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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Mall

Published December 4, 2012 - Muscat Daily

Anyone who has been to Salalah in the past year or so will have noticed the humongous fortress being built on our main highway (or what we call a main highway, but what is rather a narrow old road with several dolled up roundabouts that contribute to the worst traffic jams during rush hour). Ladies and gentlemen, that towering fortress is soon to become Dhofar’s first shopping mall. Do I hear cheers? Or were those moans?
The arrival of a state-of-the-art shopping mall in Salalah may be the making or breaking of this town. I tend to think the latter may be more appropriate. Before you pounce on me, rest assured that although crowds terrify me, I have nothing against shopping malls. Shopping malls mean more opportunities to buy things I don’t need. Shopping malls mean an occasional visit to the cinema. Shopping malls mean the possibility of a decent cup of coffee every once in a while. Shopping malls mean people-watching and a cool escape during the summer. You see, I have nothing against malls…as long as they steer clear of my hometown!
While shopping centres seem to be growing like mushrooms in Muscat, we have done a pretty good job down south of keeping the commercial world of malls and franchises at bay for the past couple of decades. The pace of life in Dhofar is a little slow, but that’s okay. It’s how we like it. Many visitors who come to Salalah complain that there is ‘nothing to do’ and that we need a dose of ‘modern civilisation’. When asked what they mean by modern civilisation, it always comes down to shopping malls. These types of conversations always make me laugh. Since when are shopping malls considered the pillars of civilisation?
If you think I’m being a pessimist, let me tell you a story. Nearly 15 years ago my family and I visited a small town in the middle of Kentucky, US. The town consisted of a bunch of farms, a church, a main street that boasted tens of boarded up little shops and restaurants that had gone out of business, and naturally… a big shopping centre.
As honoured foreign guests, the shopping mall was the first ‘attraction’ we were taken to by the eager locals. It had become the town centre where locals spent much of their time and money. That one building had destroyed the spirit of the town and robbed it of its local economy. I’m not saying the same exact scenario will take place in Salalah, but I know local businesses and people will be affected.
The South of Oman is very special. Before the world of crude materialism comes storming into Salalah, I invite you to come and visit. Browse through traditional stores in Al Haffa or Al Salam Street, eat a delicious meal at a hole-in-the-wall Pakistani restaurant or a little Thai eatery tucked between farms in Dahariz.
Sip hot chai on the beach at sunset with your feet in the sand and watch circles of old men play cards while younger kids play soccer. Drive through the mountains and take a peek at the little farms while their owners are out herding the animals. Drive around aimlessly. Go fishing. Take a dip in the ocean at sunrise. Talk to locals. Walk through coconut and banana plantations while sipping chilled coconut water. Savour the town that so many of us cherish and never want to leave. Salalah as we know it is about to change.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Vacation

Published November 6, 2012 - Muscat Daily

As many of you know, Dhofar is a region where working and driving is still taboo for many women. It is a region where marriages are arranged, female genital mutilation is widely practiced, polygamy is almost normal and where most women go nowhere without a chaperone and a face veil showing only the eyes. Things are changing rapidly but Dhofar remains the most conservative region in Oman for women.

On a quiet evening a little over a year ago a few of my very Dhofari female friends were fantasising about all the countries they'd love to visit as a group of friends. Naturally, the thought of young women going off together on vacation was unthinkable. As we sat quietly on the beach sipping our tea, I suddenly asked them 'Why not? What are the real barriers to you getting on a plane and going on vacation? You all work and can afford it'.

Their eyes widened then they sat upright and started listing the perceived barriers. It is taboo, everyone would find out, the number of suitors would dwindle, reputations would be stained, upset families, tribal problems, general societal unrest, and the possibility of male relatives getting the police to stop the girls from leaving the country.

After reviewing the list carefully, they realised there were no solid barriers. Fortunately, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said is an advocate for the empowerment of women in Oman. As far as I know, currently there are no legal restrictions when it comes to women and travelling. Following two hours of intense discussion, the girls decided to apply the law of attraction and turn their dreams into plans. Anyone who walked past our group of huddled abayas on Haffa Beach that evening didn't know they were witnessing history in the making.

After 14 months of outrage, fights, tears, blackmail, and sheer determination, the girls packed their bags and we flew out to a beautiful European city at the top of our travel list. Many of our overly conservative male peers in Dhofar would probably assume we immediately threw off our headscarves and went clubbing. What really happened, though? What happens when you release a group of Dhofari girls from conservative families into the world for the first time on an allgirls trip?

Believe it or not, our intense seven days of pure bliss over Eid holidays last week involved bright-coloured headscarves (a wonderful break from the traditional black), long breakfasts at little cafes, bookstores, museums, galleries, lectures, long walks, many cups of tea, exploring the city on foot, and skipping through puddles in our boots.

The whole trip was everything we had wished for and more. Goodness knows we earned it. Several times a day the girls would ask each other 'Is this really happening? Am I really here?' On the flight back to Salalah we high-fived each other and celebrated our success as we slipped back into our fashionable black abayas.

Our trip may not seem like much of an achievement if you're unfamiliar with this region, but it means a lot to us. I remember when the idea of going to college after high school was still taboo. I remember when young women first started to drive and work. When breaking deeprooted traditions that are not practical, someone has to start. Someone has to pave the path for others.

Following the usual 'What did you do over Eid?' conversations this week at work, I sat through long uncomfortable silences followed by awkward conversations with my traditional middle- aged male colleagues after I confirmed that all my fellow travellers were indeed unmarried independent Dhofari females. They were difficult conversations but they needed to happen. Change has to start somewhere. What comes next? Another vacation? We may have opened up a whole new world for girls in our conservative little town.

I'm not calling for an immediate revolution and saying all Omani girls should get a passport and go backpacking through Europe. All I'm saying is that your life is too short to be tied down by invisible chains. Quite often the only real barrier stopping you from achieving your dreams is you. Your life and your choices are your own. I know mine are.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Celebrating Eid al Adha

