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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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By Stephanie Dahle, originally published on on May 9, 2011

Oman’s religious leader, Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmed Al Khalili, recently issued a rare political statement in support of women candidates for the country’s parliment, called the Majlis al Shura.

“It would be wrong for voters to think women cannot use good judgement in the running of our affairs,” Sheikh Ahmed told The National.

Despite having a small population (about 3 million), this push for female empowerment has the potential to make a big impact in the country and region. Following protests that began in February 2011, Oman’s leader Sultan Qaboos Bin Said granted more legislative powers to the previously ceremonial parliament. The next election is slated to take place in October; currently there are 11 women and 500 men registered to run for 84 positions.While women have served in the Majlis al Shura in 2002 and 2005, there are no women presently represented.

Women in Oman enjoy a great deal of freedom. They are active in the workforce and the country’s only public university, Sultan Qaboos University, has consistently graduated more women then men. I’ve lived in Oman this past year and have felt free to be myself. I’ve spent countless hours studying at coffee shops, integrated into the local community and haven’t regularly worn a veil.

Oman’s attitude towards women is in contrast to neighboring Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive or travel without a permission from a male guardian.

Still, it doesn’t mean women in Saudi Arabia don’t fight for more rights. Last month, a group of women tried to register to vote. All but two of the women were “politely” declined.

“We want to make our voices heard,” Nayla Attar, one of the activists, told AFP.

I applaud the women who were brave enough to try to register to vote (and the NPR reporter that joined them). I have high hopes that women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to vote like the citizens they are. And, here in Oman, I hope that– come October– women will once again serve on the Majlis al Shura.

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