So women in Saudi Arabia are now allowed to drive. And about time too! Clap clap…

So what does one think when one hears the word, Middle East? One is judged and painted with the same brush as Saudi Arabia.

So you wax eloquent about the misogyny, repression of women and abaya-isation of the Middle East, and claim you know it all. Without having stepped out of your myopic haze? Why? Because women were not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Until last week.

For fuck’s sake, as they say in Hindi, apne gireban me jhaank kar dekho kabhi… to Asifa and nearer home, as the Ola auto driver on hearing the muzzein’s call to prayer tells me rather matter-of-factly, “Yeh sab log Pakistan ko support karte hain!”

Or the Marwari friend of mine from Jabalpur who has to wear a ghunghat every time she is in front of a male relative.

Or my so-called educated relatives who still segregate women when they have their periods. You get the vein, don’t you?

Yes, I lived in Muscat, Oman in the Middle East for 20 years. I worked in a newspaper and a women’s magazine. And I was an accredited journalist there. The smug and reprehensible question I have been asked over the course of the last year in India, continues to be, “So what did you guys have to write about?”

I don’t think I owe you an explanation. But I owe the wonderful, inspirational women in Oman one, and must give them their due.

Not every woman in Oman wears an abaya or a hijab – it’s her personal choice. Like it’s their choice when it comes to where they want to study, work, who they want to marry or why they want to divorce. They revel in their choices. They don’t take their husband’s names and the female cashier at National Bank of Oman would never reveal my account balance to my husband, she would write the number down on a piece of paper and give it to me. How that that for women’s rights, people?

I have met and interacted with a number of women in senior management positions –CEOs, CMOs, CFOs, Directors and entrepreneurs. The country has special scholarships for women who wanted to study abroad – they utilized this right, and yes, they came back to their country and took up jobs in homegrown companies and worked their way up. Purely on hard work, and ambition. How’s that for breaking the glass ceiling?

Near my home is the Krishna Temple – a sprawling Hindu temple flanked on one side by a church and on the other by a mosque. We practised our faiths, yes, in a Muslim country. And on Indian festivals, the Omani women at office were the first to wish us. How’s that for women and secularism? Yes, in the Middle East.

Now let me come to my job. Though I headed an English women’s magazine, my Omani colleagues respected my experience enough to let me supervise their own Arabic one. Why? As a former colleague once told me, “Women all over the world face the same challenges, whether you are an Indian or an Arab.” How’s that for respect of experience, guys?

So, together, we interviewed achievers, discussed drug abuse, smoking, equality of the sexes, and also fashion choices and make up.

I don’t need to take names here… but I am proud to have among my friends – those who were chosen to be part of the National CEO Programme, another who is a drift racer, one who combines a high-profile job with being a mountaineer (she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro), a 26-year-old who is a footballer, a football commentator and working wonders in the agriculture sector and yet another who is a corporate trainer. I can go on and on… yes, all this in a small country in the Middle East.

So next time, you ask me what I did in the Middle East – yes, I was a journalist for a women’s magazine. I worked as hard as scribes in India, bringing stories of hope, faith and yes, equality. I worked with nationals, and expatriates from a dozen countries, Pakistanis too. All this in a small country, in the Middle East.

It’s time we get off our high horses, and respect women, wherever they are, for whatever they are doing.

That we are privileged because we live in a democracy is a joke. Please, kabhi kabhi apne girebaan mein jhankar dekho. You may get some answers that may shock you.



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