Published October 23, 2012 - Muscat Daily.
It’s rather hard to believe another Eid is knocking at our doors. I haven’t quite recovered yet from Eid al Fitr celebrations nine weeks ago!
For many of you, it may sound like just another Eid, but both occasions are quite different for Muslims worldwide. Eid al Fitr that we observed in August was a celebration following the completion of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. The last few days of Ramadan witnessed intense worship and prayer rituals followed by a communal sigh of relief as we all re-discovered the privilege of eating and drinking during daytime for the first time in a month!
On the other hand, Eid al Adha that we will be celebrating this Friday is a commemoration of the Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his eldest son to God. It also marks the end of the Haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims must complete once in their lifetime. It is not uncommon for Muslims to go two or three times, hence the millions of pilgrims each year.
Last week Dhofar bid farewell to this year’s many pilgrims as they embarked on their journey to Mecca to complete the Haj rituals. Going on the pilgrimage is a big deal and the farewells are often filled with emotion. I was approached by several acquaintances of mine who went off to Mecca asking me for forgiveness if they had ever done me wrong. They wanted to go off to the holy city feeling relieved and unburdened. I haven’t been to Mecca yet but I am very much looking forward to my pilgrimage when the time is right.
On Thursday every household in Salalah will turn on the television early in the morning to watch live coverage of the pilgrims as they observe the final day of Haj, otherwise known as Yom Arafa.
At dawn, the pilgrims will head to Mount Arafa, the site where the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) gave his farewell sermon. Families will gather around the television to try and spot their loved ones among the millions of pilgrims dressed in white. It is a rather extraordinary sight and I recommend that you tune into any Arab television channel on Thursday to watch part of it.
The first day of Eid on Friday morning will involve a lot of animal slaughtering (ie our sacrifice), plenty of meat, excited children, and then endless visiting of relatives and neighbours.
During the weeks leading up to Eid the main topics of conversation in this town are often limited to the following questions; ‘Anyone from your family on the pilgrimage this year? What are you slaughtering? When do you think the holidays will be?’ Naturally, the third question is always the hardest to answer. The powers that be in this little nation of ours aren’t always generous with holiday information. We are often informed of the public holiday a mere four or five days before Eid. It’s rather unfair to people who have travel plans.
Speaking of travels, I have noticed an interesting trend in Salalah these past couple of years. Many families have taken to escaping during Eid to avoid the hassle of having to slaughter and then visit a hundred relatives. This is rather surprising for such a family and tribal-oriented region, but in many ways I don’t blame them. I personally find that two back-to-back Eids can be a little overwhelming.
While the whole population of Salalah heads out into town today to create traffic jams (a favourite pastime) and stock up on last-minute Eid goods, I will be quietly packing my bright red suitcases in preparation for my own Eid escape. Even though I’m not fond of visiting and the thought of large quantities of meat make me feel rather ill, this trip isn’t about escaping. It is more of a social experiment involving a group of rebellious Dhofari girls eager to see the world. Stay tuned….

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Child Safety

Published October 9, 2012 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view article on their website.

No, this isn’t another column about road safety even though I’d very much like to mention our road safety crisis in Oman every fortnight until authorities do a little muscle-flexing and enforce some of the existing laws.

This column is about child safety, another issue that drives me up the wall in Oman. The number of fatal accidents caused by child negligence in Salalah over the past few years seem a little too abnormal to me.

Just last week an innocent child fell out of a fifth floor window to her death in busy central Salalah. A teenager accidently drove over his toddler brother who just happened to be out in the middle of the road with no one watching him. Three young kids drowned earlier this year because their parents thought the ocean was a friend. A child fell out of a car window while her father sped like a maniac. A little kid was electrocuted while playing with loose wires in his home. The list seems unusually long for a town like Salalah.

This doesn’t even include all the precious children who lost their lives in car accidents because their parents didn’t bother putting them in car-seats or fastening their seatbelts. I do not have access to official statistics about child deaths and injuries in Oman, nor do I know if such statistics exist. What I do know is that many of the avoidable incidents I have witnessed over the years reflect a casual ‘Insha’allah everything will be fine’ attitude towards child safety here in Oman.

I observe the gangs of wild young kids in my neighbourhood who play soccer in the middle of the road and harass cars into the late hours of the night and can’t help wondering where their parents are. They don’t look left nor right when crossing the street and aren’t old enough to judge the speed of oncoming cars.

There’s a fierce little four year old in my neighbourhood who is determined to get run over by my car every afternoon when I get home from work. He is often roaming around the neighbourhood on his bicycle for hours at a time and his family is nowhere to be seen. Need I say more?

Recently I had an eight year old in my car. Before we started driving, I asked her to put her seatbelt on. She gave me a puzzled look and asked, “Why?” I gave her an equally puzzled look and after a rather awkward conversation where I tried ever so patiently not to start screaming about safety, I finally managed to explain why seatbelts exist. Apparently, she thought it was better not to wear a seatbelt because in the event of accident it would be easier to get out of the car in a hurry instead of being stuck with a seatbelt. I explained as delicately as possible that in the event of an accident the most likely scenario would be her flying straight through the glass windshield and landing in a motionless heap in the middle of the highway. What have her parents been thinking?

A few days ago the State Council of Oman posted a discussion topic on Facebook asking if it’s time to make car seats mandatory for babies and young children in Oman. I decided to mention it to a few of my colleagues and to my surprise they were furious. They felt that authorities had no business making decisions concerning their own kids. I tend to disagree. Omanis have proven time and time again that they have no understanding of road safety, especially when it comes to children. The only Omani I know in Salalah who owns a car seat for their child is my sister.

I don’t want to generalise but the overall attitude of many people in Oman seems to be that the minute kids are out of diapers they can take care of themselves. The reality of it is that they cannot.

I am not a mother, but I am very much aware of the fact that kids are small, vulnerable, and ever so fragile. You can never be too careful. Are there laws in Oman against child neglect? Do you think many families in Oman are too laid-back about their children’s safety? If so, how can we improve the situation?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Time for Action

Published September 11, 2012 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view the article on their website.

Nearly 800 people have died in around 6,000 car accidents in Oman this year even though it's only September. When looking at worldwide statistics, you'll realize with horror that countries ten or even 20 times the population size of Oman have fewer accidents and even fewer deaths.

I spent the month of July in a western country with a population of 35mn and I never saw one accident during my entire stay there. Since my return to Oman, I have witnessed at least one accident per day!

The population of Oman is less than 3mn. Over half a million are under the age of 17. Furthermore, many women don't drive, and our several hundred thousand labourers probably don't own cars. Do the math. There aren't that many drivers out there.

This national crisis has been discussed endlessly over the past few years, and we have witnessed many awareness campaigns pleading with citizens to drive carefully. Despite these efforts, collisions and fatalities are on the rise.

To prepare for this column, I decided to monitor the number of maniacs who graced my seven-minute drive to work a couple of days ago. I counted 13 drivers zooming in and out of lanes without indicating, tailgating at 100 kmph, pulling out without bothering to judge speed of oncoming cars, and reckless overtaking.

After many discussions with colleagues and friends, the general consensus seems to be that our road problem – simply put - is an attitude problem. As far as I'm concerned, expensive awareness campaigns are essential but they will never be enough. They aren't going to fix the attitude of a nation. Rules are.

Assuming Oman established a new Ministry of Logic and I was appointed minister, this would be my action plan:

1) First and foremost, I would enforce the law. Believe it or not, laws do exist in Oman. Did you know that you could spend between one and five years behind bars for speeding, endangering others on the road, or reckless overtaking? It's in the ROP Traffic Law. Why such a law isn't being enforced regularly baffles me. If you're worried that there aren't enough prison cells, set up temporary prison camps. That would solve many of our problems instantly.

2) I would bring down the speed limit on most inner-city highways from 100 to 80kmph. Clearly we're not responsible enough to handle anything above 80kmph.

3) Fines for not wearing a seatbelt would increase to RO50 for the driver and adult passengers (current fine is RO10), and RO100 for anyone under the age of 18 without a seatbelt. That would prevent more than a few deaths.

4) I would introduce new speeding ticket regulations. Currently, going 35kmph over the speed limit can cost you only RO5-10. Going 60kmph over the speed limit costs about RO40, and a mind-blowing 80kmph over the speed limit can cost you as little as RO50, I kid you not. The lives of everyone sharing the road with that 200kmph murderer are worth only RO50. In order to control speeding, fines must be significant enough to damage people financially. That's the only way things will change.

