Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Coming Home

Something a little different - Reflections from my journal 
December 29, 2013
I am on a bus between two cities in North America. It’s dusk and the snow is falling ever so softly.  Even after two hours, the landscape is mesmerizing. Snow-covered field after snow-covered field. Bundled up in my bright green hoodie and white hijab, I blend in relatively well with the other passengers on this bus. How many of us are going home? How many of us are content with our lives right now? How many of us know where we belong? I ask the same questions whenever I settle down for a session of people-watching, be it at a sidewalk café in Europe or at the local supermarket at home.
and when you’re needing your space …. To do some navigating … I’ll be here patiently waiting to see what you find….. Jason Mraz is crooning into my ears. I Won’t Give Up is probably one of my all-time favourit songs. 
I haven’t blogged for a while. The past year has been insane (in a very good way) but has also forced me to take time off writing. I feel guilty (why?) but I need not apologize.
December 30, 2013
Ladies and Gentlemen, captain from the cockpit, we’ll be starting our descent into Muscat International Airport in approximately twenty minutes. Please adjust your seat to the upright position, stow away your tables, and switch off any electronic equipment. Also make sure no blankets are blocking the exits to the aisles. The weather in Muscat is lovely at 19 degrees Celsius with a gentle wind. If this is your last destination, wish you a pleasant stay in Muscat. If you are transiting here, then we wish you a wonderful continuation of your journey. As always, thank you for flying KLM and we look forward to welcoming you on one of our flights in the future….
I could probably recite this in my sleep. Traveling a lot does that to you. You find yourself in line at Starbucks at Schipol and the loudspeaker system shouts out “Passengers V.VOMPKIN and B.VOMPKIN traveling to Oslo, you are delaying the flight. Please go to gate E12 immediately….”  And you find yourself completing the sentence out loud “or we will proceed to offload your baggage”. The American in line behind me snickers and says he’s always tempted to do that. 
It’s always that cup of coffee in Schipol Airport when I suddenly feel ill, nostalgic, homesick. Homesick for what? In a few hours I will don my black abaya and black headscarf, replace my backpack with a feminine purse, my sneakers with flat blacks, stow away my iPod and put on my ‘Omani persona’. Technically, in a few hours I will be home, if home is where one grows up and lives. But in fact, I’m never really home. I’m not entirely sure where home is. Is home that place in the snow with a warm fireplace, cups of hot cocoa, a Christmas tree, and loving family? Or is home that place in the sand with even more family?
There must be a word to describe people like us with mixed backgrounds. Always homesick for a place that doesn’t exist.

December 31, 2013
I’m standing by the luggage belt at Salalah Airport, surrounded by other abayas and white dishdashas. Men stare at me. Perhaps they’re still not entirely used to seeing females without a face veil. The first thing I notice when I reach Oman is how people stare. Sometimes I tell myself that it’s a curious stare. Other times I want to pull my hair out and scream. I’m not very good at ignoring my surroundings. My luggage appears. As I reach out to grab my big bag, a man steps forward and pulls it off for me then insists that he will take it to my car. I thank him politely and reject his offer. He starts to insist. In the end I had to be firm and tell him ‘Thank you but NO, I’m perfectly capable of pulling my own bag, thank you’. He notices my Dhofari accent and immediately starts the usual ‘Are you from Salalah? Whose daughter? Which tribe?’. In other words ‘who the hell are you and why are you traveling alone without a dozen chaperones?’. Instead of telling him to piss off, I pretended to get a phone call then I dragged my bag off to arrivals. A man pushes past me with his trolley and knocks my purse over. In Canada, he would apologize. Here, he growls at me and moves on. I’m just a woman. I step out into the sunshine and admire the palm trees lining the airport road. What a beautiful town this is. To my right a man takes one long look at me then turns to his side and spits on the sidewalk. Oh well, there goes my moment. Welcome home, Susan. At least for the moment this is home.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Different Kind of Discrimination

Published September 10, 2013 - Muscat Daily
 
As Salalah waved off most of the monsoon tourists last week, I flew back home after having spent most of August in Canada relaxing and catching up on piles of academic work. 
 
The one thing about Canada that always leaves me in awe is its attitude towards people with disabilities. Canada’s efforts to accommodate people with wheelchairs, walkers, mental disabilities and other physical limitations are truly remarkable as compared to Oman.
 
A couple of weeks ago I was sitting at a sidewalk café in downtown Ottawa reading. Over the course of one hour, eight individuals in wheelchairs zoomed past me. I am not exaggerating. That doesn’t even include people who went past with walkers and crutches.
 
Other people on the street paid little or no attention to these remarkable individuals, but coming from Oman I couldn’t help but stare in admiration. They manoeuvred their way through the crowds without expecting help or sympathy. The infrastructure of the city guarantees that they can get around on their own with little or no difficulty.
 
The public transport system, roads, sidewalks, shops, cinemas, restaurants, and other public facilities in all major cities in Canada cater to their needs. In Oman, individuals with disabilities are a very rare sight.
 
A recent visitor to Salalah told me they thought there were no disabled people in Oman! The harsh reality is that there are tens of thousands of them, but most are hidden behind closed doors.
 
When out in public, people tend to stare at them uncomfortably not knowing whether to ignore or offer help. It sounds harsh but I’ve seen it again and again, particularly in rural areas. Even the most basic right to reserved parking spots continues to be abused on a daily basis in Oman.
 
A dear friend of mine who passed away five years ago was the first person in a wheelchair to go to university in the south of Oman. During his first days at college ten years ago, no one would speak to him, faculty included. They would just stare. With his sense of humour and sheer determination he managed to make hundreds of friends by the time his first year was over, but those first few months were horrible. I still remember the fiasco of having to build ramps around campus to ensure he had access to most buildings.
 
Furthermore, the discrimination he faced from top government officials while fighting to obtain a scholarship is something so shameful that it hurts to even think about it. The official’s statement was something along the lines of ‘I’d rather give a scholarship to someone fit who can serve Oman, not a disfigured person in a wheelchair’.
 
Ten years later, very little has improved. There are very few options for people with disabilities in terms of work, education and mobility. There are laws to protect them from discrimination, but they are rarely enforced.
 
If major employers continue to discriminate on a regular basis against women, how do you think they would handle a person in a wheelchair?
 
The obvious answer is more discrimination. There has been a lot of discussion over the past few months about the need to establish a public authority for persons with disabilities in Oman. This occurred after the Shura Council brought the issue up in May this year.
 
Currently, the Ministry of Social Development oversees matters related to people with special abilities and needs but most of these efforts are focused in the capital area of Oman and tend to neglect other parts of the country.
 
For example, in Salalah there is only one centre for children with disabilities and a centre for the blind. Both centres struggle constantly for funding from the government and the private sector. I visited these centres a few years ago and was horrified at the lack of support to cover even the most basic necessities like water and electricity.
 
There is a law in Oman that requires private organisations with 50 or more persons to reserve at least two per cent of their jobs for people with disabilities. I have yet to hear of more than one organisation in Dhofar that actually pays any attention to this law. Who is responsible for ensuring the law is enforced?
 
I have heard people blame Omani families for hiding their disabled loved ones from the public for fear of shame. On the other hand, I have also heard plenty of people blame the government for not paying more attention to rehabilitation and accessibility.
 
