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08 March 2015

I am Girl

In May 2013, I watched The Stoning of Soraya M., and I started writing this blog post. 

Today, on account of it being International Women's Day and the discussions happening all around me, I will finish what I started writing. I must preface my post by saying that I am not a social expert. I am not a historian. I am only an observer in this life of mine, trying to make sense of what I've seen, heard and felt in my years on this planet. And you know what else, I must mention that perhaps my name - an ancient land in Yemen ruled by Queen Balquis, lends itself quite nicely to my determined, outspoken personality!
Within minutes of starting to watch The Stoning of Soraya M, I knew it would hit some very sensitive nerves with me. The theme of men controlling women and using religion as their justification made my blood boil. I cried so much, thinking of all the losses women must suffer on account of their sex and / or "religion". 

I will try not to let emotion get in the way, but I guess it's difficult when it's a subject so close to home.

I am a very, very fortunate person. I have a family who are kind to me and my dear father, may he rest in peace, never made me feel that I was worth anything less than my brothers or the people around me. There are women who are brought down their entire lives, told that they are worth nothing, until they believe it themselves, and worse, proceed to tell other women around them that they, too, are worthless.

I don't make out that I understand what these women go through, or know the kind of emotional abuse they, sometimes unknowingly, suffer. I do know women who have stopped going to school at the age of 11, because it was wrong for them to be in a class taught by a man. It was a'aib (shameful) or haram (against Islam). Imagine, generations of girls growing up uneducated, not being able to read or write. Tradition then stipulated that they be married off to a man whom they may never live with, who is in a different country sending them money, while they stay at home with their mothers and serve the males around them.

These women do not feel that they are victims, they feel that this is the norm and are usually grateful to be married rather than growing up a spinster. Which does make me realise that, what is happiness for me is not happiness for them. But that is getting off topic.

I get angry because I see men stopping women from advancing, using excuses like Islam prohibits it, or that it's a'aib or that it's "for their own good". And so all of these women believe that, indeed, these men are looking after their welfare by taking their salaries and marrying them off to men and taking their dowries and stealing their inheritance. It's all because these men care about them and, even if they disagreed, they wouldn't dare challenge them because they are men. I have seen sister grow up never challenging their brothers because they are the men in the house and their opinions, as women, amounted to nothing.

It's an easy trap to fall into if you live in a society like that. To believe that you are only worth as much as the men tell you are. You are disposable. If you do have an idea, a dream of bettering yourself, everyone around you, women included, tell you that you are crazy. That this idea won't work. That you will bring shame. And that you will be ousted from the family if you bring dishonour.

Family. The people who are meant to love you unconditionally. Instead, they hammer at your head, until you are at ground level and believe irrational things like your son is worth more than your daughter and you teach her this. And the cycle continues.

Of course all of these (depressing) thoughts made me think of empowerment. I don't believe that empowerment or liberation is acting recklessly without accountability. I also don't believe that empowerment is demanding to be equal with men. We are not equal to men. Men are not equal to us. That is why life is so wonderful - we are different and we are complimentary. But what we do need to strive for is having the same opportunities, the same options. That is equality. That is what this movement is about, has been about and should continue to be about.

And I think empowerment goes deeper than that. I don't believe it's telling someone that they are better than someone else. I believe it's telling someone that they throughout their lives, they will be presented with the same opportunities as everyone else around them, regardless of gender. Imagine if we began to instill this confidence in women. The world would change, for the better.

I have a real issue with the term "feminism" and the negative connotations attached to it. It seems as though when a man calls for equal rights for men and women, he is hailed as a liberal, as a hero, a warrior. But when a woman does the same, she is labelled a feminist. I almost began to think that feminism was only attributable to females, in the way that some people around me used the term to only describe women striving for their rights. So this morning, and before I came to hash out my thoughts on this forum, I looked up the word "feminism". Here is the definition from Merriam-Webster:

As I suspected, feminism did not call for a biased treatment of women. It calls for equal treatment. For those that think that feminists insist that everything should be divided 50-50 between men and women (for example, that out of 10 board members 5 must be women), you are missing the point. Perhaps men are better suited to the corporate world. Perhaps women are better suited to be teachers. But the opportunity to be either should be the same for both sexes. If you are telling me that men are getting certain jobs more than women are because they are more qualified for those roles (after, say, an interview process), then I have no issue with that. Currently, unfortunately, women are not given those opportunities. And even more sadly, women get paid less than men for the exact same job. The glass ceiling is real and it's time we eliminate it.

I started reading a book last night. It's called Men Explain Things to Me. I am not very far into this collection of essays, but the author said something that struck me. She said, 

"Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simple for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being."

