Oman's women of action

T-Mag Wednesday 08/March/2017 16:17 PM
By: Times News Service
Oman's women of action

Years back as a young girl and having a great love for the outdoors, the desert drive to Sharqiyah Sands along with friends was perhaps my most memorable and thrilling trip ever. But then there was something more that made the journey so special that even today it remains etched in my mind.

Enroute to the deserts, we met a group of Bedouin women near Bidiyah and having grown up with the notion that women staying in rural and remote areas are conservative living in a patriarchal culture, I expected the same from these women of the deserts. But how wrong I was.

Within few minutes of interaction with them we realised we were talking to a group of independent, strong, and progressive women who lived on their terms, earned their own living, and most importantly, had no inhibitions in shaking hands with men.

Women in Oman have indeed come a long way, be it the ones in the villages or those in cities who broke the highest and hardest glass ceiling. From doing local handicraft business to spearheading big entrepreneurial ventures, along with art, entertainment and sports, women here have broken the barriers to be pioneers in their fields.

Talking about women worldwide and the challenges they faced in the early days, going back in time we get to know that during industrial revolution oppression and exploitation of women had reached its peak as a result of which 15,000 women took to the streets of New York City demanding shorter hours, equal pay, and voting rights. It was in 1910 that the idea of an International Women’s Day was proposed in order to press for their demands.

Unfortunately, the very next year, the tragic ‘Triangle Fir’ happened which took the lives of 140 working women, bringing the poor working conditions and labour legislation in the US to everyone’s notice. Later during World War I, women across Europe united to hold rallies against the war and in support of Women’s Suffrage Movement.

In 1975, International Women’s Day was officially celebrated by the United Nations. However, even as the world welcomed the millennium many issues relating to inequality and disparity hadn’t been resolved, which made people realise that the movement had to be reignited, which was done with the launch of the global digital hub in 2001 and this year the campaign theme for International Women’s Day is, ‘be bold for change’ to help forge a better working world.

To commemorate the day we reflect on those women in Oman who have made a mark for themselves and proved to be great leaders, mentors, and role models and have helped in the development and progress of the country in their own way.

From Madeeha Ahmed Al Shaibaniyah who was in the Forbes list of Top 10 Arab women in 2015 and Fatima Al Nabhani, the tennis star who has made the country proud time and again, to Lieutenant Colonel Hanan Al Salimi, the first woman to head the police rescue department in Oman or the successful businesswomen like Amal Bahwan, these women have been the real path-breakers.

We met three such competent and confident women from the Sultanate who were brave enough to follow their passions and dreams and can certainly be called the true inspirational role models of Oman. —

Maha Al Balushi
I’ve lost count of the number of professions that have been male dominated since time immemorial. One of them is the aviation industry, especially in this region where very few women have been able to have complete control in the cockpit. So when Maha Al Balushi became Oman’s first female senior first officer, she unintentionally ended up in breaking a strong wall thus paving way for the many ambitious woman to join her league.

Maha started admiring the giant mechanical birds in the sky from the tender age of 5. She used to get fascinated by everything she saw while travelling abroad, from the airline crew to the aircraft and all that was associated with flying. Every time in school when she was asked about her ambition she had only one — to be a pilot. While most around her did not take her seriously she later proved to the world that it wasn’t just a child’s wavering ambition; instead it was a woman’s strong dream that was fulfilled when she flew her first flight in March 2010 from Point Cook Airport in Southern Australia.

It wasn’t easy for her to get there as she was constantly subjected to judgements from relatives and others in the society who weren’t comfortable with the fact that a woman was going to work in a male-dominant environment, travelling to different countries, and seeing the world. Maha though handles everything with maturity and says, “I do not blame the traditional thinking of people as I know this idea is quite new for many who are not exposed to seeing female pilots in real life to know that all those criticisms and discouragements are in the wrong place”.

For Maha the job in itself is a challenging one where she has to take up a major responsibilty on her shoulders. Apart from that, the work schedule is strenuous both physically and mentally. “You have to stay awake all night and sleep during daytime at times. And don’t forget the jet lag for wide body airline crew,” adds Maha. In spite of all this, she wouldn’t trade what she has now for anything in the world. She is in love with the whole experience of flying, getting to go to new destinations, meeting people, experiencing different cultures, the lack of a mundane schedule, and the fact that she gets to learn so much everyday.

Although Maha doesn’t have a role model, she firmly believes that she is an inspiration to both men and women in the region, encouraging people to pursue their passion and dreams and urging them to be the change they want to see.

Her message: Each one of us (women), is responsible for our own success and accomplishments in life. We cannot relate our failures to gender discrimination and cultural bonds. Some of you might face lack of confidence due to those cultural bonds, however, it should not be taken as an excuse. It is in your hands to make a change even if it takes you to be the first one. If you are not the first, that saves a lot of effort.

