Free land for Omani women

Hopes are that home ownership will give women better control of their marriages and protection from abusive husbands.

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MUSCAT // A government decision to grant free land to women to build their own houses has been welcomed by Omanis who say it will give them better control of their marriage and protection from abusive husbands.

In Oman, where traditionally men provide a home for their wife and family, only a small minority of women own properties, according to housing ministry officials. The sultanate has no automatic divorce settlements where a woman would get half of what the husband owns, including the house. Divorced women always leave the house if the title deed belongs to the man, according to the local laws. Some women in bad marriages say their husbands use their property ownership as a weapon to make them obedient.

Maryam Hadi, 36, one of the few women in the country to own a house, in which she lives with her second husband and children, said the ownership laws left her humiliated during her first marriage. "My first husband often used the house he owned as a threat to keep me obeying him. It was never our house but his and he twice packed my bag and sent me back to my parents," Ms Hadi said. After three years of being verbally abused by her husband, Ms Hadi packed her bags for good in 2001 and left him. Thanks to her well-paying job as a public relations manager for a telecommunications company, she bought her own house before accepting a proposal for a second marriage.

"My present husband has his own house and we rent it for extra income. I am happy now because no one would dare ask me to pack my bags and go from my own house," Ms Hadi said. Many women see the royal decree issued by the Sultan of Oman last year to grant women free plots of land as an opportunity for them to have a bigger say in their marriages. The grant amended the nearly 40-year-old law that automatically distributed plots of land for building private houses to working men age 25 and above using a low-interest mortgage from a state-run bank. Only in special circumstances would divorced women get a free plot of land.

Local newspapers recently reported government officials saying that about a million plots of lands will be distributed sometime this year to women. Hannadi al Jenaibi, a 39-year-old housewife and mother of three, said women stand a better chance of protecting their interests and eventually saving their marriages if they own the property, or at least have a share in it. "In the middle of most marital arguments, men may try to win the argument by saying something like: 'It is my house and you can leave if you don't like the arrangement here,'" Ms al Jenaibi said.

"That statement usually shut up the woman and invited further abuse from her husband. Where will she go if she leaves the shelter provided by her husband?" Those divorced women who tried to claim half of the house always had their plea turned down because the local laws recognise ownership and marriage does not give property rights to a spouse by default, Ms Jenaibi added. Some men dismissed the claim that husbands use their ownership as a form of abuse. "That's not true. I think these women blow this out of proportion. In most cases I know, a man sometimes may innocently point out the fact that he owns the house but isn't that the case of every marriage around the world?" Sound al Mahrizi, an electronics technician at Muscat airport, said.

Other men said the tide would easily turn if women solely owned the house instead. But Fatma Fallahy, a marriage counsellor, warned that women should not think of property ownership as a way to avoid abusive husbands. "Men who are violent with or verbally abuse their wives don't need a house to do so. It will be stupid for women to think that they can tame their cruel husbands by simply holding a piece of paper with their names on it," she said.

It may give women the comfort of knowing that men will not use the house as a trump card, "but that is just about it", Ms Fallahy added. "That's a big comfort to me," Saida al Sumri, a 25-year-old single woman working as an administrator in the ministry of education said. "A man will not mess me up if I own the house. Once I get the government free land, I will get the mortgage and build myself a house and then get married."