This is Oman

November 04, 2014

I write this on my flight back to Oman from Saudi Arabia.

I was flown to Riyadh as a member of a select group from Sultan Qaboos University and the Omani Ministry of Information to represent Oman in a symposium organised by the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to address the political future of the organisation.

GCC was founded in 1981 with the goal to bring about social, financial and political unity to the region. Since its inception, it has faced numerous challenges but has enjoyed great successes as well.

The trip came at a time when Oman was celebrating Omani Women's Day designated by His Majesty, the Beloved Sultan Qaboos bin Said, to invite the Omani society to acknowledge women's rights and support them in co-building the Omani nation. The trip came at the cusp of another major Omani celebration: Omani National Day.

Despite my busy schedule and the trip's last minute nature, I was excited at this rare opportunity to be at the forefront of an important symposium that might shape the future of this region. I was also looking forward to meeting the remarkable list of intellectuals from all six Arabian Gulf states.

The trip was a major success, everyone was nice and the discussions were engaging to say the least. The trip, however, also came with a dose of reality I did not know I needed.

Immediately, I was confronted with all things I have taken for granted: The liberty to express myself in any way I see fit; the liberty to drive, to bike, unimpeded; the liberty to work side by side with men; the liberty to travel freely.

The liberty to be me, with or without cover. Even as the other Omani members of the delegation and I were prepped for the official trip by an important person at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we were instructed that while it is vital for us to understand the policies of the government of Oman, we were free to express ourselves as intellectuals. No control of thought or action was required.

As respecting local customs is a must for successful interaction, I donned an abaya and a black sheila (head cover) throughout the trip even though during the symposium itself it was unnecessary. Both came off as soon as I landed in Oman (naturally), not out of rebellion but out of a need to be true to who I am. Such traditions, and they are just traditions not laws of nature, do not sit well with my free spirit.

In Oman, we love tradition; however, the extent to which we engage with it is a personal or a familial choice, not a government mandate! ‏When I got promoted two years ago to an associate professor of intercultural communication, I was requested by a female colleague to start donning a sheila in preparation for the next natural step - to become a full professor. I responded: This is Oman. I can be anything I want to be, with or without head cover.

Three years ago, I took an American professor colleague of mine on a tour of Omani villages to get acquainted with the beauty of Oman. In a remote village miles away from Muscat, I was approached by a slightly angry Omani local who did not think it was wise for an Omani lady to be in the company of a foreign man. I responded: This is Oman. I can do anything I want so long I am abiding by the laws and not impeding on someone else's rights.

Later, I realised I was able to shush the man (and my colleague), who left me in peace afterwards, only because of the leadership of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said (May Allah bless Him), who not only has kept Oman safe and sound but also has guaranteed us freedom.

It's great to be back!