Ain't that the truth? When a woman MP speaks into that mic, not only is she making the point she is hoping to make, she is also fighting against generations of people believing that she has no place in Parliament. She is fighting to validate her appointment, to give credibility to her voice. Her words are not always heard for what they are. They are marred by the niggling thoughts in some of her peers' heads. She is up there proving that she is worthy of being up there and trying to get her point across, at the same time. And without being too emotional, or passionate, or compassionate, or tough, or rude, or loud, or soft spoken. So many variables to keep in check, so that you can come off as "not an emotional woman".

These thoughts had to come off my chest. This topic is so close to my heart, it's so close to my upbringing, to who I am. The strive for equality for our genders, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters cannot be halted, suspended. Maybe it's time a new word replaces "feminism" to give way for positive connotations and actions to follow them. I don't know. I just know that this topic is real, that women around the world are mistreated and that we need to change the status quo.


04 March 2015

Certified Muscateers!

Normally, I only need a holiday after a holiday if that holiday involves visiting family (mainly due to the many outings, gatherings, lunches, etc). But, I've been back from Oman for almost two weeks and my body must've been craving some form of rest because I've been at home with a nasty cold for 3 days. Today is the first day I've actually felt remotely human, and my good intentions to leave my flat were quickly side tracked by non-stop rain. I'm not going out in that!

So, Oman. There were two camps on whether to go on this trip. The majority of people said it was an incredible country, one of the most beautiful they'd ever visited, while a couple others tried to convince me that it wasn't worth going. I promised them that I'd go and report back. And my feedback - totally worth going! What a country. The people. I think I need to start by talking about the people. They are some of the nicest, kindest people I have met, calm, without too much fuss (except when they're driving, then they turn to maniacs!). Almost every person we came across was friendly without being overwhelming, and their generosity was dished out without any expectation for receiving anything in return. There were some logistical nightmares that tested my PA skills (flight cancellations, visa rejections, change of packing plans, etc) and honestly, at some point I was wondering what else would come around the corner but I am so pleased that we insisted on going on our trip! 

Also, the varied terrain in Oman is incredible. Muscat is the definition of stark contrasts where you have the mountains on one side and the beautiful sea on the other. We went from sea, to oasis to desert in one day. Funnily enough, driving through Oman really reminded me of Yemen. It's the first country in the Middle East that I've felt shared the same quality of being unaffected by the outside world. What was also really striking in Muscat was the number of forts dotted around the city. Really beautiful to see a fort against almost every backdrop.  

The plan was to meet a couple of our friends in Muscat, spend a couple nights there and then do a small loop to Ras Al Hadd, the desert, Nizwa and then back to Muscat. We had a week in Oman and other than booking the car and hotels for the first few nights, we were going to play it by ear - not easy when you have a degree of OCD like myself! Having said that, planning as we went along seemed to work in Oman and we were such a chilled bunch that we just did what we wanted to without too much stress on timings. We had maps, Louis' unrivaled smart phone resources, a GPS system, a Lonely Planet guide and lots and lots of snacks! 

Just for information's sake (and any people landing on this page because they Googled "Oman road trip", here's some information to bear in mind:

Visas - extremely difficult to get if you're not GCC national or a Westerner. I had to get mine in Amman before travelling and the only reason they gave me one was because of my British husband. No joke. A Jordanian friend who was hoping to come with us was told that the only way he'd get a visa was if someone applied for it for him from within Oman. Near impossible.

Car hire - we hired a 4x4 for a week and it was quite pricey but we thought we'd need it as we hoped to go into the desert with it (more on that later). A 4x4 is only necessary if you're going off-road or going to Jebel Akhdar, otherwise, Omani roads are pretty amazing. The range of 4x4s is pretty astounding so if it's your dream to drive a massive car, this is a great opportunity to do so! Petrol is cheap, cheap, cheap so at least that's the silver lining. We also hired a GPS with the car, which was a God send. A lot of places we were heading to were already saved from previous travellers and most Oman maps have GPS coordinates for notable sites. Also, our hotels gave us GPS coordinates when confirming the booking, which was invaluable in finding random locations in the middle of nowhere. One thing to bear in mind though is that there are a lot of newer roads, so some guess work may be required! The car hire desks at the airport are impossible to miss (at the arrivals hall) and I think that some travellers decide to book a car on the same day.

Culture - Oman is quite a conservative place in my opinion. You won't really see many people in shorts and short skirts so do pack some long trousers and t-shirts with some form of sleeves - even for men. What I found surprising, and really lovely actually, is that the majority (98%) of Omani men stick to wearing the traditional thawb and head turban. They are creative with their colour combinations and it keeps things interesting! A random fact to bear in mind, most places in Oman shut between 1 - 4:30 pm for an afternoon siesta.

