The stereotypical image of Arab women as being confined to the zenana (women's quarters at home), and of stepping out into the street only in black burqas (the top-to-toe veil) persists in the Western media and elsewhere, which is dependent on Western media for its information. But the truth on ground is startlingly different in many of the Arab countries. For example, in the Gulf state of Oman, nearly half of the 560,000 of students in state-run educational institutions are girls.
The transition from tradition to modernity would not have been so smooth but for the modernizing efforts of Oman's ruler, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. He was keen that women should actively participate in the country's development, describing them as "half of Oman's potential".
The Sultan's resolve to involve women in the building of modern Oman is reflected in legislation. The Personal Status Laws (PSL) guarantee Omani women equal rights in education and employment, a reality reflected in the presence of women as government ministers, entrepreneurs and academics.
A heartening aspect of the girls at the Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) is that their mothers have not had formal education, but they encouraged their daughters to pursue higher studies and careers. The girls acknowledge that it is support from the families that enable them to chase their dreams. "My late mother could only read the Quran but she always encouraged me and my siblings in our studies," says Fatma Saliman Al Azri, who is a final year student of English Education at SQU.
Khadija Abdullah Al Shaqsi, a final year chemistry student at the university, reveals the determination of her mother to educate herself after having encouraged and supported her daughter to do so. "She has now finished high-school through night-classes held in a neighborhood school," Khadija says proudly.
Fatima Azri cites the case of a family that sold car and house to finance their daughter's education abroad to prove her point that it is family support that enables Omani girls to go to school and college. This runs contrary to the stereotyped version of young people rebelling against families to do their own thing. In Oman, there is no generation gap that characterizes the modern West. The families go out of their way to give a big push to their children's education, and even give them complete freedom to choose the subject and course they want.
The support of the family is not confined to letting their daughters have the best of modern education. They also encourage them to pursue courses that have gained wider acceptance in modern, Western societies only since the past decade or so. For example, Fatima Azri tells how her mother supported her desire to be an engineer even though teachers at school were not enthusiastic about it. "I dreamt of becoming an engineer since school. My parents' support was unwavering despite teachers being less enthusiastic about my aspirations," she says.
There was momentary wavering on her part when she found herself to be the only girl in the engineering class - she wanted to quit the course. It was then that her mother and professor pressed on her to stay on and not give up. "Both emphasized that I had goals to achieve at university and would have to overcome challenging situations to do so," she recalls.
The girls say that despite the parental endorsement of their choice of subjects, there is a societal predilection that approves women turning out to be teachers and doctors.
"Some families prefer their daughters to be either teachers or doctors as they believe that the caring and nurturing aspects associated with these professions are best suited for women's nature. Furthermore, those professions will also primarily entail interaction with children and women, rather then men," Khadija explains. But her friends do not think that it is a mere generalization, and that it does not reflect the actual choices.
The segregation of men and women in Arab societies remains a factor in the classroom situation as well. But it is not an insurmountable factor. Aida Issa Hilal Al Ismaili, resident medical officer, attributes shyness on the part of certain male and female medical classmates regarding mutual interaction due to individual cultural backgrounds that created a certain awkwardness initially. "Everyone adjusted to the situation with time and learnt to respect each other as individuals and colleagues," she says.
Fatma Ali Al Khuzairi, a final year student of English Education, admits: "University proved to be greatly educative in many ways: I learnt to effectively communicate and work with my male classmates." She adds that having many brothers enabled her to gradually become comfortable with her male classmates.
The girls' families clearly expect them to see education as their top priority rather than allow self-consciousness regarding gender dynamics to affect their studies. The girls point out that they would have to interact with men wherever they work in future: Fatima Khuzairi and Khadija say that their experiences as trainees in male-dominated working spaces enhanced their communication and teamwork skills.
None of these young women was pressurized to marry during their studies. "My father rejected several marriage offers that came for me because he knew that I was very involved in my studies," Fatma Khuzairi recounts. Aida and Khadija are to get engaged and married quite soon, but they perceive no conflict between their marital lives and career ambitions. They say that their fiancï¿½es have wholeheartedly supported them throughout their education.
These young Omani women appreciate the ways in which education has enriched their lives and guided them towards making use of available opportunities to succeed in their future professional domains. "Omani women simply do not work out of economic necessity; they work because they truly enjoy what they are doing," Fatma Azri remarks firmly.