Who is to blame? Should we be wasting our time throwing around blame instead of taking action? In developed countries, disabilities are no longer about people, but about their environment’s inability and unwillingness to accommodate them.
 
A government authority for people with disabilities in Oman would play an important role in enforcing laws against discrimination and ensuring that the public infrastructure of this country is tailored to cater to their needs.
 
Despite scattered efforts here and there to integrate persons with disabilities into society, we as a nation are far from being mature about these things. Until these capable individuals are able to lead semi-independent lives, we cannot even begin to think of referring to ourselves as a developed nation.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Changing Eid Traditions

Published August 13, 2013 - Muscat Daily

As I flew across three continents on the last day of Ramadan for a much needed month-long holiday with my family, I couldn’t help but feel a slight pang of guilt at not being home in Salalah for Eid al Fitr. It is probably safe to assume that many Omanis feel the same way. More and more families I know of are going away for Eid or simply refusing to partake in endless week-long Eid activities.
 
Eid traditions are very strong in Muslim communities around the world, and Dhofar is no exception. Growing up, the last few days of Ramadan always involved a frenzy of activity in preparation for Eid. My mother and I would bake hundreds of cookies and sweets, stock up on the best Halwa, prepare the house for hundreds of guests, and make a list of all the relatives that we would have to visit.
 
During my childhood, the night of the moon-sighting at the end of Ramadan was a big deal. We would gather around the television after iftar and wait for the Omani moon-sighting committee to tell us whether Eid was the next day or not. If Eid was declared, the announcement would be followed by several hours of intense activity and majlis-preparation. If the moon wasn’t sighted, we would breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to an extra day of fasting and more time to prepare.
 
On the morning of Eid the men of the family would head off to the mosque after dawn for Eid prayers while the females frantically prepared the majlis for the first envoy of guests who were bound to start showing up at eight o’clock in the morning. Traditional Eid songs would be playing on the radio or on television. As a child, Eid meant gifts, new clothes, sweets, and small change that is handed out to children in the form of brand new 100bz notes.
 
The first three days of Eid involved non-stop visiting with relatives and friends. The days that followed were usually a bit easier. Nevertheless, the visiting and catching up with relatives did go on for at least a week. In other words, Eid was a big deal
 
Then came the Internet and cellphones and life in Oman began to change more and more rapidly. Keeping up with Eid traditions and hundreds of relatives became overwhelming and no longer feasible. The number of guests has dwindled as people have become busy with their own lives.
 
For an introvert like me, I still love to spend the days before Eid baking for guests but having to be on guest-duty for at least three days just doesn’t entice me anymore. Furthermore, Eid al Adha is only two months away. I’m ready to make an effort with Eid traditions, but at the moment I think one Eid a year is enough for me. As selfish as it may seem, I’d much rather use my time off to travel and relax. Staying at home without partaking in Eid activities is just not an option in Oman at the moment.
 
Thinking of all the Eid traditions and special memories that helped to shape my childhood in Salalah can make me feel slightly nostalgic but not for long. I’ve accepted the fact that life changes and so do traditions. So, from the back patio of my holiday hideaway I tip my mug of coffee to you and hope you enjoyed your holidays. Back to my pile of vacation reading!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Future Leaders

Published July 30, 2013 - Muscat Daily

A few weeks ago I was invited to give a workshop on the importance of writing to a group of 30 high-school students from Dhofar who were participating in a leadership programme in Salalah. Before I delve into details, let me make one thing clear. I am terrified of public speaking. It took me about four days to sum up the courage to accept the invitation.
 
Convincing my paranoid self that someone doing a post-graduate degree in leadership studies might have something useful to offer these kids was not an easy task. And anyway, I hadn’t done nearly enough volunteering this year so giving this workshop would make me feel better about myself, right?
 
As the workshop date drew closer, I started receiving more information about the intensive two-week leadership programme. It covered everything from volunteer work with the municipality’s cleaning crew to lectures on the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers. This project was the brainchild of a friend of mine who is probably one of the most proactive people I’ve ever met. A PhD student, he is passionate about education and intends to become Oman’s minister of education in the future. I chose the word ‘intends’ instead of ‘hopes’ because I am confident that he’ll work day and night to achieve that dream and become one of the drivers of educational reform in Oman.
 
On the day of the workshop I nervously downed three mugs of coffee as I reviewed my materials and activities chart before heading over to meet the kids. As someone who spends very little time with teenagers, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Would I succeed in engaging them? Are any of them interested in writing? What if - heaven forbid - they spend the whole time tapping on their cell-phones? What if they don’t have a sense of humour? What if the girls were too shy to participate in front of the boys? These obsessive questions were swimming around in my head as I dragged my materials to the lecture hall.
 
As it turned out, I ended up spending my day with the most enlightened young people I have ever met. They asked a million questions and were eager to soak in everything I had to say. It was evident from the moment I stepped into that room that these weren’t just any ordinary kids. They were carefully selected from high schools across the governorate of Dhofar for their leadership potential.
 
Over the course of the workshop, I told them about my journey with writing and how I ended up becoming a columnist. We talked about the importance of having good writing skills in order to get ahead in life, and our longest discussions revolved around the importance of writing for Dhofar.
 
Fortunately, these enlightened teenagers understood my message. The south of Oman is an amazing place and we are doing next to nothing to document our culture, way of life, language, and history. Unless we start putting things down in writing now, we are going to lose huge chunks of knowledge about this part of Oman.
 
The young leaders were also eager to talk about current issues and changes in society that need to be written about. None of them shied away from bringing up even the most difficult topics including witchcraft, tribalism, slavery, human rights, and even Wasta.
 
Although still in high school, most of them could boast more achievements and interests than all my friends put together. A couple of them are already writing novels and a few write poetry. One of them was studying the historic presence of the Portuguese in Dhofar in his own free time and another kid even co-wrote the script for Dhofar’s first movie.
 
Their future plans cover everything from becoming university professors and brain surgeons to publishing books, travelling the world, becoming movie directors and establishing Dhofar’s first reptile museum. In other words, they are incredible.
 
After the workshop, I spent nearly an hour driving in circles around Salalah trying to process everything. I was quite literally blown away. In fact, I am still blown away by their sharpness, talent, confidence, energy, and discipline. Looking forward, I intend to dedicate more time and effort to working with young people because clichés aside, they truly are the leaders of the future!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Rainy Ramadan

Six days down and approximately 23 more to go if the moon cooperates! Once again Dhofar has been blessed with cool temperatures and a heavier-than-normal monsoon drizzle to help us get through the holy month of fasting.

To be honest, I am not necessarily looking forward to a couple of years from now when Ramadan will coincide with the hottest most humid time of year in the south. Then again, is this something I want to be worrying about now? Probably not. Fasting this year has been quite easy so far.

I have mastered the art of rolling over in bed at four in the morning to switch on the coffeemaker, pressing the snooze button on the alarm, then dragging myself out of bed a few minutes later to sip my coffee in the dark and eat whatever breakfast concoction I have prepared the night before.

By the time I’ve had my dose of caffeine, I am ready to pray the sunrise prayer then head back to sleep for another three hours.

