of us, because the Omani citizen is allowed to participate in shaping the destiny of his homeland..."[3]


[1] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 6, 2007.

[2] Al-Khaleej (UAE), November 5, 2007.

[3], October 30, 2007.

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