x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Women face scorn after taking over family shops

Rural Oman frowns on female-run businesses that break with local tradition.

Salwa's shop in the heart of conservative town of Bahla, the only one in town run by a woman.
Salwa's shop in the heart of conservative town of Bahla, the only one in town run by a woman.

BAHLA, OMAN // As a young woman who owns and runs a grocery store, Salwa al Habsi is something of a rarity in conservative, rural Oman. But as growing numbers of men flock to the cities in pursuit of better jobs, businesswomen like Ms al Habsi may not be so rare for much longer. The shop she now owns, in the deeply conservative town of Bahla in the Interior Region, about 250km from the capital Muscat, was originally owned by her father but was closed after he died a year ago. Ms al Habsi's three brothers initially refused to let her run the store, but her mother, supporting her daughter's bid to run the shop, gave Ms al Habsi her gold, which she sold to raise funds to buy out her siblings' shares of the business.

"If it is all right for women to run a business in Muscat, why are men raising their eyebrows in the regions?" said Ms al Habsi, 24. "It is certainly not against Islam and I have the full blessing of the government since authorities have granted me a business licence required to buy my father's shop." Many family-owned stores such as Ms al Habsi's in rural Oman are closed down when their owners die because male descendants are reluctant to run inherited businesses and many prefer to move to Muscat to find better paid jobs.

Ms al Habsi is the only woman in Bahla to run a shop, a profession that is taboo for a woman in the culture of any provincial town in Oman, and she is the target of constant ridicule from relatives and friends. In rural Oman's patriarchal culture, it is regarded as breaking with tradition for a woman to run a business. Traditionalists say women like her are driven by money, putting greed ahead of culture and heritage.

"The desire for money put them at risk of being shunned away from the community by going against traditions," said Malik Saleh, a Bahla-based historian and poet. "That means these women may not find marriage suitors since they are seen as immoral." But Ms al Habsi said she took on the business to keep her family heritage alive, rather than seek a fortune, and pointed out that her brothers were not interested in managing the store.

"This business was started by my great-grandfather and I am not going to allow it to be taken over by strangers or simply shut down," she said of the store, which sells many goods, from food and incense burners to kitchenware. "If my brothers care for traditions, why are they not interested in running the store?" Some young women in other towns said survival now took precedence over preserving male-dominated traditions. "I dropped out of school. This is the only thing I can do," said Asila al Jabri, 36, who owns and runs a women's clothing shop in a much smaller town in Ibri, in the Eastern Region.

"The death of my father gave me the opportunity of earning a living. Had I listened to male chauvinism, that women should not openly compete with men in business, then my family would have starved." Mrs al Jabri has four children and a wheelchair-bound husband who is unable to work, making her the sole breadwinner of the family. But that does not spare her from scorn and sarcastic comments. Statistics from the ministry of commerce show that less than one per cent of just over 54,000 small retail businesses outside of Muscat are now owned and run exclusively by women, up from zero per cent five years ago.

"Credit to them, these young women make a success out of the trades left by their fathers and they are also breaking the tradition by being the breadwinners of the families," said Nader al Balushi, a Muscat resident who was on a visit to Bahla. Women's rights activists have called for more women in rural areas to start up their own businesses. Women wishing to do business in the regions should refuse to be pushed down by men writing their own social rules," said Mahbooba al Hadhrami, a committee member of the Oman Women Association.

"The few women running their own trades in these towns are pioneers for better things to come." foreign.desk@thenational.ae