As bizarre as it may seem, my system works quite well. I usually have plenty of energy until about three o’clock in the afternoon when my mental abilities become limited to studying recipes online.

This usually results in my jotting down a couple of ingredients and convincing myself to head to the supermarket to purchase them. I work my way through the mountains of Vimto, crème caramel and other Ramadan specialties in search of the two ingredients on my list.

Half an hour later I am usually standing in a queue of 15 people with at least ten more ingredients than I had anticipated. Every person standing in line is equally guilty.

Food aside, this Ramadan has been busy with tourists here in Dhofar. It seems that many of our annual visitors from the GCC and other parts of Oman would rather fast in rainy Salalah than in their oven-hot hometowns.

At one point, we assumed the tens of thousands of tourists would flock to Dhofar during Eid. Who were we kidding?

In all cases, we are expecting the majority of tourists in August. In preparation, I have booked my ticket to a faraway country for the duration of August to ensure I miss the tourist chaos.

After last year’s mess, Salalah is the last place I want to be. During Eid last year nearly 100,000 tourists arrived in Salalah causing a week-long shortage of petrol, milk, bread, and even accommodation.

Hundreds of Omani families opened up their homes to stranded tourists who had no place to stay. In fact, four of my direct neighbours rented out their living rooms to tourists from neighbouring countries.

Traffic was insane and it was impossible to get anywhere near the mountains due to backed up traffic. To avoid that crisis again this year, it was announced in January that RO15mn would be allocated to improve tourist facilities and services in Dhofar.

Nothing very visible has come of it so far, but I assume we’ll hear of these improved facilities by August. It’s worth noting that a tent complex is being set up at the base of the mountains that will cater to the envoys of tourists arriving by road from various destinations in Oman and the GCC.

From what I’ve heard, this complex will host car rental agencies, housing services, and other facilities required by tourists. It will be interesting to see how that pans out!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Extraordinary Women

Published July 2, 2013 - Muscat Daily

A few months ago I received a Google alert on Oman’s 1st Extraordinary Women Conference. I was intrigued by the name of the event despite very little media coverage at first, so I went ahead and registered without a clear plan in mind.

All I knew was that I could not miss an event dedicated to women in my own country even if it meant flying up to Muscat during one of the hottest months of the year (something I tend to avoid at all costs).

The original line-up of speakers for the conference included activist and award-winning author Sheryl WuDunn as well as retired boxer Laila Ali, the daughter of famed boxer Muhammad Ali. At the time I was in the middle of reading Sheryl’s latest book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide that she co-authored with her journalist husband Nicholas D Kristof of The New York Times. Both Sheryl and Nicholas are on my list of contemporary heroes.

As it turned out, Sheryl and Laila disappeared from the line-up for the conference but were replaced with other extraordinary women, namely India's one and only Kiran Bedi. If you've never heard of Dr Bedi, it's time you put this newspaper down and got online to do some research on one of India's most controversial revolutionaries. If anything, she is an icon of female strength and one of my idols. I have been privileged to meet her not once but twice already this year. I was truly humbled last week during one of the coffee breaks at the conference when she recalled what I had said on my panel at a human rights conference in Montreal that we both spoke at earlier this year.

On the first day of the conference, I slipped into the venue quietly and settled in to observe and take notes. The broad theme of the conference revolved around extraordinary women but ended up covering everything from entrepreneurship and leadership to the science of breathing.

Most of the speakers were interesting and I was glad to see plenty of debate on the struggles of female leadership in Oman. There was plenty of discussion on the glass ceiling and on getting more women into the executive C-suite. As someone who is doing her master's dissertation on women and leadership in Oman, I was intrigued by many of the formal and informal discussions that took place in that room over the course of two days.

Overall, the event was insightful and very useful for networking. However, if I were managing the conference in the future, I would use social media to ensure Omani women far and wide hear of it and are invited to it. I would have liked to have seen more women from different parts of Oman. Although the Omani patriarchal work environment in general is not particularly keen on nurturing female leadership, professional women in the capital area are miles ahead of their counterparts in the regions.

The event was attended by a large number of professional Omani women including members of the State Council as well as leaders in the private sector. I left with 30 pages of notes, a handful of business cards, new friends, and new ideas on how to advance my research as I dive deeper into post-graduate work. Oman's 2nd Extraordinary Women Conference 2014? Bring it on!

For information on the conference, here's their website:  Oman's First Extraordinary Women Conference.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Things are OK

Published June 18, 2013 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view the column on their website.

The title of this column may sound a little strange, but it’s actually the official name of an informal event that took place in Salalah’s largest ballroom last Friday night with none other than H E Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, Oman’s Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs.

The aim of the meeting was to invite young people in Dhofar to meet with His Excellency in an informal setting as part of the National Youth Commission’s efforts to address youth issues in Oman. Naturally, word got around quickly in Dhofar about his visit so hundreds flocked to the meeting from all corners of Dhofar. I arrived an hour early and the venue was already filling up.

By the time His Excellency arrived, the room was so full that there were dozens of young men standing along the walls eager to listen to the discussion. I refer to men here because out of the 500 or so people who attended, unfortunately no more than a dozen were women.

The efficient moderator ensured that no time was wasted on introductions or flowery language. His Excellency was eager to start receiving questions from the audience. Over the course of five hours, questions concerning everything from Oman’s relationship with Iran to our Bedouin persona non grata were thrown his way.

An experienced diplomat and politician, he skillfully continued answering nearly every question into the wee hours of the morning. Two huge monitors in the room were broadcasting the live Twitter feed of the event with questions and commentary from people following remotely.

Among the recurring topics was the general discontent with the employment situation for young people in Oman and the rise in cost of living. Other issues covered in the discussion were Oman’s financial situation, speculation about a GCC union, borders with Yemen, Omani embassies around the world, Syria, politics in Dhofar, Iran, education, health, the Arab Spring and even intermarriage!

He pointed out time and time again that the only way Oman is going to move forward in this world is with education, hard work, dedication, and drive. Everyone knows this but it was important for youth to hear it from the one man who truly understands Oman’s position in this world. I was thrilled that he was openly criticising the ‘Omani productivity issue’ which translates into many Omanis still expecting to be spoon-fed by the government. One of his classic quotes during the evening was ‘Money that didn’t come from sweat will not last’.

Naturally, the night was not free of heated debates on sensitive topics that are often kept to private discussions behind closed doors. As far as I’m concerned, honest discussion of difficult topics is extremely healthy if we are to progress as a nation. During the Arab Spring, there was an explosion of free debate on the political situation in Oman and the region. This was followed by a major clampdown on free speech a year ago exactly which has caused general bitterness among writers, bloggers, journalists and activists in Oman.

As a young Omani woman who cares deeply for her country, I choose to be more optimistic. His Excellency’s visit was extremely important to our region and our youth. Although Oman is a relatively small country, officials don’t tend to mingle with the people very much. It’s not part of our leadership culture. The country’s top officials rarely make speeches or directly communicate with locals in public.

Despite the fact that His Excellency has been Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs for over four decades, I have never seen an interview with him nor heard him speak in public or on television. All I know is that he has done a remarkable job of maintaining Oman’s positive foreign relations and following His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s simple foreign policy ‘Oman shall not have an enemy on the face of the Earth’.