5) I would make car seats mandatory for every child under the age of four. In case you haven't noticed, babies in Oman often occupy the front passenger seat, some even on the driver's lap! Contrary to popular belief, children aren't protected by voodoo.

6) Road safety would become an official part of school curriculum. Seatbelts on school buses would become mandatory for each and every child.

7) I would increase the number of high-tech speed cameras and red-light systems.

8) Texting and holding a cellphone while driving would land you immediately in jail for three to five days in solitary confinement. Guaranteed you'll never do it again. By distracting yourself with a phone, you endanger the lives of others. You are therefore a potential murderer and deserve to be punished.

9) I would establish a National Driving Academy. The mandatory programme for obtaining a drivers' licence would include 100 hours of road practice, lectures, videos and demonstrations to show what takes place in a car during an accident, basic car mechanics, safety instruction, and a few mandatory hours in the emergency room at a local hospital. Furthermore, passing the driving exam should be a grueling experience.

10) The new laws would be introduced three months before they are implemented. I would launch an intensive national awareness campaign to ensure every citizen is aware of the new rules. That should do the trick.

I know my rules seem a little harsh, but when you're dealing with irresponsible humans with attitude problems, harsh is the way to go. I've seen enough tragedies recently to know that the carnage has got to stop. If there are no serious consequences, there will be no change. The magnitude of the problem will likely increase because impending demographic changes will produce a dramatic rise in the number of young drivers over the next few years. Let's not wait until it's too late!

PS ( this question was not published in the newspaper, but if you were involved in preparing an action plan, what other rules would you include? I'm interested)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Insanity in Dhofar

Published August 28, 2012 in Muscat Daily. Click here to view the article on the newspaper's website.

Insanity is the only suitable word I can think of to describe the current situation in Dhofar. In case you are living in a bubble or are new to the country, let me enlighten you.

While the rest of the Middle East melts during July and August, the Dhofar region in the south of Oman experiences a very cool and wet monsoon, and our town becomes a tourist magnet. This year the holy month of fasting happened to coincide with our rainy season and this caused a predictable decrease in the number of tourists.

We foolishly assumed that very few tourists would come during Eid because normally people spend Eid with their families, right? Wrong. On the first day of Eid local majlis gossip revolved around the Haima crisis. Apparently there were hundreds of vehicle stranded without fuel trying to get to Salalah and most stations along the desert route were empty. Slowly, traffic became more and more congested in town and you could practically hear the mountains rumble as convoys of UAE land cruisers sped their way into Salalah.

Within a few hours, car rental agencies were out of vehicles and all hotels and apartment blocks were fully booked. Rumour has it that hundreds of tourists spent the night in mosques or under the stars because they couldn't find any place to stay. By the second day of Eid, many locals had rented out parts of their homes or even their entire houses to desperate tourists who were willing to pay anything for a place to stay. Those who weren't able to find accommodation in Salalah sought shelter in the neighbouring towns of Taqah and Mirbat.

By the second day, Salalah was out of basic necessities like milk, bread and petrol. An errand that would normally take five minutes took more than an hour, and UAE licence plates seem to have outnumbered Omani ones at one point.

Police attempted to control the insane traffic with very little luck. The roads leading up into our emerald green mountains and valleys witnessed back-to-back traffic. In fact, ROP officers had to turn people away from popular tourist spots like Darbat Valley and Ittin to avoid a major crisis.

With the exception of one trip to the supermarket early on Thursday morning, I stayed home the entire week and haven't even been into the mountains yet because it is just not worth it. Speaking of that one trip to the supermarket, on the drive from the door of our house to the door of the supermarket and back we counted 592 UAE, Saudi and Qatar licence plates, I kid you not. That doesn't even include all the vehicles from the north of Oman.

Official statistics confirmed nearly 100,000 visitors to Dhofar last week, most of whom arrived by car. Do you have any idea what that means for us? The population of Salalah according to the 2010 Census was a miserable 172,000. This town and its roads weren't at all prepared for a 50 per cent overnight population increase. Locals are jokingly referring to it as The Invasion.

It's nice to see so many people enjoying our monsoon, but I am baffled at how the huge influx of tourists was handled. Were MoT officials snoozing during Ramadan? Millions and millions have been spent to promote tourism in Dhofar. If most hotels and flights were completely booked out in advance, surely someone could have suggested a back-up plan just in case? Temporary sleep cabins like the ones set up for the London Olympics would have been useful. Several hundred of Muscat Municipality's new portable paid public toilets would have come in handy as well. The long washroom line-ups at local mosques last week were insane.

Furthermore, I know this isn't the ministry's fault but someone is going to have to think of a better garbage system. Our beautiful mountains have been littered with zillions of soft drink cans and plastic bags because many visitors haven't been able to grasp the idea of storing trash in the car until you find a suitable place to dispose of it.

I know we like to pretend everything's fine in Oman, but the current situation is just embarrassing and frustrating for locals and tourists alike. Officials are going to have to think of a better way to handle tourism because the numbers are going to increase every year and our economy needs it. A little planning and logical thinking goes a long way.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Final Week

Published in Muscat Daily on August 14th, 2012. Click here to view the column on their website.

As I write these words, I am sitting on my back steps here in Salalah in my traditional thobe budhail with two cats curled up on either side of me for warmth. We are quietly enjoying the monsoon drizzle and listening to the gentle rustle of the leaves on the fig, henna and frankincense trees. This is beginning to sound like a poem, isn't it? Forgive me, I've been fasting for almost 12 hours and have another three to go. We do tend to get a little delirious towards the end of the day in Ramadan!

To be honest, I find it hard to believe the holy month of Ramadan is coming to an end. Despite the long hours of fasting, time flew. As we wait for the new moon to mark the end of fasting and the beginning of Eid, I find myself thinking about my favourite and not-so-favourite aspects of Ramadan in the 21st century.

I will definitely miss the atmosphere in Salalah during Ramadan. When an entire region is fasting together, it feels like a month-long celebration instead of a hassle. To be honest, I have no idea how Muslims in non-Muslim societies cope.

Thanks to shorter working hours and fewer commitments, I will miss the extra time for reflection and reading. I will miss the thousands of people rushing to make it to the mosque for every prayer and how everyone makes an extra effort to be calm and generous.

I will miss seeing plates of food being carried through the neighbourhood during the hour before sunset on their way to the mosque to feed fasting labourers. I'll miss all the excited children who are fasting for the first time. I will miss peeking out of my window at 4am and seeing all the neighbours' lights come on slowly one by one as they prepare for dawn. The list is long.

On the other hand, I will definitely not miss the Ramadan work ethic among Omani employees. I'm not exaggerating when I say next to nothing gets done in Ramadan. Muslims only work six hours during Ramadan, but most of them might as well not come to work at all. Somehow fasting and productivity don't go well together for many people.

The obsession with food and the long line-ups at supermarkets at all hours of the day and night will not be missed either. Most families spend up to four or five hours in the kitchen each afternoon preparing to break the fast and end up making up to ten different deep-fried dishes, most of which go to waste. This completely contradicts the purpose of fasting in my opinion, but to each his own, I suppose. In my home, my mother and I have dinner down to a 54-minute art. In the hour before sunset, we manage to produce a starter, a healthy main course and occasionally a dessert.