Muscat - although a tricky one to navigate, we didn't take a taxi once while we were in Muscat and we managed to see most of its sights. There is a "Big Red Bus" Tour that goes around the city but honestly, it's more economical to rent a car and explore the city that way. We stayed in two hotels whilst in Muscat - SamaraHotel (simple, clean and centrally located; would recommend if you are mainly going to be out during the day) and Radisson Blu (honestly, not that much better than Samara and was more expensive). What I liked about Muscat as well was there were quite a few people running or walking on the corniche. There was some awareness of health, which was really nice to see! 

Okie dokie! I have rambled on enough! Let's get to actual adventures! 

The first day we spent around Muscat, we visited the Sultan Qaboos Mosque, noted for the second largest carpet in the world. I have never visited such a beautiful mosque and would highly recommend it. The "guides" are volunteers who give up their time to talk about the history of the Mosque, and then you are treated to dates, Omani halwa and coffee afterwards. The volunteers are happy to answer any questions about Islam or just talk to you about your background, without making you feel uncomfortable or pressured. The dress code is taken very seriously at the mosque though (men, don't show knees / shoulders; women, basically cover up hair, arms and legs. I saw many women wearing sandals but to be safe just wear flats / trainers). I took a scarf with me and wrapped it around my arms (I was wearing a t-shirt) and I was told that I'd have to actually wear a jacket / cardigan. Luckily, we had a spare cardigan but if we didn't, I would've had to buy a long abaya and honestly, I wouldn't have been too pleased to spend that money on something I'd wear once!
Stunning gardens at the Mosque.

You could stare at the intricate decorations for hours!
Second largest carpet in the world - took 600 women 4 years to complete!

The 8 tonne chandelier!

We then headed to the Royal Opera House, but, unfortunately, had missed the daily tour by quite a few hours (tours run daily 8:30 - 10:30). The Opera house is a breathtaking building and it's worth seeing even if you don't do the whole tour. 

Next on the list was Souq Matrah. Now, I'm quite a skeptic when it comes to markets anywhere in the world. The only market I really do enjoy is the one in Sana'a Alqadima (Old Sana'a) and I think it's partly because I'm biased. Matrah is not bad for a souq, though honestly, I don't like being hassled by shop keepers to view their goods. Having said that, there were some lovely scarves and Omani hats if you're interested. If you have time, I would suggest making the drive to Seeb and checking out the market there. I felt that it was more authentic. Also, you can go to any one of the many halwa shops and try out the many variations of Omani halwa. 

Souq Matrah.

10 flavours to try? Don't mind if I do!

Rhino horn + silver. For exceptional celebrations.
Colourful Kashmiri scarves.
If you are in Seeb, then you can literally spend hours on the stunning beach. When we went we were practically the only 4 people for miles! And, if you're there at the right time (I believe around sunset, as that's when we spotted it), you could even try bbq'ed squid...squid on a stick!
The gorgeous Seeb Beach.

Squid. On a stick.
One site in Muscat that we almost skipped is Qurm park but I am so glad that we did visit it! It's a really serene park where lots of families go to walk or just hang out. It's open until about 11pm (I think) so there is no excuse not to have a quick wander in there. It's not overly big so you can see most of the park in under an hour. 

One last note - FOOD. If you are in Muscat, you must, without any exaggeration, go and eat at Begum's. It is number one place to eat in Muscat on TripAdvisor and for good reason - it was the best curry I have ever, ever, EVER had in my life (and I lived in Leicester). We somehow managed to get a table on a Saturday night and the special that day was the fish We also ordered chicken tikka masala, paneer butter masala, paneer & spinach curry (can't think of the "official" name) and rashmi tikka. I'm afraid I have no photos of the meal because we literally inhaled it. 

On our last night Louis and I went to Ubhar, a Omani-Moroccan fusion restaurant, which was also highly recommended on TripAdvisor (I love TripAdvisor). We had actually hoped to try the camel curry but it was all gone by the time we got there. We opted instead for Shuwaa, a traditional Omani meat and Seeniyat Al Wali, a delicious starter made up of 7 different bite sized nibbles. The starter was really delicious but the main was just good. We had halwa wrapped in pastry and served with ice-cream for dessert and that was lovely. I would recommend Ubhar if you can try the camel dishes, otherwise, it was just a *little* bit too plain for the price we paid. 

Shuwaa - meat cooked for hours.
Muscat is really fun to explore and take photos of, and it's so unique in many aspects. Definitely make sure you spend enough time in Muscat! 

Consumer rights in Oman.
Buildings near Al Alam Palace.
Love the contrast in textures and colours!
I couldn't quite capture the intricacies of this mosque.
Muscat corniche.

This crossing-man sign is a perfect reflection of the laid back nature of Omanis!
Wow! I hope I haven't bored you too much with my ramblings! I promise my next post covering the rest of our Oman road trip will have more pictures than words!!

Until then, have a great Wednesday!


PS I want to thank J Halpin for allowing me to use some of his photos!
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