Overall, the event was a positive step taken by one of Oman’s top leaders to ensure more honest communication takes place between Omani youth and their government. After the youth-dominated nationwide sit-ins and protests since 2011 in particular, I’m hoping our officials begin to see that the only way forward is transparency.

On a final note, there has been a lot of speculation this week in Dhofar on whether other key officials in Oman are going to step forward and make themselves available for similar unfiltered discussions around Oman. Once we move away from a culture of finger-pointing and blaming to a culture of cooperation and productivity, it will be safe to say that things are OK!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Public Transport

Published June 4, 2013 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view the article on their website.

Rest assured that this is probably the last of my happy travel columns for a little while. I spent the past two weeks abroad in Sweden for a conference then Switzerland for a few days to visit a special friend of mine whom I failed by not bringing nearly enough sunshine from Oman for her.

Upon my return to sweltering Salalah a couple of days ago my family, friends and colleagues wanted to hear all about Europe (by now they’ve gotten used to the fact that the world won’t stop if a young Dhofari woman travels on her own).

Although Sweden is incredible and Switzerland is breathtaking, the one thing I ended up gushing non-stop about was the Swiss public transport system. Public transport in Switzerland is considered one of the world’s greatest success stories.

Of course, this success can be attributed mostly to the Swiss people’s unconditional acceptance of public transport as a way of life. From what I observed, most people leave their cars at home and simply use public transport for their day-to-day needs. There was very little traffic compared to Oman.

The level of incredibly high efficiency of transport companies is something that had me in awe most of the time. Inter-city trains leave almost every half hour. Buses come around almost every five to ten minutes.

Trams are even more efficient. Even remote villages in the mountains are connected to the magical transport network. Taxis are literally non-existent compared to London and the invasion of black cabs or Muttrah corniche during tourist-season.

For example, if I’m catching a train to Geneva at 8.05 in the morning I would need to head to the bus stop at 7.50 because I know for sure my bus will arrive at 7.53 and have me at the station at 7.57 just in time to pick up a coffee and be ready for the train to come whizzing through for its one-minute stop.

Where else in the world do trains, buses and trams arrive almost exactly on time? I knew the Swiss were organised and punctual people before my visit, but I had no idea just how efficient this clock-making nation is until I experienced it for myself. Switzerland, I tip my hat to you!
Naturally, I spent half my visit envisioning this phenomenal transport system in Oman. Don’t roll your eyes just yet.

Many of us have read about the new rail network that is being built in Oman connecting major cities and towns. Honestly speaking, I don’t think it will be very successful in transporting people just yet but it’s definitely needed to transport goods. Trucks on our highways are hazardous.

However, Oman is going to have to start thinking seriously about efficient public transport. This generation may not totally buy into it but future generations will if the government markets it properly with good leadership. Let’s face it; oil isn’t going to be available in abundance forever.

Furthermore, Omanis are obsessed with cars. The minute a young person gets a job, he will go into debt for years to buy his dream car. People spend more money on their cars than they do on education and basic life necessities like food.

Our obsession with cars and lack of public transport causes accidents, traffic congestion, road rage, and overall frustration. The only available means of public transport are the occasional baiza buses that poor labourers use to make their way across Muscat and one too many un-metered taxis. In other words, we don’t have a choice.

Inter-city buses are available but they’re extremely uncomfortable and often unhygienic. It’s not for me to say whether our local city infrastructure is ready for an efficient public bus system just yet but I hope the Ministry of Transport and Communications has plans for the future.

Building air-conditioned bus shelters, dedicated bus lanes, and state-of-the-art buses with a women’s section is not far-fetched if you think about it.

An efficient rail system cannot succeed without the support of an efficient bus system in my humble opinion. Obviously, the idea of a subway system is out of the question for now. What do you think? Is efficient public transport an urgent need? Would Omanis use it?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Bahraini Experience

Published May 21, 2013 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view the column on the newspaper's website.
 
Last week I had the privilege of being invited to Bahrain to participate in an intensive all-female programme focused on the portrayal of women in Arab media. As someone who is a tad bit passionate about women’s issues, I snatched the opportunity and flew to Bahrain only to discover fellow Muscat Daily columnist Nick Smith sitting a couple of seats away from me on the flight. Fortunately for you (and him!), this column isn’t about Nick, but about Bahrain from a Dhofari young woman’s point of view.
 
Before I start blabbering on about Bahrain, I have a confession to make. As well-travelled as I may be, I have never been to a GCC country outside Oman…ever. With the exception of a short blurry trip to Dubai at the age of seven, the remaining Arabian Gulf countries have remained a mystery to me. There, I said it.
 
Until last week, I had no idea what the rest of the GCC is really like. I’ve always been too busy looking beyond the Middle East at destinations with bookstores, cool weather, boulevards, and museums.
 
In fact, my only contact with fellow ‘Gulfies’ has been observing from a safe distance the hordes of tourists who invade Salalah every year during the monsoon season. Quite often, these are not the best of impressions.
 
Whenever I picture GCC nationals in my head, I think tinted Land Cruiser windows, heat, sand, dishdashas and abayas. A classic ignorant stereotype, I know. Perhaps, I just assumed we are all the same one way or another.
 
As it turns out, we are anything but the same. Bahrain is very different from anything I expected it to be. The island country was heavily influenced by the British, politically and culturally until quite recently. The history of the country from its pre-Islamic days to the 2011 protests is fascinating.
 
Naturally, I was more interested in observing the women of Bahrain. In fact, I think I spent half my time there staring at the women. The way they spoke, carried themselves, walked, gestured and communicated with men…it was all so different. What is a suitable word to describe them? Confident? Empowered?
 
Put simply, all the Bahraini women I met (ministers, members of the Shura Council, royal elite, shopkeepers and journalists) were confident and in control. There was none of the tagging along behind husbands or being demurely shepherded around like I see in Oman and particularly in Dhofar. In other words, I did not sense too much uneasiness between men and women.
 
There was also none of the heavy makeup, huge hair poofs (the ridiculous melon-sized clips girls wear on their heads here in Oman), or overly glittery abayas. A good number of Bahraini women don’t even wear the abaya. Many of the ones I observed marched around in suits with clipboards giving out orders.
 
I suppose the emancipation of Bahraini women can be attributed to several factors including the influence of the British as well as the establishment of the Supreme Council for Women chaired by the Emir’s wife. Another factor that puts it a few steps ahead of Oman is that the first girls’ school was established in the 1920s, a good five decades before girls in Oman were allowed to go to school.
Among other things that stood out to me in Bahrain was the history of literature in the country, the poetry, the modern art movement that emerged over six decades ago, the traditionalist graffiti, and the incredible architecture compared to Oman.
 
Despite the quiet presence of riot police at various areas of the country and the ongoing political and religious tension, the island is a remarkably pleasant place to be.
 
Reflections on the programme that I attended will appear in future columns. It is too soon to begin processing the new ideas that were formed over the few days in which I remained holed up in a meeting room with 12 other strong-minded women with big ideas about the portrayal of women in Arab media. Until then!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Salalah Musings

Published May 7, 2013 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view the column on the newspaper's website.

As we struggle to recover from nationwide jetlag (my sister’s words, not mine) caused by the new weekend, many of us in the south are still scratching our heads trying to figure out how to plan our days from now on.