Believe it or not, our meals don't even involve the basic Omani Ramadan staples - oil, samosa wraps, puff pastry, crème caramel and Vimto. Sleeping well at night and fitting in a healthy breakfast before sunrise means I have energy during most of the day, for which I am grateful.

One aspect of Ramadan that drives me crazy is the increasing commercialism. I find I am able to shut myself off most of the time because I never really go into town during Ramadan. Furthermore (brace yourselves), my house is probably the only remaining house in the sultanate without cable television.

I can just about handle the very short episode of the Omani Ramadan cartoon Yom wa Yom in the evenings on Oman TV because I find it hilarious. However, the empty and mindless commercials that come on every five minutes during the episode remind me why I choose never to watch television. Life's too short.

I will not miss all the daily phone messages from car dealerships trying to brainwash me into believing I need a brand new RO25,000 car because I'm delirious, hungry and looking for distractions that don't involve food. What is it with car deals during Ramadan anyway?

I’m sad to see the holy month end because it’s a special time of year; a time of reflection, discipline and spirituality. However, I am also guilty of looking forward to going back to my normal work and study schedule. Trust me, trying to do post-graduate work while fasting is like pulling a tooth. Come next week, I'll be reunited with my sacred morning mug of coffee and I might just be able to catch up on all my studying...Insha Allah!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Women & Photography

Published July 17, 2012 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view the article on the newspaper's website

I'm writing this with my feet in buckets of cold water as I recover from a seven-hour hike with all my camera equipment through an unnamed city in a faraway land where I am taking an intensive outdoor urban photography course.I know it’s not considered the most feminine of activities, especially for a young woman from the conservative south of Oman. Fortunately though, being feminine and proper is the least of my worries most of the time.

I cannot recall exactly when I first became interested in photography, but over the past ten years or so my interest has evolved into a passion. My early days involved experimenting with black and white photography using film cameras (remember those?). I have since progressed to Digital SLRs with multiple lenses.

Despite my passion and ability to take good photos, I am not by any means a professional photographer. I would like to become one someday though, hence the investment in good equipment and the intensive photography hikes overseas with an incredibly talented photographer and teacher. Had I attempted the same adventure in Salalah, I would have ended up in serious trouble for endangering the reputation of my tribe (I’m only half-kidding).

This brings us to the topic of today’s column; females and photography in Oman and Salalah in particular. First of all, I’d like you to keep in mind that the relatively small community of photographers in Oman has traditionally been all-male. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the public emergence of females in the field of serious photography has occurred only over the past three to five years at the very most.

In Salalah, the only semi-acceptable photography profession for women is wedding photography. Women who take on this profession usually see it as a quick way to make money (approximately RO100 per wedding) in an all-female environment. Most of them go out and purchase an expensive camera, but due to lack of proper training the results are usually far from professional. I’ve seen results where the bride had red-eyes in almost every photo.

Besides wedding photography and without sounding too pessimistic, I can almost say that society frowns upon female photographers here in the south and perhaps in other parts of Oman as well. I know this from experience. I’ve appeared in public a number of times with my big chunky camera and was either given strange stares and asked what on earth I was doing, or word reached one of my male relatives that I was seen in public drawing attention to myself. A couple of years ago I ventured out into Muttrah Souq in Muscat with a female photographer friend and we also received plenty of glares.

To be fair, things are definitely improving quickly in the Muscat area and very slowly in other parts of Oman. There have been a few exhibitions in the capital over the past couple of years highlighting the work of female photographers including a very recent one at Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah.

Furthermore, a little over a week ago, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said ordered the establishment of a governmentsupervised Omani Photographers’ Association. Up until now the only outlet for photographers innSalalah has been the photography branch of the Omani Fine Arts Society. Again, it has been entirely male dominated until very recently. The handful of females who were brave enough to join is practically invisible according to an inside source. Personally, I have always felt a little intimidated by the club and didn’t consider joining.

On a final note, I hope the new association pays extra attention to training and to the unique role women can play in the Omani photography scene. After all, we do represent half the population! I know there are many hidden female talents behind closed doors in Salalah that are simply waiting to be encouraged and unleashed. The future looks a little brighter. Till then, I’ll be counting the days until I can freely set up my tripod in central Salalah and shoot to my heart’s delight without feeling judged or intimidated!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Khareef Salalah

Published July 3, 2012 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view article on the newspaper's website.

You guessed right. Today’s column is about the Dhofar monsoon season, commonly referred to as the ‘Khareef’. What kind of Dhofari would I be if I didn’t write an annual piece on our overrated rainy season? Nearly a fortnight ago the first drops of rain graced my car windshield at 7 am as the south of Oman slipped gently into Khareef mode.
To most outsiders, Khareef-mode means monsoon rain and emerald green mountains. To Dhofaris it means - among other things - weddings, picnics, mud, Salalah Tourism Festival, insane traffic, monsoon bugs, tourists and yes… rain.

As hundreds of thousands of GCC nationals and locals from the north of Oman flock to Salalah to escape the soaring summer temperatures in July, yours truly gets on the first plane out of this town.
To be honest, I had planned to write a piece describing why I can’t bear the festival or being in Salalah during the peak of tourist season. However, in a moment of serenity a couple of days ago while cruising at an altitude of 2,000 feet in a hot air balloon in a faraway land, a voice inside my head told me to stop being a snob.

Despite my short bouts of pessimism, July is actually a really fun time to be in Salalah. First of all, the weather is really great compared to the rest of the Arabian Gulf. Temperatures hover around the mid-twenties during July, August and most of September. To quote last year’s Khareef column ‘The heavy mist, gushing springs and emerald green mountains may look like tropical East Asia or even Scotland until you spot the first herd of camels grazing happily in a valley of wild flowers and butterflies. Sometimes it’s too good to be true, and it’s unbelievable to think that just a few hundred kilometres away lie the rolling sand dunes of the Empty Quarter’.

Between June 21 and July 18 this year, all the action will be taking place at the Salalah Tourism Festival. I have not been to the festival for a couple of years, but I keep tabs on the different activities and exhibitions that are held at the festival grounds. Highlights include the usual exhibitions, cultural events, concerts, traditional dancing and music, theme park, camel rides, and plenty of great food. The shopping pavilions hosting cheap products from China are a big hit with the women. If you’d like to acquire a few bargaining skills, I suggest you shadow a Dhofari woman at one of the shopping pavilions for a couple of hours.

Over the years the festival has hosted some incredibly wacky events including cheap freak shows involving half-animal half-human creatures, strange eastern European dance troupes and odd talent shows. This year’s wacky touch includes a traditional medicine kiosk where you can get branded with a hot iron rod (I kid you not). They also offer blood-letting services. Google it.

The festival means a lot to many people in Dhofar. It’s a fun place to take the kids and there are plenty of activities to keep all members of the family entertained. If I were to brave the festival at some point in the next few years, I’d probably head straight for the book exhibition and photography exhibitions. I might also stay for the daily fireworks and stop by the heritage village to see some of the dancing. I have a soft spot for traditional music.

