Women’s participation in physical education, physical activity, and sport in Oman
Yousra AI-Sinani,Anfal Al-Wahaibi andTansin Benn
The Sultanate of Oman is an Arab Islamic country located in southwest Asia. It is a member of the Gulf Countries Council (GCC). The United Nations classify' it as a part of the global region of MENA (the Middle East/North Africa). It is bordered on the north by the Gulf of Oman and the Islamic Republic of Iran, on the northwest by the United Arab Emirates, on the west by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and on the southwest by the Republic of Yemen.
The territories of the Sultanate extend over an area of 309,560 km2, with varied topography including deserts (82%), mountains (15%), and coastal plains to the north, east, and south. The climate in the Sultanate is subtropical with extreme temperatures in summer; it is mostly dry but can have monsoon rains. In recent years, Oman has seen changes with increased susceptibility to hurricanes and deep air depressions.
Oman is classed as a high-income country by the World Bank. It is currently diversifying from dependence on oil reserves (Oman Government, 2019). It remains a developing country because of the rapid ongoing challenges and changes. Oil and gas constitute the most significant percentage of the country’s natural resources. Only 7% of Oman is agricultural land, so 90% of its food needs is imported. Desalination plants provide the primary source of water for the population.
Modernization post-1970 was led by the founder of modern Oman, the late Sultan Qaboos in Sa id bin Taymur, may Allah rest his soul in peace. His leadership ensured that Oman stood out among other nations in terms of its positive interaction in the midst of all regional and international turmoil and turbulence, often acting as a mediator when approached. Thus, the country remained neutral and detached from political tensions. Continuing the same principles, is his successor, his cousin, H.M. Sultan Haitham bin Tariq bin Taymur. He was sworn in as Oman’s new Sultan on 11 January 2020. He had previously held administrative, leadership, and political positions, among which were the Foreign Ministry’s Secretary-General, Minister of National Heritage and Culture, Head of Oman Vision 2040, along with being honorary president of the Oman Association for the Disabled. Sultan Haitham graduated from Oxford University, UK, and is known for his support for sport in Oman. He was appointed as the first president of the Omani Football Association from 1983 to 1986. In 2010, he was appointed as the Chairman of the National Organising Committee for the Asian Games.
The predominantly young population of Oman is estimated to be around five million according to the 2019 census, males constituting 50.4% and females 49.6%; life expectancy is 77 years. Over 40% of the population is the migrant workforce (defined as all those who enter to work and go home when the job is finished). These are predominantly males (83.7%) from India and Bangladesh, and females from Indonesia, Philippines, and Sri Lanka to work in infrastructure and support jobs. Experts in many fields have been brought in from across the world to advise on developments. The ongoing process of Omanization, the localization of jobs, which was introduced for the first time in Oman in 1988, is designed to skill Omani people to fill the most prestigious, high-earning jobs and is having some success from which the young population, men and women, are benefitting.
Oman could be described as a conservative society as it strives to absorb rapid modernization and globalization, while retaining distinctiveness and safeguarding deeply valued social and cultural norms. Mujtaba, Khanfar, and Khanfar (2010, p. 176) note that “Omani culture is considered to be diverse and heterogeneous”, mainly due to the population comprising several different ethnicities and languages, notably, Arab, South Asian, Balushi, and African. Those travelling beyond Muscat, the capital city, into the Omani desert, mountain villages, or among the Bedouin communities will witness the cultural diversity that has “a significant effect on the Omani citizens’ experiences and perceptions” (Al-Wahaibi, 2017, p. 14).
Overview of the position of women
Social and economic transformations have brought many opportunities for girls and women in recent years. Omani women have moved gradually from hegemonic traditions that limited them to familial domains, to pursuing roles in the labour force in addition to managing familial responsibilities. Women are becoming more visible in prominent roles in society, with appointments to policy-making positions, including as female ministers, deputy ministers, ambassadors, and members of parliament. Al-Wahaibi (2017, 2020) provided insights on the factors contributing to career progression for Omani women. These included family support, education, and job opportunities provided by the government, and they enabled women to serve in positions of influence and power. Education was perceived as a key factor, learning the necessary skills to enter and progress in their careers, having the confidence: “to fulfil roles that were once the exclusive privilege of men” Al-Wahaibi (2017, p. 25).
A rapid change in the birth rate pattern has had a great impact on women’s lives and ambitions, freeing time for education, entering the workforce, and leisure pursuits. Within two generations, the average birth rate per woman dropped from over eight children in 1980 to under three in 2010 (World Bank, 2020). With such a rapid change, some generational tensions inevitably occur. In traditional Omani culture, there is still high social capital for women who have many children. Issues of gender equality have changed but require understanding of the Omani, Islamic context.