Dhofaris are huffing and puffing about the local wedding schedule. In a tightly-knit tribal region like Dhofar, weddings are a big deal and they almost always happen on Thursday. Now that Thursday is a working day, Friday is a holy day, and Saturday is an early night, when are we supposed to have our weddings which go on till three o'clock in the morning?

Some furious locals solemnly swear they'll continue to have their weddings on Thursday and simply skip work. In fact, one of my relatives is getting married this month on a Thursday and they’ve decided to just go ahead with the wedding and pretend that it’s still a weekend.

As simple as it may sound, I highly doubt it will work out that way in the long run. Then again, when will we do our banking? Do we really want to run errands on Saturday? Will businesses remain closed on Friday? What about businesses that work six days a week? Will they close on Friday and open on Saturday?

In all cases, Dhofaris bid farewell to the last Thursday this past weekend with a full-fledged madar (traditional celebratory dance) on Haffa Beach at midnight. Apparently, it was quite a sight.

Meanwhile, in case anyone has been following the land drama down south, 16 locals who spent a week behind bars over a controversial tribal land dispute involving a water well and the planned medical city project are free at last as of last Wednesday. Tribal politics in Dhofar are something that cannot be explained in a book let alone a column, so I’ll leave it at that.

On the topic of tribes and land, last month I randomly attended a rally in Canada to support Canadian First Nation peoples in their battle for land and respect for their languages and heritage. It was an eye-opening experience for me to mingle with native tribes. To be honest, I found many similarities between those proud Canadian natives and the mountain tribes in Dhofar. Strange but true! If you’re interested in learning about the Canadian crisis, look up the Idle No More movement.

Other controversies this week in Salalah include baby sharks being sold at our local hypermarket, and an eyebrow-raising campaign infiltrating the school system encouraging high school girls to sign an oath of modesty. I’m all for modesty, but one of the posters of the campaign shows a figure dressed in black from head to toe (including full face, hands, and feet!) with the caption that said something to the effect of ‘modest queen’. I’m yet to become aware of a religious text that claims women must dress in black tents from head to toe in order to become more pious.

And finally, Salalah is busy this week with Oman’s first pantomime festival. Believe it or not, there’s a very active male-dominated underground theatre scene here in the south. Most theatre groups put on their popular plays in the monsoon during the Salalah Tourism Festival when the city is bustling with tourists. Speaking of monsoon and tourism, the Dhofar Municipality had better announce festival dates. Monsoon is six weeks away!

PS (I am drowning in post-grad assignments, hence the 'light' column).

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Cousin Debate

Published April 23, 2013 - Muscat Daily newspaper. Click here to view the article.

Earlier this week during a brief jaunt to Muscat, I picked up some trousseau items for a young friend of mine who will be marrying her first cousin in a few weeks. Naturally the marriage is arranged, as is the case with most marriages at this end of the country.

Although he is her first cousin, she barely knows him. He approached her father for her hand in marriage and given the family connections, the father felt obliged to agree to his nephew’s proposal. The marriage was settled, a dowry was paid, and a wedding date was set. She was given ten weeks’ notice to get ready.

Like any good Dhofari bride, she will be so busy preparing for the wedding day that she won’t have time to think about what her future will look like with this man. She knows that she will be moving into a bedroom suite in her relative in-laws’ house. As for the groom, she may hit the jackpot and end up with a very nice guy who will encourage her to pursue an education or - heaven forbid - a career!

Most likely however, she will end up with a man who will get her pregnant immediately and then she will have no choice but to stay at home and be a good wife regardless of whether their relationship works out or not. If she were ever to consider a divorce, the entire family will pressure her to drop the idea.

If she insists, her father will probably swear that he will divorce her mother. The poor bride will end up being forced to remain silent and obedient.

Cases like this happen regularly in Dhofar. Not only are a large percentage of marriages arranged, but they are almost all between first, second, and third cousins. This tradition of inter-breeding goes back hundreds of years and is protected fiercely by the conservative south.

A few years ago a colleague of mine almost married a man from a different tribe. After the engagement, one of her cousins stepped in and swore she would not marry the man. He slaughtered a cow as a symbol of his determination to stop the marriage, and the poor girl’s engagement had to be cancelled because her cousin’s wishes had to be respected. As ridiculous and medieval as this may seem, the practice is very much alive in Dhofar.

Almost everyone in my immediate and extended family is married to a cousin. In fact, if I were to list the number of relatives who have approached me for my not-so-delicate hand in marriage, you would be baffled. At age 15, the first of the relatives came knocking at our door. The argument went along the lines of ‘You’re a treasure that must be kept within the tribe to protect you and keep the blood pure’. Treasure? Tribe? Blood? I’d almost forgotten we were living in the 21st century.

Rest assured that I do not intend to mock our way of life here in Dhofar, but I am concerned that this out-dated tradition may not be appropriate anymore. Not only does it complicate the idea of choosing one’s marriage partner for young people, but genetic and blood disorders are rampant in Oman. In fact, according to data published by the Ministry of Health almost 60 per cent of Omanis carry genes of inherited blood disorders. If this isn’t enough to put you off inter-marriage, then I don’t know what is.

The reasons behind the prevalence of inter-breeding in the south of Oman are purely tribal. Because Dhofar is a patriarchal tribal society, there is an obsession with keeping tribal blood pure and strong. Furthermore, some research has shown that inter-breeding can lead to higher fertility rates. Marrying cousins is also cheaper because dowries are lower, requirements are fewer, and the girl can easily move into her uncle’s house and get along with her in-laws.

If it were up to me, I’d ban cousin-marriage altogether. However, I would say a more logical and fair solution would be to enforce pre-marital genetic screening for relatives. Your thoughts?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Not Eating Out in Salalah

Published April 9, 2013 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view the column on their website.

Most of March for me was spent at a snowy human rights retreat. The experience was so intense and stimulating that I had no time whatsoever to keep up with what was going on in Oman. I usually monitor Twitter, Facebook, local news forums, and all Google alerts concerning Oman and Dhofar in particular. Upon my return to hot and humid Salalah a few days ago, I asked everyone ‘So what’s the news?’ The recurring answer was ‘McDonald’s opened’.

Before the new Omani weekend announcement bomb that was dropped on us earlier this week, McDonald’s had managed to pop up in almost every conversation.

Personally, I was put off McDonald’s by a road trip my family took through rural USA 14 years ago where we ended up eating Big Mac meals at least twice a day to keep my then-seven year old brother happy, and because there really wasn’t much else to eat where we were (look up Mayfield, Kentucky if you really must know). A few years later the documentary Super-Size Me almost put me off fast food for good. You should watch it.

As many parts of the world move away from fast food due to better health awareness, why was the opening of McDonald’s in Salalah such a big deal? Thousands flocked to get their burger fix in the first couple of days causing major traffic jams, and even a local traditional music troupe were brought in to celebrate the opening.

In other words, the opening of McDonald’s in Salalah was major local news. My brother spent one and a half hours in line to get his a burger and sundae for old times’ sake.

Many locals have referred to McDonald’s as upscale, modern and clean. I’m not entirely sure about upscale but it definitely scores on cleanliness front compared to most restaurants in this town.