All in all, monsoon is a great time to visit Salalah. The beaches may not be at their finest, but the rest of the atmosphere makes up for it. This year the holy month of fasting – Ramadhan – is expected sometime around July 20 depending on the sighting of the moon. This of course has affected the dates for the festival and will affect tourism in Dhofar. However, as far as I’m concerned the best time to visit Salalah is afterRamadhan. Dhofar will be at its greenest and hopefully the number of tourists will have declined. You might just be able to find a hotel room and a picnic spot!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

War on Bloggers

The past fortnight has been an unsettling one for bloggers, writers and activists in Oman. On June 4, a vague statement was released by the Public Prosecution announcing that the number of 'insulting' and 'negative' posts on local blogs and online forums under the pretext of free speech was on the rise. The statement went on to say that anyone caught engaging in such activities and spreading rumours that affect national security will be prosecuted.

A few days later, another statement confirmed that a number of bloggers and activists had been arrested for their online activities and that Omani authorities would not tolerate anyone who uses online platforms to insult, provoke and spread rumours.

The statements make no sense unless you understand what triggered them. Unfortunately though, the powers that be aren't really good at sharing information. After doing a little research through the grapevine, I now have a general idea of who was arrested and why. Regrettably, I can't share that information because then I would be committing the crime of - heaven forbid - spreading rumours!

What I can say is that on June 6, an odd piece was published in a local newspaper confirming that people were spreading negative rumours about our beloved head of state online. That type of criticism is taboo and we all know it.

Another disconcerting interview with the public prosecutor confirmed that they are keeping a watch on all social media platforms in Oman and that bloggers may spend up to two years in jail because the law is clear about such crimes. I tend to disagree. The law is not clear. What exactly constitutes negative writing or rumours? When the government doesn't share information with the public, everything becomes a rumour. As a blogger, I found the recent announcements vague and a little intimidating.

If the authorities are going to go around arresting bloggers for their writing and denying them immediate access to their lawyers, then perhaps they should elaborate more on the fine lines between criticism and insults according to the Omani law. Those of us who value freedom of expression but who are not interested in breaking the law would like to know. In the words of a blogger friend of mine, “How can you threaten people with jail/fines without explicitly setting out what the boundaries are?”

Media publications and the Internet in Oman have always been censored. The protests last year sparked a national discussion about ways to improve this country and handle corruption. For a while, it looked like we'd cracked some major censorship barriers, but now it seems we're back to square one. The days of going out into the streets to demand the removal of key government officials by name are over!

The Public Prosecution announcements were followed by an explosion of debate in the Omani blogosphere. Most bloggers openly condemn the arrests. Naturally, we've also made international headlines this week. A statement from Freedom House last week described the situation as ' a worrying indication of the deteriorating conditions for freedom of expression in Oman'.

Human Rights Watch called this flood of arrests 'A campaign of intimidation' and Amnesty International referred to it as a 'blatant attempt to stamp out freedom of speech'. Rather embarrassing for Oman, don't you think?

Do I believe it's okay to post offensive content online? No. Do I think the heavy handed approach by authorities is going to work? Not really. So what's next? Are they going to pull a Syria on us and block social media platforms altogether? You can't silence people. Not after last year.

I care deeply for my country and its stability. I also believe in the validity of human rights. In the end, freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. If the government chooses to ignore that in order to maintain stability within Oman, fine; just educate us first about the law and about our rights. A little transparency goes a long way!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Thobe Budhail

As we survive one of the worst heat waves Salalah has witnessed in the past few years, I am grateful for many things in life. I'm grateful for airconditioners that work.

I am grateful for a demanding office job that keeps me at work until after 5pm when the heat is slightly more bearable and I am able to walk to my car without turning into a puddle in the parking lot. I am grateful for iced tea, sunglasses and cool showers.

Most of all though, I'm grateful for my thobe budhail. If you're not familiar with the term, you're probably new to Oman. Thobe budhail translates into 'Father of the Tail'. Exclusive to the South of Oman, it is basically a loose-fitting square colourful garment with holes for the hands and head. The back of the dress is about a foot longer than the front and it comes with a big matching rectangular headscarf, commonly referred to as a losee or leeso.

There are many folktales attempting to explain the tail at the back of the dress. One common tale tells the story of a man who fell in love with a woman and she refused to marry him. He traced her footsteps to know where she lived and put a curse on her. To protect other girls, a tail was added to the dresses to erase their footsteps.

Another myth has it that a king used to sprinkle magic powder on the ground and any woman whose feet touched the powder would fall madly in love with him. To protect themselves, Dhofari women would use their tail to sweep the powder away. Many Dhofaris tend to agree that a few generations ago the thobe budhail sported a leather tail to erase women’s footsteps in the sand when they were out herding their animals.

Regardless of how it all started, the tradition of the thobe budhail is still going strong in Dhofar. Every single female over the age of about 12 wears the thobe budhail at home at all times. That goes pretty much without exception. Even babies wear them occasionally! They are available in every type of material imaginable from delicate silk to denim. Day-today thobes are cotton and come in a thousand different prints from delicate flower prints to wild African designs.

Some even have designer brand names illegally printed all over them. Recently, I saw someone wearing a thobe that had ‘Blackberry’ written all over it. I’ve also seen Prada, Louis Vuitton and Versace. Day-to-day thobes cost about RO3 each and are worn by all females; rich and poor, young and old. My wardrobe at home hosts about 40 of them.

For special occasions, women may don thobes made of slightly more expensive material. Wedding thobes are usually made of velvet and have a million little crystals sewn onto them. These can cost up to RO500. Since women in Dhofar are very much into fashion, the thobe budhail business is always thriving. There is an entire section of Salalah's main stretch – Al Salaam Street - dedicated to thobe budhail shops. It is lined with about 40 or 50 shops selling different prints.

A colleague of mine who used to own one of the shops on that stretch told me that during the weeks before Eid, he would sell up to 500 thobes a day in his tiny shop. The only argument against this popular garment is that it’s not very practical, especially for active women. I’ve almost mastered the art of skilfully hitching it up while doing housework, but it can be a nuisance sometimes. Wearing them can also enhance weight gain in my opinion because it conceals pretty much everything. You also need to replace them regularly because their lifespan is short. I’m not a big fan of shopping, so I usually buy five to ten at a time.

As far as I’m concerned, the advantages of wearing them completely outweigh the disadvantages. They’re beautiful. The way they flow is extremely elegant and feminine. They’re comfortable. They’re affordable. In extreme situations, they act as a mobile dressing room. They're great gifts. Last but not least, they’re perfect for hot weather. Did I already mention that I’m not a fan of heat waves? Monsoon in Dhofar is 17 days away!

Published June 5, 2012 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view the column on the newspaper's website.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Slave No More

Published May 22, 2012 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view article on the newspaper's website.

I'm a recovering addict. How's that for an opening sentence? Let me start at the beginning. I've always been a very organised person. Before cellphones and the Internet, I managed my life through daily planners (remember those?) Once modern technology invaded Oman and I discovered the wonders of handheld phones, I started managing my life through my BlackBerry.

I was constantly tuned in to my channels of communication. On my handheld alone I managed my work e-mails, personal e-mails, blogs, Facebook and Twitter accounts, WhatsApp account, BlackBerry Messenger, and good old SMS… not to mention the occasional call or two! I also drafted most of my columns on the phone.

