Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 November 2019

The woman reconciling faith and women's rights through retreats

Farah Andrews speaks to Manal Omar about why she founded Across Red Lines retreats, which aim to empower women through Islam

Humanitarian Manal Omar is the founder of Across Red Lines. Victor Besa/The National
Humanitarian Manal Omar is the founder of Across Red Lines. Victor Besa/The National

After two decades of working for global NGOs and the US government, Palestinian-­American humanitarian Manal Omar founded Across Red Lines in 2017, a series of retreats that work to empower women through Islam. “I started it after 20 years working in conflict zones,” Omar tells The National, when we meet in her Dubai home. She recently moved to the UAE. “I kind of had to take a step back … you just keep doing the same thing, seeing the same thing in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan – it was the patterns that I kept seeing.

I took the step back and said, ‘How can we actually start preventing conflict?’ I didn’t want to simply do resolution or the management of conflict. But, I asked, how can we prevent it? It really kept coming back to women.”

Omar has worked with the World Bank, Oxfam, Women for Women International and the United States Institute of Peace. It was her time working with these organisations and foundations, focusing on programmes in the Mena region, that truly inspired her to launch Across Red Lines. “I didn’t want to keep putting plasters on these massive social wounds that needed surgery, then acting surprised when they got infected. I wanted to do something ­differently,” she explains.

The retreats she came up with now run ­periodically in the UAE, US and Spain, and are designed to empower women to “create a more peaceful world”. They run for three days and there are three tiers, or modules: beginner, intermediate and advanced. An intimate group of eight to 12 women come together and work through a curriculum crafted by Omar. Topics range from reiki and facing the true self, to negotiating conflict, management skills and mediation, through to Islamic tradition, in group sessions and workshops.

Across Red Lines’ Manal Omar. Courtesy Across Red Lines
The retreats run periodically in the UAE, US and Spain. Across Red Lines

“I use a lot of my conflict and negotiation skills to teach women to ask for what they want,” she says. “I try to bring joy and happiness as a form of transformative energy. What would happen if women actually stepped into their own joy? That’s the theory of change with Across Red Lines.”

The National spoke to some of the women who attended the UAE retreat in Al Ain this April. They described it unanimously as an empowering experience. Meena Thimmana, a Dubai resident, told us she attended the retreat in the hope of finding “focus on some inner transformation”. She added: “I feel like I have a better grasp on myself. I have allowed myself to take the time to ‘feel’ the feelings that may arise in my life and that it’s OK.”

Memunah Khadar, an American living in Abu Dhabi, felt a similar way after attending. She said “the organisation provides an Islamic perspective by a Muslim woman who facilitates discussions, reflection and self-love to provide deeper insights into the fact that everything begins with our connection to God.” Her main takeaway was “how important it is to start by looking within yourself as the focal point for how to navigate your life for true happiness and empowerment to unfold.”

Across Red Lines’ Manal Omar. Courtesy Across Red Lines
Across Red Lines creates faith-based retreats that bring women of faith together. Across Red Lines

The retreats are suitable for all women, no matter their age. “Manal is dedicated to women’s leadership through accessing life force energy and deeper understanding of rights through a faith lens,” reads the company’s literature. Omar explains why she made a conscious decision to make the retreats faith-based. It is not a decision born solely from her own faith, but because “women of faith often fall in between the cracks,” she says.

Much of the secular women’s movement doesn’t apply to us and, let’s face it, the religious institutions don’t fit us and so we’re kind of flying so low in the middle trying to reconcile both,” she says. “We love the women’s movement and we believe in it, we also love our faith, but we’re not wearing rose-tinted glasses.

“We see the problems in both communities, so I hope that makes us bridge-builders,” she adds. “That’s always the thing I point out: when you see the problems of both communities you are the natural bridge, even when both sides are letting you down.”

To illustrate what she means by this, Omar recalls an incident of “white feminism”, although she is reluctant to use the label. It was a moment when she says she felt hostility directed at her from the “secular women’s movement”. “I was speaking at a conference, making a statement about how women are treated, but it had nothing to do with faith,” she explains. “Then a woman stood up in the auditorium of 400 women and said, ‘I will not listen to the words you say as long as you have that symbol of the patriarchy on your head’.” The woman was referring to Omar’s hijab.

Omar says she was so taken aback that she was left physically shaking. “It was only, like, three days later when I looked in the mirror that the perfect comeback came to me,” she says. “I thought, ‘You’re no different from the Taliban’.

“But I didn’t have those words at that moment. She had already shut me down and she tried to shame me for my faith with her feminism.”

One thing Omar is certain of is that she is not unique in experiencing this kind of criticism. “I’m a strong, powerful woman and I believe in women’s rights, but to dismiss me because of the way I dress and because of my veil is a real experience. And I hear it over and over from women,” she says. “The lack of intersectionality, the lack of integration, different experiences … that’s what I want to end.”

She says she also wants to end the perception that women are victims, whether that is in the context of war or otherwise. “We love the story of women victims, the story of the victim who rises and falls, but it is so much more complex than that. There are individual stories,” Omar says.

It is this topic that she tackles in her 2010 book, Barefoot in Baghdad, which tells the true tale of “what it means to be a woman in chaos”.

“I never want to glorify war,” she states. “But I rarely saw victims. I saw women live through horrible tragedies and they did not have the luxury of victimhood. They had to keep going. They had to keep surviving. This is why I love working with women.

They rarely survive on their own. They almost always take a hand and pull their community with them, beyond their families.”

It is this model of powerful femininity that Omar is now replicating in her retreats.

For more information about Across Red Lines retreats, visit acrossredlines.com

Updated: July 6, 2019 03:55 PM

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