From the March issue of Al Mar’a magazine… Shamelessly plugging a piece I enjoyed doing 🙂

For women only!

The women’s souq or the Souq Al Hareem at Ibra is totally a woman’s domain. Rekha Baala brings you the sights and sounds from a busy Wednesday…

Every Wednesday morning, at the crack of dawn, the town of Ibra comes alive with the sounds of women’s chatter. The excitement in the air is palpable. It is a day for women and by women as they set up the lively Women’s Souq or Souq Al Hareem as it is known in Arabic.

The story goes that the women’s souq at Ibra was established around 1990 (though different vendors give varying accounts of its origin) as a meeting point for women to sell their wares and in hindsight, contribute to the empowerment of women.

There’s a lot of hustle-bustle on the Wednesday we visit the souq. Tourists and locals mill around, taking in what the women have to offer. There is plenty of bargaining and haggling too, but all this is good-natured with the women vendors more likely to add in something extra when a deal is struck. The covered part of the souq is strictly for ladies only though we did spot a couple of male tourists who, obviously were not acquainted with the rules.

The souq is not really structured; almost everything is on sale here; and not necessarily all cater to women’s interests. More than three-fourths of the small area is dedicated to fabrics of all types. It’s a cool February morning and in the little light that streams in, you discover Pakistani cotton, silk with rich embroidery, tons of lace and threads. The effect of these fabrics spread over many stalls is almost psychedelic and you can’t help but stop to ask for a price. “Four rials a metre,” says Zakiya who is manning the stall in her mother’s absence.

We move on, from one stall to another and there’s so much to see. It’s a casual approach to business. Women squat on the floor or sit perched on stools selling their wares. At other places, there are groups of women drinking tea brought in flasks and sharing a joke or two.

Aisha introduces us to the different cosmetics that feature prominently in many stalls in the souq. There’s green henna, sandal powder to beautify the face, home-made kohl and neel, another must-have cosmetic accessory. There’s the normal bukhour (frankincense) too and other indigenously developed fragrances like attar. She has been displaying her stuff at the souq for the past 10 years and loves the ambience and the personal touch the souq offers. Since the customers are women as well, this she finds is a very ‘fun’ way to do business!

Farther on, Shamsa is busy embroidering a sarwal. As we move closer, she sees the camera in my hands and promptly covers her face with a shawl. “No photos,” is the common refrain in this women’s souq. “You are welcome to take photos of the products but not us,” say the women, almost in unison. We assure Shamsa that all we need is a photograph of her hands at work. She reluctantly agrees and is only assured when she sees the photo on the camera. And she smiles! The sarwal if you don’t know already is traditional close-fitting trousers worn over a tunic and is a dress typical of the Sharqiyah region.

The women’s souq also lends an air of a bazaar. There’s something for everyone like in a street-market. Baby clothes, herbs, dried wheat, shoes, dried wheat, scarves, fragrances, handbags and some very stylish Western dresses too! The prices are reasonable and well within reach of every woman visiting the souq. You can find shaylas (head scarves) for as less as a rial.

The women’s souq is not just unique to Ibra. The women tell us that similar souqs happen at Wadi Bani Khalid (on Mondays) and at Samad A’Shan (on Tuesdays) and they frequent those as well. The idea definitely seems to be catching on!

By 12:30pm, the women are ready to call it a day. Until next Wednesday when the souq comes alive once again in all its exuberance! And for some others, it’ll be the women’s souq in a nearby town. Business, will go on as usual!


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