(photo credit: Uriel Messa)
MUSCAT, OMAN – Nawal Jamal Al-Bulushi, a 32-year-old Omani woman who works for a Muscat-based management consultancy, is waiting eagerly to see if her name is among one of those appearing in the lists of people entitled to a free grant of land from the government.
“The draws are held weekly, but I wish they could be held every day,” she says wistfully. “It’s something for the ladies to hold onto.”
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Free land would be welcomed by anyone, but for Omani women it has been something akin to a social revolution. Local law doesn’t automatically entitle women to a share of their husband’s property in a divorce and only 0.4% of all the country’s landowners are women. Many women say they remain in bad marriages for fear of being made homeless if they divorce.
Sheikha Saud Al-Araimi, 65 and from Sur, a coastal town, is already dreaming of her future home. Due to her age and social status, Araimi received a plot of government land soon after the first draw occurred in April. Widowed and childless, Araimi lives with her husband’s nephews and their family but aspires to live in a home of her own. Under Islamic Inheritance Law, she inherited some of her husband’s land after his death but not enough to build a house.
“If your husband died and you have no children, you now don’t have to worry about where you will live,” she told The Media Line.
The government is also supposed to assist Araimi, the widow, in obtaining funds to build a house on her new land. She can also sell her husband’s land to access further funds.
The new law also strikes a blow against traditional social attitudes, in which the male head of the household exercises the ultimate right to decide how to use family income; including money belonging to his daughter and wife. Single women will also enjoy unprecedented financial security.
For four decades, since the government began giving away land, the program had been reserved exclusively for men, but in 2008 the government decided to open up the grants program to all Omanis age 23 and over, including women. Priority is given to those who haven’t previously owned land. Not surprisingly, when the first gender-neutral land draw occurred last April, most of the 100 names were female.
“It’s very good for women to have equality, and it is especially important for women from less privileged backgrounds,” Ayesha Mohammed Al-Salti, an Education Ministry employee, married with five children, told The Media Line. “They can financially help out their husbands and fathers by selling their land, for example.”
Salti already owns land, so she will still have to wait for her name to be selected in the draw. Nonetheless, she has begun making plans about what she will do with her allotted plot of land.
“I may construct a house and rent it out,” she said. “However, if it happens to be too far away, I may just end up selling the land instead.”
Since 1970, the value of free land has increased exponentially, making the government handout especially valuable to women. Salti, for instance purchased a 700-square-meter plot of land 14 years ago in Al-Khod, about 43 kilometers (27 miles) from Muscat. At the time, the house cost her some $18,000, but with the steep rise of land prices in Oman since then, the land is now worth some $300,000.
Even with free land, women still face many obstacles to their dream home. While the right of women to own and use property is protected under Omani law, a 2005 United Nations Human Rights Commission report found that cultural norms often result in government officials denying women’s applications for housing grants and land ownership. Officials prefer to deal with their male relatives. Moreover, applications for housing loans are discriminatory, allowing fewer women the opportunity to become landowners.
“A simple, single-storey house with two to three bedrooms will cost
25,000 Omani riyals [about $60,000] to build,” Salti pointed out.
The government, for its part, has recently issued instructions that all
loans from the public housing bank be distributed equally to any man or
woman over the age of 21 owning a plot of land. But the new rules have
yet to be tested.
Of Bulushi’s female friends and relatives who have already received the
land, one has decided to sell the land, as she urgently requires the
funds, while others are planning to build houses. Bulushi herself would
like to build a large house six months or so after acquiring her plot of
land. Both Bulushi and Salti feel strongly that they would like to keep
their land in their possession.
The desire to build and own one’s home is strong among Omanis. While
they may work in the capital, Muscat, they are likely to construct their
family home in the town where they were born.