This summer I was blessed enough to have been given the opportunity to work with the Ministry of Social Development in co-organising, with a group of wonderful and smart female colleagues from Sultan Qaboos University, the upcoming Omani women’s conference to be held this coming October (the 10th, 11th and 17th).
My teammates and I spent much of the summer discussing, debating and deliberating our proposed programmes from places across the globe – one team member is in Saudi Arabia, the other two spent part of summer in England, and I am still in the US on my research leave. I could not help but keep wondering about the place of Omani women with disabilities in this equation.
As many people know, my passion, commitment, service and research for over ten years collectively has been people with disabilities in Oman. My goal is to reach a point where people with disabilities in Oman not only enjoy their God given rights, which are endorsed by the Omani government, but also become a part and parcel of the society in which we live, and all have a responsibility to build.
As I often say, whether at conferences in Oman or outside of Oman, the government of Oman has been quite forward when it comes to the nature of disability; it has always believed that disability is a social problem not just a medical one. This means that the problem lies not in those with disabilities but rather in the obstacles that society puts in front of them. This is what is called the politically correct social model of disability in academic research.
With Sultan Qaboos University now leading the way in promoting the cause of disability and improving the lives of its students with disabilities, it is easy to get carried away with optimism. But the truth is we have a long way to go, especially where Omani women with disabilities are concerned.
When I attend activities organised by one of the few disability NGOs (non-government organisations) in Oman, I usually am the only woman in attendance. For instance, Al Noor Association for the Blind has over 500 members in Muscat, yet most of the members, if not all, are men. Up until very recently, the board was only occupied by men with disabilities.
But that, thank God, changed recently, when my ex-student with a visual disability, Sheikha al Jassasi, decided not only to join the organisation, but also become a member of the board. Through efforts like this, women like Sheikha are working to change the status of women with visual disabilities in Oman. Sheikha and I both believe, and as I will point out in the upcoming conference God willing, that we need to seriously dedicate attention and resources to women with disabilities because so far we have failed them.
Though statistics are not available – the numbers out there are neither reliable nor updated – there is one thing we know for sure from considering Sheikha’s personal journey as well as my own research: Many female children with disabilities in Oman do not get the chance to go to school. This is so not because of the school system, but due to parents’ ignorance or fear of abuse among many other, unfounded, concerns. This I heard is especially the case in Salalah, something Sheikha has promised she will investigate further.
I keep wondering as an educator, how much have we unintentionally been robbing from our female disabled population, and how much have we robbed from ourselves as a nation by not helping these women engage in building our Omani nation together? I know they have a lot to offer.
This breaks my heart!
Whether we like to admit it or not, we have not done our job concerning women with disabilities; they seem to have disappeared into the darkness even though I know from Sheikha and others I have met on my journey with disability that they are full of light.
We have failed them as people, government and advocates. It is time we do right by them!
Najma al Zidjaly is a writer and assistant professor of linguistics and intercultural communication in the English department of the College of Arts & Social Sciences, Sultan Qaboos University. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org