Muzna Al Musafer
I met a young lady conducting a panel discussion after the screening of a documentary at Stal Gallery sometime last year asking insightful questions, organising the screening, and very calmly contributing to the off stage discussions that were taking place. Firstly the idea of screening a documentary in the yard where everyone can watch, discuss, and learn was an idea that I thought was really interesting.

Muzna is a young 29-year-old woman who realised her love for images and moving pictures at a very tender age. Back in the 90s she recalls watching black and white Egyptian films and enjoying the whole experience of it even without understanding what actually was going on. She’d keep telling her mom, “let’s watch ceema”, the way they’d pronounce cinema in the Egyptian dialect. Later as she grew up she went to Kuwait to do Bachelors in Mass Communication from Kuwait University and also did courses in Swedish cinema and television culture in Stockholm University. However, after her short stint abroad she decided to come back to Oman.

“I am more rooted to my country and understand the essence of it. Many people ask me if I was brought up abroad but I tell everybody that I am proud to have grown up here.” She has made some great movies that have been critically acclaimed and received recognition in terms of nominations and awards in the region and elsewhere. One of her most renowned film Cholo, which won an award for the best script in the Abu Dhabi film festival, was about a dark-skinned 11-year-old boy who meets his fair-skinned brother for the first time in Muscat and goes through an intense journey of self discovery. And who would believe that this beautiful movie was shot on just iPhones.

Muzna doesn’t mean to change the world or influence the masses through her work. She makes films with a simple objective of expressing and telling a story. “I reflect what I feel in my work and I see if people can have a reaction to what I made,” she says.

At the same time Muzna is bold, strong, and knows how to convey a message without prejudice or fear as she did with her movie Niqab, which means veil, a movie she made when she was just 22. Being a free-spirited woman she doesn’t see the fact that being an Arab woman is a challenge at all. All she did was believe in herself even when no one else did and continue working hard and making some strong artful pieces of cinema that everyone could enjoy, appreciate, and think about. However, one problem she does face is that of funds. She predominantly relies on crowd-funding and small scale sponsorships for her films as a result of which she faces resource restraints.

The film industry is a male dominant field be it Hollywood, Bollywood, or ever other regional films. To make a mark in such an industry especially in a country where the field isn’t established or promoted is definitely commendable. She is taking the burden of developing a whole field and promoting the Sultanate through her films by telling interesting tales from the villages and towns of Oman to the world.

Her message: Be honest. It is important to do what you love, don’t stay next to somebody who does not appreciate you. And learn to say ‘No’ to what you don’t like.

Rasha Al Riyami
All of us hear and read about the plight of the refugees every day, but how many of us have actually done anything to help the ones in need? There are a few women in Oman who can hold their heads high and say that they have done noble deeds by providing, comforting, and empathising with the victims of the ‘uncalled for’ wars. Rasha Al Riyami is one such woman who like many others read articles about the refugee crisis and got disturbed by it, but instead of just brooding over it decided to do something.

Rasha had been following the crisis right from the time it started, but once while reading one of the English dailies in Oman she read a line that moved her and got her wondering about how horrible the situation there must be. “I read about how they would rather die in their own country (Syria) under the bomb and air strike than to die of cold and malnutrition (in one of the Greek islands),” she says.

The refugees there would live in cramped up tents under extreme conditions without proper food, water or electricity and perhaps suffer even more than they would have back in their home countries.

Rasha Al Riyami and her friend Riham Al Zadjali knew that they couldn’t just sit back and discuss it miles away and had to go there, live with them, and experience the situation for themselves to be able to do something substantial for the victims. They set out for Greece in October last year after arranging funds, contacts, and most importantly, the determination to help the people there.

They spent more than seven weeks with the refugees. She was deeply affected by seeing the people who were living in conditions so inhumane that she wasn’t sure how they survived. The situation that they were put in had a lasting impact both physical and psychological on the lives of the victims that clearly reflected on their behaviour. Rasha got a real taste of the phrase, ‘survival of the fittest’ while she was there. “There were more than two families having to share the same room, divided by bedsheets between a family and another. There weren’t enough toilets for all families. The place needed to be cleaned constantly, and some arguments and disagreements happened between the refugees,” adds Rasha.

Rasha had travelled out of Oman many times before on luxurious holidays or fancy college trips, but this was different. It was for a more meaningful purpose where she could touch lives and provide aid to people, laugh and cry with thousands of stranded people, and learn so much more about life and its values. Instead of staying in posh hotels that she could afford, she lived amongst the refugees braving the harsh weather and getting accustomed to the pitiful living conditions. She did manage to raise some money and donate it to the people there but she feels that you can only truly help them being with them, talking to them, sharing their sorrows, playing with the kids, and lending them a shoulder to cry on.

The only regret Rasha has is of not being able to help everybody she met as she did manage to fall in love with all those she met there. But she will continue her volunteer work and go on more such trips spending longer time there. Her ultimate aim right now is to own a fund or charitable trust in Oman to help those in Oman and outside in need.

Her message: Voluntary work must be part of our lives. It is important to get involved to help others. I have learnt from my trip that happiness comes from giving and not receiving.