MUSCAT, 5 March 2003 — Oman has appointed a woman minister, in a first for any of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states.
Aisha bint Khalfan ibn Jamil Al-Siyabi is a young art teacher from a small town in the country’s rural hinterland who wants to avoid being in the spotlight.
Sultan Qaboos issued a decree on Monday installing Aisha as head of the Public Authority for Craft Industries with the rank of minister.
The authority is intended to preserve and develop Omani craftsmanship and encourage Omanis, especially in remote areas, to join an industry in decline among citizens and dominated by workers from the Indian subcontinent.
“I love to work but without being in the spotlight,” the 30-year-old art lover said yesterday.
Her appointment Monday was splashed on the front pages of all the sultanate’s newspapers, along with photographs of her and her family, and words of support from other leading Omani women.
Was the daughter of a renowned scholar who graduated in art from Sultan Qaboos University in 1995 expecting this appointment?
“It came out of the blue. I can’t be happier,” said Aisha, the youngest of nine sisters and two brothers, one of whom has died.
Aisha hails from Sumayail, a remote town close to the old Omani capital of Nizwa, some 250 kilometers from the current capital Muscat, and since graduating has worked as an art teacher at schools in the interior.
Answering questions with the help of her niece, Aisha said she wanted “to live up to the faith shown in me by His Majesty. The royal gesture is a tribute to all Omani women.
“I am thankful to them, even though I feel tired a bit,” she said of the queue of journalists waiting to interview her.
Rahila Al-Riyami, a member of the Majlis Al-Shoura, Oman’s elected lower house of parliament, hailed Aisha’s appointment as a “matter of pride and joy not only for women but the entire (Omani) society.
“The importance of the woman’s role in today’s competitive world cannot be overemphasized, and this importance is duly acknowledged in Oman’s legal statute,” Riyami said of the 1996 constitution, which guarantees equal rights for both men and women.
Oman became in 1994 the first of the six GCC member countries to allow women to vote and run for public office, since when it has been followed by Qatar in municipal elections and Bahrain in last year’s parliamentary vote.
But with most of the electorate male, women have won only two seats in each of the past three consultative council polls. Apart from three ministerial undersecretaries, Muscat named its first woman ambassador in 1999.
With more and more Omani women taking up jobs rather than staying at home, including in the public sector, they have also won the right to work as taxi drivers, although they will not be allowed to drive men.
Riyami, Education Ministry planning director, said that in 2002 women represented 36 percent of the workforce in the public sector and 18 percent in the private sector.
In a further development, women of 16 different nationalities took to the streets of Muscat last month to denounce US plans to invade Iraq in the first all-female rally in the sultanate’s history.