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.