Come Wednesday morning and business is far from usual in Ibra, an interior town of Oman. Brisk and gender-specific is perhaps a better way to describe the market mood.
For while souqs, or markets, occur everyday in Ibra, Wednesday holds a special place for the women - be they wives, daughters or simply tourists experiencing the charm of Ibra. For Wednesday is the day reserved for the all-women souq which witnesses the coming together of only women vendors and women consumers.
The idea of an all-women's souq arose in 1987 when pregnant women visiting the nearby Ibra hospital were allocated Wednesday as the day earmarked for specifically attending to their health issues. Enterprising women would then use this day to sell wares to the women within the hospital walls.
The Ibra Municipality eventually set up a souq on a piece of land near the hospital, where women could sell their products from stalls. The souq allows vendors to congregate in one area and offer goods at reasonable prices. A vendor does not have to pay taxes or rent for occupying the area.
The idea has gained popularity to such an extent that it has spawned similar women's souqs in nearby towns. As a result, the souqs witness reciprocal exchanges: Ibra's women souq vendors visit other town souqs to sell their products on other days of the week, and the other women come Ibra's souk on Wednesdays. The local authorities have also lent full support towards facilitating the souq's commercial activities.
The women initially sold homemade products but have long since expanded the range of their wares; they now visit Dubai and even neighbouring Asian countries to purchase products, such as shoes and fabric, to sell at the souq.
The all-women's souq, or souq al hareem, is held in a covered space. The general souq stretches ahead on an open-air pavement. At first glance, the souq seems an unending ribbon of wares although it becomes apparent that the women vendors demarcate their stalls from each other through flimsy metal scaffolding draped in bolts of shimmering, sequined sherbet-hued fabrics, thereby encasing the vendors in miniature rooms. As with any street-market, every imaginable object appears to be on sale, albeit primarily directed towards women consumers: audiocassettes, perfumes and scented oils, saffron, rose-water, incense, medicine and medicinal herbs, brooms of dried wheat and rice stalks, sandals, baby outfits, scarves, and handbags.
The vendors either squat on the floor or on small stools, clutching their handbags - repositories of transactions. Some simultaneously cradle their babies in their laps with handbags perched on their sides. Many of them wear the very wares they sell: patterned cotton material wrapped around their heads and shoulders and trousers with traditional Omani hem embroidery. Some women vendors continue to do their embroidery on the souq premises.
There is a community atmosphere in the air where the women chat, work, and sell while their children amuse themselves with the wares or by curiously inspecting passersby.
Some women vendors' daughters are old enough to conduct the business, armed with the added advantage of being able to converse in English. "Good morning!" young Fatma greets my female Egyptian companion and me; Fatima 's mother sits cross-legged behind her, kohl-ringed eyes curiously darting at us. We ask Fatma about her stall and the souq. "We come here every Wednesday," Fatima tells us before deftly switching to Arabic when we bargain over a scarf.
Her neighbour, Yusra, who also speaks English, helps her mother too. Yusra offers more open answers to our queries. "Is she doing study of souq?" she asks my companion, referring to my notebook. "It's okay if she writes about us - as long as there are no photos." Yusra informs us that she comes here every day apart from Friday, the public holiday. Her mother remains silent throughout the exchange, remaining in the background while conjoined to her black handbag.
The handbag is arguably the most dominant and recurrent motif over here, whether in the hands of customers or vendors themselves; in one stall, an older woman embroiders material in gold sequins- with the ubiquitous handbag firmly installed next to her.
The marked absence of men indicates that the women conduct business by themselves, handling customers and transactions with equal ease. They arrive at the souq by 5.30 in the morning and set up their stalls by 7 a.m.
An elderly woman sits under a rainbow striped umbrella, surrounded by her wares: spices in old butter cookie tins, dried clams, dry henna power in buckets, and a tin of round, flesh-white, one inch-thick circular cakes. "These are made from roots of certain indigenous plants and used for improving the complexion," the woman informs us, referring to the last item. The stalls are so densely packed against each other that the narrow alley barely accommodates more than one person, yet, there is little palpable discomfort or inconvenience.
The market sees hundreds of women browsing and making purchases. On an average, each shopkeeper earns a few tens of rials each per day (1 Omani Rial=115.7 INR/ $2.6). It is said that one woman vendor is building a 40,000 rial house for her family, just from her Wednesday souq earnings.
By lunch time the souq is beginning to wind down: many women begin packing their unsold wares, rolling up and transferring material into black garbage bags or cloth hold-alls. Of course, not before a bite and friendly conversation: a woman opens a large white casserole full of fried meat dumplings for herself and her fellow vendors.
A friendly Azza in silver-fringed gold-printed electric blue close-fitting trousers chats with us while simultaneously supervising the packing up of her stall. "I live in Muscat [Oman's capital] although my maternal family is from here," she tells us. "I come here every Wednesday as my daughter also studies here." Azza and three other fellow women vendors have made arrangements with a pick-up driver regarding transportation and packing their stuff. She evidently manages the business on her own, only referring to her husband when he picks her daughter up from Ibra on weekends.
Azza points out that the open-air and covered market may blur into one another but the covered market is the proper women's souq in which men are strictly personae non grata. We gesture towards two men hovering in the corner. "We cannot stop them from coming," she shrugs, frowning. In fact, the existence of the all-women's souq predates the adjacent open-air souq, which is the domain of both men and women vendors.
Men vendors too had requested for souq premises on seeing the all women's souq, resulting in the dual open-air and covered souqs. A few men vendors retail their wares today, although admittedly lingering on the fringes of the women's souq. The covered-market wears an air of increasing desolation after lunch, although the open-air section still bustles with activity. A few customers make last-minute purchases while wads of rials wrapped in rubber bands are rapidly being exchanged amongst the vendors as they pack up.
Husbands, sons, and brothers appear on the scene, swiftly rolling up the plastic awnings and dismantling the metal scaffolding. Pick-ups and cars are parked alongside the pavement, gradually filling up with unsold merchandise, barely leaving room for the occupants to sit.
The sun goes down in swirls of gold and orange. The carnival of the souq has vanished, leaving behind residues of colour, activity, bargaining, chatting, browsing and shopping in its wake. But it'll be back next Wednesday....