With over 2,000 contacts, life seemed manageable on the handheld. Furthermore, I was on my computer all day at work then I'd spend a good chunk of my time at home on my laptop answering personal e-mails and tuning in to world happenings. I was your typical tech-savvy 20-something year old. In other words, I was a complete slave to modern technology.

A little over a year ago while on vacation in London, my BlackBerry decided to die a cold and damp death after I accidentally left it by an open window all night. When I realised what had happened the next morning, I frantically tried to revive it by removing the battery several times, shaking it, banging it against the wall, and finally begging it with all my heart to come back to life. When it failed to respond, I finally sank to the floor and stared at the blank screen for over an hour as my life fell apart. I thought I had lost everything; my contacts, photos, notes and conversations. Slowly I began to feel physically ill. My illness was soon followed by heart palpitations. That's how upset I was. Don't mock me.

With eight whole days before my flight back to Oman, how was I going to survive? For the first couple of days, I wandered through the streets of London feeling lost and miserable. I was depressed and unable to focus on anything or anyone around me. On day three, I settled down under a tree in Hyde Park and decided to address my anxiety. Why was I so miserable? Why was I so dependent on this ugly little handheld device? What had I become? And finally, how on earth did we all live and communicate before cellphones and e-mail? To be honest, I couldn’t remember. This realisation scared me.

I acknowledged how ridiculous the situation was and decided to take control of my own life. The next five days turned out to be the best part of my vacation. I allowed myself to unwind and enjoy leisurely strolls and meals without constantly looking at my phone and worrying about minor work issues thousands of miles away.

Upon my return to Salalah, I bought a new BlackBerry but only activated my work e-mails. I bid farewell to Twitter and Facebook on the handheld. I forbade myself from using the computer at home unless absolutely necessary. My phone was put on silent mode after 10 pm every night and I was actually able to walk from one room to the next without carrying my phone with me.

A few nights ago just as I was going to bed, my year-old BlackBerry decided to die a peaceful death. This time though, I stared at the blank screen, yawned and went to bed. I felt neither stress nor anxiety. My contacts were saved on my computer at work and my e-mails were all safe and sound somewhere on the World Wide Web. Nothing else mattered. In other words, I was finally growing up.

Looking back at that cold morning in London a year ago, I can't tell you how pleased I am with myself. I'm still a long way away from being able to switch my phone off completely and not check email for a few days, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that as everyone around me becomes more and more connected, I am seeking to disconnect. In fact, I'm sitting at my kitchen table right now writing this column on real paper using a real pen. My phone is charging in another room. All is well in my world.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Evil Eye

Published Tuesday April 24th, 2012 - Click here to view article on Muscat Daily website.

A few weeks ago I was sitting with a group of women from my extended family sipping tea and exchanging tribal news. One woman was asked about her newborn granddaughter.

The grandmother immediately started speaking loudly 'the baby has dark skin and big ears! She's so ugly!' All the other women nodded. I sat up furiously and said 'Hey, that's not true. She's absolutely adorable!' I had been holding the baby a couple of days earlier and she was one of the sweetest bundles of joy I had ever seen.

The protective grandmother gave me a furious look. My mother nudged me and whispered 'You're not supposed to say that', so I settled back down into my chair and let them get on with the conversation. I had forgotten about how superstitious my family is. The woman was simply trying to protect her grandchild from the evil eye.

Although superstitions are a big part of our culture here in Dhofar and in other parts of Oman as well, the evil eye isn't just superstition. It is considered an everyday hazard. If you're not familiar with the concept of the evil eye, it is a 'look' that is believed to be able to cause harm or bad luck for the person at whom it is directed. It is often fueled by envy.

In Islam, the evil eye is a common belief that humans have the power to look at other living creatures or objects to cause them harm. Although talismans are not commonly used as protection among Muslims, certain verses from the Holy Q’uran are used to ward off the evil eye. It is also a tradition among us that if a compliment is to be made you must say 'Masha'Allah' (God has willed it) as protection against such evil.

In Dhofar, many locals believe that the evil eye can bestow a curse on victims and may even cause death. In fact, I have heard of a few people in this town who are actually well-known for the power of their evil eye. Apparently, they have a history and many eyewitnesses to prove it. Sometimes I think my people find it hard to distinguish between the evil eye and hardcore black magic. Salalah is a peculiar town when it comes to dwelling in the unknown.

For the first few months of a baby's life, it is not uncommon to see small amulets containing verses from the Q’uran pinned to the child's clothing. Babies are thought to be the main victims of the evil eye especially when praised by childless women or strangers.

I remember an incident a year ago when I smiled at a baby in the middle of a supermarket in Salalah. Its mother saw me and immediately grabbed my arm and said 'Say Masha'Allah! Say Masha'Allah! Quick!' It took me a few seconds to realise what was going on before I could mumble the words and put her at ease.

Remember my last column on the bridal fiasco? During our three hours with the makeup artist, I had to sew verses of the Q’uran into the bride's wedding gown to protect her from the evil eye.

Other common practices include slaughtering an animal at the door of your newly built house to ward off evil. When buying a new car, locals often play recorded Q’uran CDs in it for the first few days to protect it from envy. Until recently it was not uncommon for Dhofaris to slaughter animals before harvest in order to pour their blood into water springs and throw scraps of flesh throughout their fields to ward off envy.

Naturally, I am a little superstitious as well because it's part of my Dhofari upbringing. However, I most certainly do not let it affect my day to day life. I'm sure there are plenty of evil forces out there, but I choose not to obsess about them!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Bridal Woes

Published April 10, 2012 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view the article.

Don't be fooled by the title of this column. Fortunately my current woes are limited to work and academia. After five years of procrastination, I decided to dust off my nerd glasses and start a post-graduate degree.

Having just survived my first intensive session of classes, I'm afraid my brain isn't as focused as it should be right now on tackling social issues in Oman. I shouldn't feel too bad, though. The day after my recent column on women's rights was published, it was announced that Oman will be establishing a committee to work with CEDAW to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women in Oman. Coincidence? Who knows!

In the meantime, let me entertain you with a story. On a quiet afternoon a few weeks ago I was packing for a business trip to Muscat. My plan was to be in bed by 8pm in order to be up in time to catch my flight out of Salalah at 5am. My phone rang suddenly and I recognised the number of a bride whose wedding was taking place that same night. When I answered, I heard the frantic voice of the bride's mother shouting into the phone 'We need your help! You need to accompany the bride!'

Accompanying a Dhofari bride is a task usually given to an unrelated female with a vehicle. It involves picking up the bride from her home, driving her to beauty appointments, and then making sure she arrives at the wedding on time. My friend's companion had cancelled at the last moment. It was clear what needed to be done.

Within a few minutes I was on my way. As we loaded her humongous wedding dress into the back of my car, the make-up artist called in a panic demanding we pick up three sizes of fake eyelashes on the way over.

Half an hour and three eyelash shops later, we arrived at our destination. We were escorted by a nervous housemaid through a dark alleyway and into a house hidden in the shadows.

We were then shown into a room with a sofa set and no mirrors. Sitting on a large armchair in the centre of the room was a tough-looking woman who introduced herself as the infamous makeup artist.

On a coffee table next to her sat the largest collection of makeup this person has ever seen. On the floor was a young bride who was receiving the final touches to her bizarre wedding makeup, (think Michael Jackson's Thriller video meets Nicki Minaj). The so-called final touches took over an hour. It was going to be a long night.

