Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Salalah Meets Washington

Published June 28, 2011 - Muscat Daily

( I wrote this while in transit at Frankfurt Airport last week. Humour me, will you?)

It's 5am in Frankfurt and I have not slept for two days. After combing the airport for nearly an hour in search of decent coffee, I finally found this café. There is a lot of bustle and activity despite the early hour, and the huge monitor above my head tells me my plane doesn't take off for another four hours.

I'm on my way home after spending an incredible week on the US Foreign Press Centre Tour on blogging/writing for social and political change that took place in Washington DC and Minneapolis. In other words, and despite severe caffeine deprivation, life is great and all is well in my world.

A couple of months ago I was contacted by the US Embassy in Muscat asking if I would be interested in participating in the tour, based on my work for this column. Candidates were selected from countries that are currently struggling with social and/or political tension. Never one to turn down an interesting opportunity, I agreed immediately.

Upon receiving the final list of selected participants in May, I knew it wasn't going to be an ordinary tour. The 19 people who would be joining me represented China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan,Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Portugal, Germany, Morocco, Bahrain, Jerusalem, Iraq, Bahrain, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Kenya. When I first saw the list, I couldn't believe I would be spending an entire week with such a wide mix of nationalities. Their impressive biographies were intimidating, but once I got to know them, I knew I'd made friends for life.

Our Washington leg of the tour involved meetings with officials at the State Department, employees at the Foreign Press Centre, NGO representatives, bloggers, journalists and activists in Washington. We then moved on to Minneapolis where we were invited to meet with professors and students at the University of Minnesota's Journalism Centre. We also took part in Netroots Nation, a political convention for American progressive political activists.Being involved in the world of American politics, if only for a few days, was quite the experience, especially for those of us who come from countries where political activism is almost non-existent. The theme at most of our meetings was the use of social media in invoking political and social change.

All the roundtable discussions gave us the chance to see things from the Americans' point of view, in addition to hearing what my fellow participants had to say on the current situation in their respective countries. Our understanding of US government policy regarding civil society initiatives, democratic reform, and Internet freedom has definitely increased.

Our tour was jam-packed with meetings and appointments, with barely enough time for sleep, let alone sightseeing! However, I have nothing to complain about. The FPC were wonderful hosts, and we met some incredible people from all walks of life over the course of those five days, starting with very senior officials at the State Department and ending with homeless musicians and Amish vendors at the Minneapolis Farmers' Market. If you've never heard of the Amish people, I advise you to look them up online immediately, if not sooner.

Apart from writing about the recent political unrest in Salalah, my interests have always leaned more towards social issues and women's issues in Oman. However, after the tour and with the Oman Shura Council elections coming up, I confess I find myself intrigued by the world of politics.

Social media has forever changed the face of politics in the US, and I'm sure, in the years to come, the same will be true for Oman. Judith McHale, the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, said something to us on our first day that kept coming up again and again in our official and private discussions for the remainder of the tour. She said, “The days of one-to-one government relations are over.”

Thinking about it now, what she said was very true. With online social media tools and websites like WikiLeaks available to hundreds of millions of people around the world, it will become increasingly difficult for governments to withhold information from their people.

Politics and social media aside, I think the most valuable lesson I learned from this tour was to sit back and listen to the world speak, literally. We often get so absorbed in what is happening in our own countries that we neglect to take an interest in world affairs. Our tour brought together activists and writers from 20 countries with nothing in common but an Internet connection and a passion for creating positive change.

After listening to first-hand accounts of the horrors that face my fellow participants in places like China, Zimbabwe, and even our neighbour Bahrain, I was truly humbled.

Overall, the tour was an eye-opener for me and I am bursting with new ideas. Oman may not seem like the most democratic of nations, but we are pretty stable and are definitely on the right track. We have more freedom of speech than we think and we have much to be thankful for. I left the US feeling inspired, empowered, and extremely proud of my country. I honestly feel blessed to be living in Oman. You should be too.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Washington D.C