With its cheap prices, friendly staff, tasty fast food, and quick service, McDonald’s is a slap in the face to 90 per cent of restaurants in Dhofar.

I asked family and friends this week to describe the restaurant scene in Salalah in one word. Answers ranged from ‘non-existent’, ‘cheap’, ‘dirty’, and ‘greasy’ to ‘pitiful’. Unfortunately, I tend to agree.

To be fair we do have a handful of Lebanese, Turkish, Indian and Chinese restaurants that serve decent food. Seating in these restaurants is below standard because the culture of ‘dining out’ hasn’t really reached Salalah yet.

Restaurants in Salalah generally refer to the hole-in-the-wall places where you drive up, honk your horn obnoxiously, shout your order to the poor Asian worker who functions as chef, waiter, and cleaner, then drive off with cheap Styrofoam packaged junk food and try not to think about the possibility of spiders crawling out of your sandwiches (been there, done that).

A little over a year ago an incredible independent Thai eatery opened up in one of the local banana farms. At the time, I thought to myself ‘At last! A decent restaurant! Something different!’ To my utter dismay and for reasons beyond their control, the owners are closing down the restaurant this week. And we’re back to square one….

With the government investing so much in tourism in the south of Oman, it baffles me why so little attention has been given to developing the restaurant-scene. The only fine dining options in Salalah are at the two five-star hotels. There’s nowhere really to have a coffee with friends.

Female-friendly options are very limited. The beach stretch in town is lined with male-dominated hookah joints when it should have at least a couple of decent cafés that actually serve coffee. When contemplating eating out, my friends and I usually end up on the beach with a bag of shawarmas. What other options do we have?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The ROHM Incident

This was not published in the newspaper. A personal blog post:

Why yes, I'm referring to the Royal Opera House Muscat fiasco that erupted last week in Oman. Unless you've been living under a rock (or in Salalah!), you're well aware of the fact that a couple of weeks ago during an American jazz performance one of the Muslim band members recited verses from the Holy Qur'an. The ROHM sensibly issued an official apology the next day assuring the public that the person involved in the recital did so only out of love for his religion and had no intention of mocking Islam.

Within hours, details of the incident began circulating online. The matter was even escalated to Oman's Grand Mufti, the highest religious authority in the country for his opinion. Horror turned to outrage very quickly and soon enough busloads of the devout from various parts of Oman arrived at the ROHM to peacefully protest while clutching copies of the Qur'an. On the second evening of protests this past Friday the riot police were sent in to cordon off the area and disperse the crowd.

After the protesters refused to leave, arguments with security forces soon escalated to violence. The photos that have been circulating online this week show pious Omanis with blood trickling down their faces clutching their Qur'ans. Other photos show them being loaded into buses on their way to an undisclosed detention centre. Not a pretty sight.

If you are new to the Muslim world, you're probably baffled and wondering why this was an issue in the first place. You might even be thinking the whole incident is ridiculous.

Let me enlighten you. Many parts of Oman are still very conservative and we take our religion seriously. Reciting verses from the Quran during a musical performance is an offence to many who feel it violates the sanctity of our holy book. Because all residents in Oman fully respect this, such incidents are extremely rare. Therefore, when an incident does occur we are unable to deal with it. It is outside our comfort zone. To be honest, even I would have felt extremely uncomfortable had I been in the audience at the time.

As a Muslim woman born and raised in a conservative family, I fully understand why so many Omanis were furious and felt the need to go out and protest. On the other hand, there are many of us who can also see that the Muslim band member had no intention of offending anyone. In fact, he probably thought we would be delighted. As far as I'm concerned, the whole issue is a complete misunderstanding that should have been forgotten the next day. I am a great fan of the Royal Opera House and don't see for the life of me why they were being blamed for the incident, or why blame is needed at all!

However, a couple of other things have been bothering me. As many of you know, Oman restricts freedom of assembly both in law and in practice. Any public gathering of ten or more people requires government approval. As ridiculous as this law may seem, authorities have taken it very seriously after the Arab Spring protests, hence the dozens of Omanis serving jail time right now for 'illegal gathering'. (PS: this law exists in many countries)

Laws aside, Oman is a Muslim country. From a human rights and religious perspective, those protesters had every right to speak out. They may have broken a controversial law, but they were only expressing what they felt was their love for Islam and did not constitute a threat to this country's security. The photographs of the clashes with the riot police were extremely disturbing and do nothing for Oman's image in the international human rights arena.

There is one other issue that I find a little worrying. Delicately put, Omanis in general don't seem to be getting worked up about the right things. They could have been out on the streets protesting against drugs, rape, female genital mutilation, or even the horrifying reports of sexual and physical abuse of medical interns at local hospitals that were brought to light last week. Are we turning a blind eye to serious issues taking place in our country that are more deserving of our attention and action?

I know it's horrifying to some for a woman to be expressing her opinion so bluntly on such a sensitive issue. Nevertheless, it is only expected for opinions to vary and I am entitled to my opinion. On a final note, I think last week's incident is yet another healthy lesson for Oman that open dialogue and free speech are needed in order to bring issues out into the open and work our way towards a better future. Your thoughts?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Two Years Later

Published February 26, 2013 - Muscat Daily
February 25 marked the second anniversary of the eruption of Arab Spring protests in Dhofar, the southern region of Oman. Protests in Muscat, Sohar, and other areas of Oman started earlier, and by the end of the first quarter of 2011 almost every major town in Oman witnessed some form of demonstration or peaceful sit-in.
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Compared to other Arab Spring countries, the Omani protesters had no interest in bringing down a regime. Their main concerns revolved around creating jobs, higher minimum wage, and better living conditions. Other demands included more freedom of speech, less government control over the media, political reforms and the removal of several key government officials.
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Unlike other countries, authorities' initial reaction to the protests was to quietly receive the written demands, study them, and initiate immediate changes. Within weeks the cabinet of ministers was reshuffled, ministries were dissolved, several key officials were fired, 50,000 jobs were created, minimum wage increased, new legislative powers were granted to our version of parliament, and other major changes took place.
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These instant reforms may not have solved the real underlying issues but they were a smart and quick solution to maintaining some form of stability within Oman as regimes collapsed around us and violent protests swept through the Arab world. The Omani protests continued for about four months.
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Despite the quiet and peaceful nature of the majority of sit-ins, several of them ended rather violently with an army crackdown. In Dhofar the protests ended abruptly in May 2011 after the army moved in to the main sit-in area and arrested several hundred protesters over a period of two days. Some surrendered peacefully and others who clashed with army officers were subjected to tear gas and batons.
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In Dhofar most of the protesters spent around nine days in prison whereas a handful of the main organisers spent over 50 days behind bars. Similar scenarios took place in other areas of Oman as well.
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Looking back it really is quite remarkable to think that Oman went through a rough patch at all! Those difficult few months aren't really discussed in public anymore. Until 2011 Oman had been viewed internationally as a quiet and peaceful country. In fact, several international newspapers referred to Oman as a 'sleepy' nation.
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Despite having gone back to a perceived semi-sleepy state, don't be fooled. The aftermath of the Arab Spring protests continues to affect Oman. Despite enjoying more freedom of speech after the protests, a major crackdown on bloggers, writers, and activists started last June. Charges included defamation, instigation, spreading of rumours, and lèse majesté . Many of them are currently serving one-year prison sentences, and nearly two dozen went into an organised hunger strike in prison that ended earlier this week.
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Along with many other Omanis, I feel the arrests and exaggerated prison sentences may have come at a wrong time. Our old wounds have not yet healed. Furthermore, these recent events have caught the attention of major international human rights bodies.
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In all cases, today's column isn't about the aftermath. I simply wanted to reflect on the events of 2011. It was an important time in the history of this country. Some remember it as a time of courage whereas others like to pretend it never happened. Some believe the protests were justified, and others feel Omanis were simply demanding more spoon-feeding from our paternalistic government. Some believe the excessive use of power to end the sit-ins was uncalled for, whereas others feel the protests had gone on for too long.
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It was a difficult time for Oman, but nevertheless a learning experience for both authorities and citizens. The quick solutions didn't satisfy everyone. There remain concerns over succession, corruption, legislation and freedom of expression, but those discussions will take place sooner or later. Real change doesn't happen overnight.
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On a final note it is worth pointing out that despite the problems, Omanis remain fiercely loyal to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Even throughout the difficult months of protests, those demanding reform were very careful about criticising our beloved ruler in any way. This key element is what distinguished Oman from other countries that experienced the Arab Spring. With that behind us, what does the future hold?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Language Crisis