For the next three and a half hours (I kid you not) I watched the woman plaster my friend's face and shoulders with white paint then proceed to use every colour of the rainbow on her twitching eyelids. Towards the end of the session, we got into an argument about the amount of glitter I was allowing her to apply to my friend's face. She wouldn't take no for an answer. The makeup scene ended at 11pm with the artist running down the hall behind the bride with a pot of glitter swearing she'd apply 'just a little more!' We escaped just in time.

The next two hours were spent with the hair stylist who ran an illegal salon business from her spare bedroom. I watched her glue my friend's hair to her scalp then attach a huge wig using what looked like 100 hair pins. She then proceeded to curl every single lock of fake hair using an entire can of hairspray and a curling iron. By the time we left, it was 1am.

We finally made it to the hotel only to discover the wedding photographer had failed to show up. The patient groom was sitting in the parking lot in his car counting the hours. As we helped the bride into her dress, it became apparent that I would have to be the spare wedding photographer as I appeared to be the only person among the 400 guests with a professional camera.

To cut a long story short, I managed to get home at 3am. I had 30 minutes before the airport check-in counter closed. Fortunately, I decided to be sensible. I called Oman Air and postponed my flight to the week after. I then sent explanatory e-mails to my colleagues who were expecting me in Muscat.

And that, my friends, is what most brides go through on their wedding day here in Dhofar. Not a very happy occasion, don't you think? My ordeal was a harsh reminder of why I removed myself from the Dhofari wedding scene several years ago. Never again!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Women's Rights in Oman

Published March 27, 2011 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view the article.

Following my column two weeks ago on International Women’s Day, today I'm tackling something closer to heart… women's rights.

Oman has been a pioneer in the Gulf when it comes to women's rights. His Majesty the Sultan has worked hard to guarantee equal rights and opportunities for women. Forty years ago there were no schools for girls in Oman. Today, there are more women than men enrolled in institutions of higher education. Our participation in the labour force is also increasing on a daily basis.

However, like most countries we have our issues when it comes to women. Although the Basic Law of Oman prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, women still face legal discrimination under the personal status law of Oman.

It's a sore subject because Oman's interpretation of the Islamic Sharia law is what controls the personal status law in all matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody. I have great respect for the Sharia law, but I think people should have a choice.

It bothers me that it’s legally possible in Oman for any male member of my family to marry me off without my consent. No woman I know in Dhofar has ever signed any marriage papers.

The men of the family ‘arrange’ it all. It’s also irritating to know that a husband can grab two strangers off the street and make them sign a divorce document in court as witnesses. The court doesn't even bother to make sure the woman gets a copy of the divorce paper.

It’s legally possible in Oman for a man to divorce his wife with two witnesses, then go home and pretend nothing happened. Who's going to tell her? There are definitely gaps in the system, and according to my sources some practices tend to vary by province.

The reason this issue isn’t discussed publicly is because very few men abuse their privileges when it comes to marriage and divorce, but that does not in any way justify these discriminatory practices.

As far as I'm concerned, every human has the right to be in control of their own life. Obtaining a woman’s signature on her marriage and divorce papers should be mandatory.

Another issue that drives me up the wall is that a man can legally take on an additional wife without informing his first wife. I know for a fact that many men abuse this right. The personal status law of Oman is very vague about polygamy.

It only specifies that a man should treat all his wives equally. It also bothers me that inheritance laws of Oman discriminate against women. Again, I think people should have a choice.

Several international human rights' reports state that women in Oman are legally restricted from travelling abroad without the permission of a male relative. From my experience, I know this is not true.

However, according to my humble knowledge, a male relative can stop a woman from leaving the country if he wishes. I have searched high and low but cannot find a legal document confirming this. If you know anything about this, please share.

Yet another sore subject is marriage to foreigners. It is nearly impossible for an Omani woman to marry a foreigner. There are seven billion people on this planet, but my country tells me I'm only allowed to marry one of the several hundred thousand men who hold an Omani passport.

In the rare case where approval is granted, the woman faces an even bigger battle involving child custody and the ability to sponsor her own kids in Oman. The ironic part is that if you have a child from an 'unknown father', then that child automatically gets citizenship. What is wrong with this picture?

It is worth noting that Oman is one of the very few remaining UN members that has not fully ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Oman presented a report to CEDAW in October 2011 but stipulated reservations on several issues including women’s right to move freely, granting nationality to children with Omani mothers, and other CEDAW provisions that are not in accordance with Sharia laws.

There are a few other issues that I would like to highlight, but I’m running out of space. Stay tuned for another feminist outburst!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Role of Women (International Women's Day)

Published March 13, 2012 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view article on the newspaper's website.

Last Thursday the world observed International Women's Day. Rallies, seminars, and parties were held around the globe to celebrate women's achievements and to address their struggles. In Salalah, the occasion slipped by without much notice. I celebrated quietly at a barbecue under the full moon in the mountains of Dhofar with friends.

The past year has been an interesting one for women around the globe. Some countries took a step forward; others took ten steps backwards.

Arab women were publicly shaping their countries and fighting for democracy in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya during the Arab Spring. Many are still fighting to this very day in countries like Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Furthermore, three remarkable women were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

On the other hand, just last week Afghanistan's highest Islamic authority issued an edict saying that women were worth less than men - a statement released by Karzai's office and then endorsed by the president.

"Men are fundamental and women are secondary," it said, adding women should avoid "mingling with strange men in various social activities such as education, in offices and other aspects of life". We are secondary now, are we? I'm glad Hamid Karzai is not my president!

His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said has always been an avid supporter of women in Oman. We are truly blessed to have such an enlightened leader.

From the very first day he took over from his father in a bloodless coup over 40 years ago, he has been encouraging Omani women to empower themselves and become active members of society. In fact, in Oman we get to celebrate Omani Women's Day on October 17 as well as International Women's Day on March 8.

What's it like being a woman in Oman? I get asked this question a lot. Foreigners with very little knowledge of Oman tend to think we live isolated lives like women in Saudi Arabia simply because we're next door neighbours. They couldn't be more wrong!

Oman has taken significant measures to ensure women's rights in most areas. Women in Oman can work, drive, vote, own property and hold office. We also have equal opportunities when it comes to education.

When I was working on my undergraduate degree here in Oman, more than half of the students enrolled at my university were females. For a town as conservative as Salalah, this was quite something.

However, like most women around the world we have our share of struggles. Having two female ministers and a handful of ambassadors doesn't mean all Omani women are empowered. Many forms of discrimination still exist against women in Oman.

Drive into any village or small town outside the capital and observe how the women live. There is a lot to be done. First and foremost, women in rural areas need to know what their rights are.

The main issue we face in places like Dhofar is society's attitude towards women. The majorities of men down south disapprove of working women and prefer their women to be at home where no other male can see them. Naturally, the glass ceiling is also a big issue for working women in the public and private sectors.
There are also some aspects of the law that discriminate against women in Oman especially when it comes to marriage, divorce and inheritance. They aren't major issues but they matter a lot. I will save that argument for my next column.

Today I am focusing on the positive and paying tribute to all the incredible women in Oman who have helped shape this country and who continue to prove themselves on a daily basis. Happy Women's Day!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Lest We Forget : Anniversary of the Dhofar Protests

Published February 28, 2012 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view the article on the website.