                                             (photo taken on steps of the Lincoln Memorial in D.C)
In April, I received an email from the US Embassy (Muscat) asking if I'd like to participate in a Foreign Press Centre (State Department) sponsored tour for writers/bloggers in Washington D.C in June. Never one to turn down an interesting opportunity, I agreed and a few weeks later heard I'd be accepted into the program along with 19 amazing writers and activists from around the world. I spent the whole of May doing background reading and researching every possible related topic and finally I packed my bags and boarded that Oman Air flight out of Salalah on June 11th. The tour was I.N.C.R.E.D.I.B.L.E and I will be writing a lot about what I learned once I get over the jet-lag (believe me, you do not want to see my face after 55 hours of travel and no sleep). Nevertheless, I thought you should know that I will no longer limit this blog to my newspaper columns and articles. After the intense intellectual stimulation of the past week, I've decided to blog more regularly. I'm literally bursting with ideas. Thank you Department of State and US Embassy Muscat!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Dhofar: The Woman with the Frankincense Burner

Published  June 7, 2011 - Muscat Daily

A few days ago I was at Sultan Qaboos Hospital in Salalah visiting a friend who had just given birth to a beautiful baby girl.

There were several other women there when I arrived, and we all took turns holding the baby and marveling (naturally) at how perfect she was. When the baby was in my arms, I heard someone whispering ‘Come on, Susan. We have to leave’.

I looked up and saw an odd-looking older woman standing at the foot of the bed with what looked like a toiletries bag and a large frankincense burner. I must have had a confused look on my face because the woman standing next to me whispered into my ear again, “We have to go. She’s going to do it.”

The mother of the baby looked distressed and helpless but her mother-in-law seemed to be in control of the situation. I was herded out of the ward along with the other women, and only then did I realise the old woman with the frankincense burner had come to circumcise the child.

Shocking, isn’t it? To think that we live in the 21st century and such primitive practices still take place behind closed doors and secretly in hospital corridors. Almost all girls over the age of about 15 in Salalah have been circumcised. I thought the practice had died down over the past decade and was no longer prevalent in Salalah but evidently I am mistaken. I decided to make a few enquiries regarding the woman with the frankincense burner.

According to my sources, she has been at the hospital for as long as they can remember. She roams the maternity wards all day and makes herself available to anyone who wishes to mutilate their newborn daughters’ genitals.

Obviously she does not work for the hospital, and I have no idea how she supports herself because evidently she does it for free. All I know is that people demand her services because they truly believe it’s the right thing to do.

Many women in Salalah and in other parts of the Middle East claim it is obligatory in Islam and they refuse to discuss it any further.

Al Azhar Supreme Council of Islamic Research, the highest religious authority in Egypt, issued a statement saying female genital mutilation (FGM) has no basis in core Islamic law or any of its partial provisions and that it is harmful and should not be practiced.

I have no idea how prevalent the practice is in other parts of Oman and how much brutality is involved, but I know for a fact that it is widely practiced in Dhofar. If they tell you everyone carries it out ‘lightly’ like a small paper-cut, that’s a complete lie.

It may be true for a handful of families, but after speaking with several women I know, they confirmed that traditionally the whole clitoris is removed and the area burned to ensure that all nerves are dead, hence the frankincense burner. There are also several local clinics in Oman that can do it. Is it even legal?

What baffles me is that many men are not aware that this practice still exists in Dhofar. The problem with FGM is that it is performed by and defended by women, and is considered one of Dhofar’s best-kept secrets. In most cases, women do not ask the permission of the father before performing FGM on a newborn. I wonder how our men feel about that.

Education seems to be the only answer and change won’t happen overnight. The first step is to bring it out into the open without fear or shame. This should not be a taboo subject. The Ministry of Health (MoH) should start an awareness campaign explaining the health risks. There should be posters up in the maternity wards at all hospitals.

People still practice FGM because they think it’s healthy and they’re afraid of what will happen to their daughters if they aren’t circumcised. Many believe that by putting their daughters through this they are protecting them. From what, I wonder?

At times like these people need to distinguish between Islam and culture. Because the practice holds much cultural and marital significance, FGM opponents recognise that ending it requires that they work closely with local communities in order to spread awareness of the profound social, sexual and medical consequences of this practice. This tradition is kept alive by the lack of dialogue. This is where MoH should come in.

I could go on about this forever. The practice is considered a violation of the basic rights of women, and since it is mostly carried out on newborn girls, it is also considered a violation of children’s rights. Now, what can you, as an individual, do about this? You can start by spreading the word. Speak to the women in your family and help bring this issue out into the open. Change begins at home!