Published February 12, 2013 - Muscat Daily

Recently I was privileged to meet a foreign researcher who was in Salalah to learn the Dhofari mountain language more commonly known as Shahri or Jebbali. Chances are you never knew such a language existed in the south of Oman.

In fact, I’m willing to bet you had no idea that in addition to Arabic, four other languages are spoken in Dhofar. The four unwritten Southern Arabian languages are Shahri (Jebbali), Mehri, Hobyot and Batthari. There has also been debate as to whether a fifth South Arabian language known as Harsusi can be considered a Dhofar-based language.

Contrary to what our ever-so-useful Wikipedia says, general consensus seems to be that Shahri (Jebbali) is spoken by approximately 50,000 or more Dhofaris from mountain tribes as well as a large number of individuals from town tribes. Mahri is also spoken by a decent percentage of the Bedouin population of Dhofar. I apologise if I have confused you with the terms ‘mountain tribes’ or ‘town tribes’. The tribal system in the south of Oman is complex!

As for Hobyot and Batthari, it saddens me to say that fewer than 200 individuals speak these Dhofari languages and they will both become extinct within a generation. Although I have lived in Dhofar my entire life, I have never had the privilege of hearing Hobyot or Batthari being spoken.

Because I come from a mountain tribe, most of my family speak Shahri (Jebbali). I am ashamed to admit that although I understand a lot of it, I do not speak it very well. Many people from mountain tribes who live in the town of Salalah tend to simplify their Jebbali by mixing Jebbali phrases with Arabic words. When I am in town, I understand most of what is being said. The minute I head up into the mountains, the language gets harder and harder to understand.

Although both Mehri and Shahri (Jebbali) are widely spoken at the moment, they are both endangered and will soon become extinct as well. I say this namely because they are both unwritten, and because 90 per cent of all languages in our world are expected to become extinct within the next 100 years. Furthermore, modern life in post-renaissance Oman has forced Dhofaris to speak Arabic every day in addition to English.

Another reason these beautiful South Arabian languages will die quickly is because authorities in Oman have made no efforts to preserve them. Simple as that! I am ashamed to say this, but almost every effort to research and document our dying languages in the past few decades has come from Western researchers.

Many efforts by locals to document and promote these languages have been quietly ignored by authorities, particularly the Jebbali or Shahri language also known as the language of the rebels during the Dhofar Rebellion in the 1960s and 1970s. As you can guess, the language comes with a lot of baggage.

Several years ago a huge controversy took place in Dhofar after a very interesting book was published attempting to study the history and roots of the Shahri (Jebbali) language. In addition to a build-up of other factors, the book’s aftermath led to a governorate-wide controversial debate on the history of the language and what to name it. Without going into too much detail the situation became ugly, several people got arrested, and the book was banned from being published or sold in Oman.

Although the speakers of any unwritten language are mainly responsible for its preservation, I feel it is not enough in Oman. It is my humble opinion that the Omani government should at least openly acknowledge the existence of the nine or so unwritten languages in Oman and support those who speak them to preserve their identity. Our culture lies within the language. Preserving cultural artefacts will never be enough.

I will try to say this as gently as possible and I beg you to try your best not to misunderstand me. Occasionally it feels to me that in an effort to make Oman and Omanis as ‘Omani’ as possible, the powers that be may have intentionally overlooked the importance of the diverse sub-cultures that lie within Oman.

The mountain tribes in the south of Oman with their pride, unique language, beautiful poetry and strong traditions are not something to be weary of. The same goes for Luwati, Mehri, Kumzari, Swahili, Balochi, and all the other beautiful languages spoken within our borders with their fascinating cultures. We should be proud of our unique identities.

Public discussions concerning tribes, languages, and sub-cultures within Oman are not often welcomed by authorities due to historical baggage. I find this very sad and frustrating at times. Omanis are an incredibly diverse population spread out across 309,50sq km.

Nevertheless, we all speak one common language, wear the same clothes, work in the same establishments, pray in the same mosques, receive the same education, cheer for the same soccer team, and are loyal to the same wise leader. Surely this is proof enough that we are able to maintain our own unique cultures while embracing a common Omani identity. In diversity there is unity!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Changing perceptions towards higher education in Oman

Published January 29, 2013 - Muscat Daily.

While many of you spent the long weekend gallivanting in Dubai or just chilling on the beach, yours truly pulled an 81-hour marathon to produce the world’s most tedious post-graduate term paper.

Occasionally I ask myself why I am torturing myself with a post-graduate degree when I could easily be content with my bachelor’s degree. The answer is simple: I am part of a new generation of Omanis who have come to realise that in order to climb the professional ladder in life, our once-prized bachelor’ degrees will soon no longer be enough. The world is a tough and competitive place!

Just in the past few years Dhofar alone has witnessed hundreds of full-time employees enrolling in part-time undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes at local colleges and universities because they have come to realise (some the hard way) that in Oman the days of getting ahead in your career professionally and financially with a high school diploma are over. The new generation of English speaking college educated tech-savvy Omanis are getting all the good jobs … and the good salaries.

The minimum requirements for the simplest of jobs in Oman these days are a college diploma, some English, and good computer skills. Continuing undergraduate studies after high school is no longer an option anymore, but an expectation. Ten years ago I finished high school. A selected number of my top-performing classmates went off to college or university. The rest stayed at home, got a basic secretarial job or got married. In those days going to college was a privilege bestowed upon a lucky few. Now, things have changed drastically.

A few months ago I was speaking to a friend of mine who manages a large reputable company. He was complaining to me that he had been struggling for weeks to find a dozen high-school graduates who would be willing to work for him for decent pay. He had spread the word all over Salalah trying to find anyone interested, but apparently the number of high-school diploma holders is dwindling! Everyone he spoke to knew someone who had a diploma or bachelor’s degree. Shocking but true!