This week, the people of Dhofar are quietly observing the first anniversary of the protests that erupted in Salalah on February 25, 2011. It's hard to believe that a year has gone by since the day protesters marched through the centre of town with banners demanding reform.

They set up huge tents and a stage in the Minister of State's parking lot in central Salalah, where they remained for 77 days. The parking lot – nicknamed 'Freedom Square' – became the centre of attention during those months. Hundreds of people from all walks of life visited the sit-in on a daily basis to talk about a new Oman.

On Fridays, thousands flocked to the square to listen to the widely anticipated Friday sermons. Temporary food kiosks and water facilities were set up to cater to the needs of protesters, and donations were pouring in on a daily basis to help provide meals.

Dhofar wasn't the only province that suffered from Arab Spring fever. Despite very little media coverage in most local newspapers, protests were erupting all over Oman.

After negotiations took place between sit-in organisers in different parts of Oman, a final list of demands was delivered to the palace and then printed on a large banner and fastened to the Minister of State's main gate in Salalah.

The long list included demands for better economic conditions, more jobs for Omanis, freedom of speech and an end to government corruption. During those difficult few months, the government worked through the list in a remarkable and efficient manner.

Royal Decrees were issued on a semi-daily basis announcing jobs, benefits, a new public university, legislative powers for Majlis A'Shura (the closest thing our politically immature nation has to a parliament) and many other major changes.

Unfortunately, the sit-in didn't end peacefully in Dhofar. By the end of April, many satisfied protesters had gone home, but a couple of hundred who were hoping for more change continued with the sit-in. By then most of the major demands had been fulfilled, and the rest were either unrealistic or required more time.

On the evening of May 12, all hell broke loose in Salalah when the army arrived and aggressively took over the square. All communication services were shut down in Dhofar during the raid and several hundred men who happened to be in the square at that time were arrested and taken to the local prison.

Nearly a dozen key speakers and activists were plucked out of the square by helicopter and taken to a prison facility up north, where they remained for over 50 days.

Unfortunately, I was near the square at the time and had my precious Nikon D90 confiscated by the ROP after foolishly trying to get a shot of locals clashing with the army at the entrance to the square. After being interrogated and forced to wait in my car for nearly two hours, my camera was finally returned to me and I was allowed to leave.

The next morning, supporters flocked to the square and formed another quiet sit-in to demand the release of their friends and relatives from prison. A friend of mine managed to get onto the roof of a nearby building and snap photos of the army during their second raid.

Sometimes I look back at those photos and think to myself, “Did this really happen? How very un-Omani.” For weeks afterwards, the army presence remained strong in central Salalah. They finally withdrew just as our busy monsoon tourist season was starting.

To this very day, most locals frown upon the excessive use of power that ended the peaceful sit-in in Salalah. After all, it really was nothing more than a large communal debate in a parking lot over thousands of cups of tea.

Regardless of what happened, I think the Omani version of the Arab Spring is something to be proud of. Our uprising was a good example of how a nation can work together to create positive change…peacefully. It was liberating and very healthy for us.

At the height of the Arab Spring drama in the Middle East, several renowned international media publications had the audacity to compare the situation in Oman to places like Egypt and Libya. Only those of us living here knew how ridiculous these allegations were.

The situation here was completely different. People wanted economic reform. There was no rebel party and no one was trying to bring down a regime. Omanis wanted to voice their opinions and be heard.

Looking back now, I think one of the main lessons we learned as a nation is that public dialogue is not a crime. Standing up against corruption is not a crime. Challenging the status quo is not a crime.

During the past year we've broken boundaries that many of us never knew existed. The fact that I can discuss this in a local newspaper is quite something! I'm proud of the protesters for speaking up on behalf of all of us. Without them, tens of thousands of people would still be without jobs and none of these incredible changes would have taken place.

I'm also proud of how the government and His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said handled the messy situation. Excluding those few days of chaos in Sohar, the Omani uprising was peaceful.

Looking forward, one thing is clear to me; with freedom comes responsibility. We can no longer be referred to as a 'sleepy nation.' The only way forward is hard work and dedication.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Muscat Beckons

Published February 14, 2012 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view article.

Every summer tens of thousands of Omanis from northern Oman head to the south for their annual Khareef migration. Dhofar's lush monsoon is the perfect getaway from the soaring summer temperatures in Muscat and the interior.Local newspapers bring up the migration on a regular basis throughout the monsoon season and the Ministry of Tourism posts teams at airports to record the number of visitors going into Salalah. It's a big deal.

However, has anyone noticed the annual exodus of Dhofaris to Muscat during the cooler months of the year? I have. Last weekend I treated myself to the spectacular South African ballet performance at the Royal Opera House with a good friend.

My weekend involved the usual shopping, a mandatory coffee at Shatti al Qurm and a brief visit to Muscat Festival at Qurum Park. The difference with this trip is that I spotted people from Dhofar wherever I went.

Muscat Festival and the major shopping malls were packed with Dhofari women on shopping sprees. Dhofari men could be seen lounging in all the cafes on the beach enjoying Muscat's beautiful February weather.

You may be wondering how I can pick out a Dhofari in a crowd. Trust me, it's easy. Dhofari women can be easily identified from the face veil with the eye slits, glittery abayas and their clip-on hair pieces the size of large melons.

The men are even easier to identify from the way they walk and – for lack of a better word – their swagger. Their dishdashas are usually quite long and sometimes even touch the ground. Their kummas' (caps) are usually tipped slightly to one side and often they have a tasseled turban thrown over one shoulder or draped casually over their heads. The Dhofari accent is also very easy to identify.

So why have Dhofaris chosen Muscat as their top holiday destination? First of all families in the south can be quite large. It's convenient to pack the whole family into a couple of cars and drive up to Muscat to spend a week or two in a rented apartment. Salalah is pretty deprived when it comes to shopping malls, cafés, restaurants, cinemas and entertainment, hence the fascination with Muscat. The capital area is a very nice place to be in during the winter.

Whenever I'm in Muscat, I use my time to catch up with friends, meet new people, stock up on treats, and pretty much indulge myself in every way possible. There's always something interesting going on, and the newly opened Royal Opera House has given me even more reason to fly up regularly. I have been to four performances already and look forward to many more in the coming years.

As a Dhofari woman, Muscat also allows me to be anonymous if only for a few days. I relish the freedom of cozying up in a café and working on my laptop without worrying about being stared at or recognised by members of the tribe (female…. face exposed …spotted at café… chaperone-less…must report!) I'm exaggerating a bit, but you know what I mean.

Dhofar is pretty conservative when it comes to women. I know Muscat and Salalah are only a 1,000km apart but they might as well be two different countries.

I do enjoy my brief jaunts to Muscat, but I'm always ready to come home when they're over. The hustle and bustle of the big city is fine for a weekend, but I can't imagine spending more than a week in Muscat. When the pilot announces the beginning of the descent to Salalah on the flight home, I put my book down and look out of the window to admire the view. I can never get enough of it. The moment the desert turns into smooth hills and I see the green banana plantations, palm trees and pristine beaches, my heart skips a beat. Muscat has its charms, but home is where the heart is!