x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 December 2017

Husbands are a handicap, say career-minded Omani women

Traditionalists in despair as more and more working women postpone marriage until their thirties

The Mutrah Souq in Old Muscat, the historical area of Oman's capital. As Oman modernises, traditions such as early marriage for women are being ignored. Jochen Tack / arabianEye / Corbis
The Mutrah Souq in Old Muscat, the historical area of Oman's capital. As Oman modernises, traditions such as early marriage for women are being ignored. Jochen Tack / arabianEye / Corbis

Saida Sarhan has rejected half a dozen proposals, fearing that marriage would kill off her ambition to rise to a senior management position.

The economics graduate is past her 30th birthday, an age at which Omani women are expected to have long since been married off by their parents.

“I refused many times to be packed off by my parents to a man’s house as if I am a cargo to be shipped to another destination," said Ms Sarhan, a relationship manager at a financial institution in Muscat. "I want to concentrate on my career and reach a senior management position rather than find a husband.

"There is nothing wrong with that, is there?”

Ms Sarhan is among a growing number of Omani women who are defying tradition by refusing to get married in their early twenties and pursuing careers instead. The trend is reflected in the increasing presence of women in Oman's workforce — from 16 per cent a decade ago to 37 per cent this year, according to statistics from the civil service and manpower ministries.

Women made up 53 per cent of the total number of students enrolled in the universities and colleges in the 2016-2017 academic year. Ten years ago, the proportion was 38 per cent.

Tribal leaders are tugging their beards in annoyance. They find it hard to accept that traditional matchmakers are failing in the face of this newfound professional focus among women.

“What’s wrong with our matchmakers these days? We cannot have Omani women as old as 30 still unmarried just because they are waiting until they earn more money. This is against our tradition and totally unacceptable in our society," said Saif Al Saifi, an 83-year old tribal leader in Nizwa, a town in central Oman.

"The matchmakers need to work harder and get back what has been passed from generation to generation.”

But matchmakers say they are finding it harder to do their job.

"Traditional values may still be strong in Oman in other areas, but not when it comes to marriage," said Duaa Al Jashmi, 73. "We find it difficult to convince young women to get married right after graduation like they used to. They are putting careers first and marriage second."

Khulood Al Farsi is just the sort of woman driving traditionalists to despair. The human resources professional has put career before marriage since graduating from university 10 years ago. Now 33, she is eyeing a promotion to senior HR executive at the telecommunications company where she works.

“Marriage would be a distraction for me. I look at the experience of my friends and have learned that married women don’t go far at work with husbands behind their backs. To get promotion, you not only need to work harder but long hours too. Unfortunately, Omani men don’t want their wives to do that. It is alright for them to do it but not their wives,” she told The National.

Women who married soon after graduation acknowledge that it gets in the way of building a career.

Sabra Al Saadi, 34, who described herself as "an ambitious married woman", has been working as a clerk at a marketing company in Muscat for eight years.

"I see limitations when it comes to getting a promotion at work. My husband does not let me stay in the office after normal hours or attend weekend meetings. Business travel is out of bounds as well," Ms Al Saadi said. "Here in Oman, there is little scope for married women to go up the corporate ladder when they are married. I am one of them.”

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Read more:

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Some Omani men say they are not opposed to married women working, as long as they do not take it too far.

“My wife works and I have no objection to that. However, I don’t need her to work as hard as me. I want her back the same time every day and also no office papers at home. I don’t need her to occupy a high position. I want her to be fresh at home and not tired. There should be a line that separates work and career and the wife should not cross it,” said Suhail Al Braiki, a 41-year-old petroleum engineer.

But not all men place obstacles in the way of their wives’ ambitions.

“My wife is assistant general manager at Bank Muscat. I encouraged her all the way from the moment we got married and the first day she started working there. I still do now, 14 years later," said Jamal Al Shamsi, 39, a building contractor.

"For me, it is very simple. Her gain is mine and vice versa. I don’t understand why some men want to stop their wives making it to the top.”