Why is it so shocking? Well, if you humour me while I spew forth a short Omani renaissance speech, I’ll tell you why. Do you realise that four decades ago there were only three schools in the whole country with an enrolment of less than a thousand male students? After His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said came to power in 1970, combating illiteracy and getting kids into school was at the top of his agenda. His leadership has been instrumental in introducing education reforms in Oman.

The combating illiteracy years are still fresh in my mind because several of my aunts and older relatives were enroled in the programme when I was in school not too long ago. Almost every Omani knows someone who learned to read and write as an adult. Now we have an adult literacy rate of over 80 per cent and there are more than half a million kids enroled in school and tens of thousands enroled in undergraduate and post-graduate degree programmes in the country. The statistics are nothing short of remarkable.

When I pull myself out of my little post-graduate term paper woes and think about how far Oman has come in educational development since the 1970s, I am humbled. Our educational system and higher education system is still very young and can do with a lot of improvement, but those soon to be filled gaps should not blind us to how far we've come as a nation. Until next fortnight….

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Issue of FGM in Oman

Published January 1, 2013 - Muscat Daily

A year and a half ago I wrote a column titled ‘Woman with an incense burner’ where I tried as delicately as possible to highlight the issues concerning female genital mutilation (FGM) in Oman, and Dhofar in particular where the practice is still very common.

The feedback I received from readers and acquaintances was overwhelming. Most of them expressed how horrified they were to learn this tradition was still going strong in Dhofar. Some advised me to tread carefully, whereas others told me to keep spreading awareness.

Naturally, I also received plenty of negative feedback from relatives and colleagues claiming I was hanging Dhofar’s dirty washing for the world to see and criticising a practice that they believe is purely Islamic. I paid little attention to these criticisms because I know the practice is harmful and primitive.

It was my intention to write today's column in February to mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM. However, a little over a week ago the United Nations General Assembly passed a historic resolution calling for an FGM ban in all countries. What does this resolution mean for Oman?

Although FGM is banned in hospitals in Oman, in Salalah for example the woman with the incense burner still roams the halls of the maternity ward at Sultan Qaboos Hospital chopping up newborn girls' genitals at their mothers' request. The nurses and doctors know she exists, yet they turn a blind eye. Other women take their newborns to older women in the tribe who perform it quietly then pierce the baby's ears at the same time to make sure people think the baby's howling is caused by ear pain

Should the government pass a legislation immediately banning the practice in Oman? Not necessarily. Introducing a new law before spreading awareness is a recipe for failure. The subject is still very taboo and is not even discussed in private, let alone in public. The first step is to bring it out into the open. In such a conservative society, this can prove to be quite a challenge.

One must also take into consideration the fact that women have been carrying out this tradition for hundreds of years. I mention women specifically because it is my understanding that most men are kept in the dark about this practice. In fact, several men who were willing to discuss it with me explained how horrified they were to discover their daughters had been circumcised. In the north of Oman I believe it's more of a paper cut. In the south, the practice is more brutal and involves chopping off part of or the entire clitoris.

Although locals wholeheartedly believe the practice is healthy and obligatory in Islam, our religion neither encourages the practice nor condemns it. Information explaining why it's harmful to the child is not readily available to mothers. I blame the Ministry of Health mainly for this. I have spent enough time in maternity wards to know that the ministry is doing next to nothing to spread awareness. Women are terrified of what will happen if they do not circumcise their daughters, and by keeping silent the ministry is feeding the belief that the practice is healthy. Perhaps they think that by ignoring it the practice will go away?

It is worth noting that the MOH five-year 2006-2010 health plan included the need for studying the prevalence of FGM in Oman with plans to design awareness programs. To date, none of these plans have come to light, and goodness knows whether combating FGM is on the current agenda. The ministry's website is either very outdated or the current five-year plan has yet to materialise.

Assuming I were the Minister of Logic, I would encourage the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs, the Ministry of Social Development, Ministry of Health, and Ministry of Education to collaborate in launching a nationwide campaign to spread awareness among Omanis.

The walls of maternity wards across Oman should be plastered with awareness posters explaining the dangers of FGM. Mothers of newborn girls should receive an awareness kit including a booklet about FGM with a message from the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs confirming it is not obligatory in Islam. There should be health officials visiting maternity wards in the country to talk to mothers of newborn girls.

Continuing to ignore the practice will not look good for Oman. Our country has already made headlines in the international human rights arena too many times than is good for us in the past couple of years since the Arab Spring protests in 2011. Our reputation when it comes to freedom of speech and assembly is already tainted. Do we need to see more embarrassing reports concerning Oman's unwillingness to address the issues concerning violence against women (i e FGM)? With the new UN resolution, people will be watching Oman carefully. I say it's time for some action. What do you think?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Burqa - A Dying Tradition


If you live in Muscat and spend a considerable amount of time in shopping malls, chances are you've spotted a rather large number of women in fashionable abayas wearing the black face veil with a slit for the eyes.
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It's safe to say that almost every one of those women is from the south of Oman. The veil, more commonly referred to as simply 'the burqa', is almost exclusively Dhofari. The south of Oman has traditionally been more gender-segregated and conservative than any of the other regions. Women in Dhofar start wearing the burqa from the age of about 18.
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During my years at a public girls' high school in Salalah, most of my classmates were already wearing it. When I first started college, I was one of a handful of females on campus who did not wear it.
All the hundreds of other females at my university were hidden behind veils. The only time I ever saw my colleagues' faces was in the prayer hall.
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In 2005 while I was still at college, the government enforced a burqa ban in all institutions of higher education in the country. Naturally, the ban hit Salalah like a tsunami. Tribal meetings were held non-stop for weeks on end while furious families tried to decide what to do. Locals staged demonstrations and wrote long letters to various ministers, but to no avail. Many young women dropped out of college because their families couldn't handle the so-called 'shame' of having their daughters' faces exposed to the world for the first time.
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For months Dhofar suffered what can only be referred to as severe social unrest. Slowly but surely, the young women got used to having an identity on campus. They became more confident and started carrying themselves differently. Some of them even stopped wearing the veil outside campus. The changes were fascinating to watch. Today, most young women in Dhofar don't think twice about uncovering their faces at college or at their offices.
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The past couple of years or so have also witnessed hundreds of young women obtaining their drivers' licences and heading out onto the road without a face veil. Things are changing, but the general consensus down south continues to be that a woman's reputation and identity should be concealed and 'protected' whenever possible. The burqa is a symbol reflecting that mentality.
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The one and only time I wore a burqa was about ten years ago when I was forced to go wedding crashing with my cousins. You may lower your raised eyebrow while I explain. Dhofari wedding crashers, otherwise known as ‘mutafarrigat’ are women whose greatest pleasure is putting on their burqas and slipping in to strangers’ weddings anonymously to view the bride and guests without being recognised. I refer to them as simply 'Dhofari paparazzi'. Many families line up chairs along the walls of the wedding ballrooms especially for these women.
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As much as I respect freedom of choice, I am sorry to say that the face veil is not something I would wish upon anyone. Covering a woman's face is not something I associate with my religion. If a woman makes the decision to wear the burqa, then it is entirely her choice - if it really is her choice. From my experience, I can assure you that no young woman wants to wear it nowadays.Once you've become empowered and discovered what it's like to have a public identity, there's no going back. The tradition of the burqa is dying slowly in Dhofar, but it couldn't go away soon enough.