Oman is still considered as a patriarchal society, in which men and women are seen as having different but equally respected roles. Men remain responsible for supporting the family financially; women can use their earnings as they choose. Inheritance law favours men under Sharia law with men entitled to twice the legacy of women, justified by their responsibility for building family wealth. Land ownership laws have been changed to allow women equal rights to land ownership. Polygamy is permissible in certain circumstances, with men retaining more of the power of decision-making concerning family matters. Codes of behaviour and dress apply in public. Issues of sex segregation have become more fluid but are built into the social fabric. For example, in public gatherings, men will normally be more visible than women; the architecture of Sultan Qaboos University (SQU), Muscat, allows women to choose ‘women only’ paths connecting buildings or ‘mixed-sex’ paths, but all classrooms have separate entrances for men and women. Most Omani men wear the traditional dishdasha white robe and women the black shalor and abaya. Some women still wear the niqab or full-face veil in public, either where they choose to wear it, or where they feel it is expected. There are generational, regional, and socio-economic differences. More advantaged women volunteer in developing wider social support systems for others, for example, through the Omani Women’s Associations and Community Knowledge Centres. Religious and family responsibilities shape work and life patterns every day for Omani men and women (Al-Sinani & Benn, 2011).
Despite recent positive changes in the lives of Omani women, in relation to progress internationally, Oman’s rankings reflect global trends for ongoing struggles alongside all women for equality. On two of the four dimensions used to measure positive changes in the gender gap realities, Oman ranked poorly (World Economic Forum, 2020). Oman ranked 143/153 countries for evidence of closing the gender gap in ‘Economic Participation and Opportunity’. On the dimension of‘Political Empowerment’, it ranked 150/152. In line with other countries Oman did better in the dimension of ‘Educational Participation’ ranking 97/153, and in ‘Health and Survival’ at 45/152, reflecting specific improvements and provision in healthcare. Such tools enable the monitoring and visibility of change as the world drives towards greater gender equality.
Oman is a member state of the United Nations and signatory to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SEKjs), where Goal 5 is to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” (UN, 2015). On International Women’s Day 2020, the Sultanate reiterated commitments to women’s equality and rights, alongside those of children and persons with disabilities. In compliance with international covenants and treaties, the Sultanate has acceded to a number of international agreements that deal with human rights, including the Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. A task force has been set up to track progress on the SDG 2030 agenda, with priorities being given to the SDG 1 (elimination of poverty) and SDG 5 (gender equality). A Ministry' for the implementation of the rights of women, children, and people with disabilities has been established (Sultanate of Oman, 2019). Al-Abri (2010, p. 22) points out that “the law already enriches [Omani] women’s rights by the government edict”, so that the actual battle against the discrimination faced by women “does not address official or structural discrimination, but the attitudes of individuals towards cultural choices”. The road map indicates a commitment to a vision of greater equality (Oman government, 2019). Ongoing monitoring of change will be essential to tracking progress.
Physical education, community physical activity, and sport in the Omani context
The Arab, Islamic, Omani cultural context advocates equal opportunities to participate in physical activities provided people adhere to Islamic requirements. Men and women (post-puberty) participate in separate spaces and adopt modest dress codes such as covering their arms and legs. There are differences in attitudes and behaviour between generations, regions, cities, and rural environments, and among those from different backgrounds. For example, some tribal communities still adhere to traditional Arabic customs and do not allow women to perform movements in front of others. In contrast, others have folk dancing for men and women together enjoyed at festivals by all sectors of Omani society. Indeed, several dances have become officially registered with the Heritage and Culture Committee at UNESCO to preserve Omani heritage. Progress in improving opportunities for Omani girls and women requires respect and understanding of the Omani cultural context in which girls and women exercise their right to participate in all forms of physical activity (PA).
Physical inactivity - a national and international problem
In line with World Health Organization (WHO) global trends, physical inactivity is a serious issue for Oman, with higher than average levels (Guthold, Stevens, Riley, & Bull, 2018), particularly amongst adolescence (Guthold, Stevens, Riley, & Bull, 2020). Global concerns are related to associated health problems such as heart conditions, obesity, and non-communicable diseases. In 2004, Al-Lawati and Jousilahti evidenced a 10-year secular trend of obesity in Oman. In 2016 Al-Nasseri reported that over 70% of boys and 85% of girls in Oman did not participate in PA and that women’s levels of inactivity were higher than men’s inactivity. In Oman, there is a National Plan and a Ministry of Health to manage change initiatives at different levels, and these have focused on awareness, healthy lifestyles, and increasing activity levels. The role of movement in schools, communities, and sport contexts is recognized as significant to changing these habits and lifestyles. The support at government level for increasing PA levels is not always mirrored by enthusiasm in Omani society. Increased visibility and profiling of the link between PA and health is valuable for strategies to improve opportunities at every level of provision from schools to community and competitive sport.
Public education has been developed across Oman since 1970. Basic education comprises cycle one (grades 1-4) equating to primary schools in some countries, and teaching is in mixed-sex classes with an all-female staff. Cycle two (grades 5-10) is taught in separate schools for boys and girls and equates to secondary schools in some countries. This is followed by grades 11-12, then continuing or higher education is available. The subject of physical education (PE) has a place in the curriculum throughout schooling.
From the earliest days, with no internal history, the curriculum designers, teachers, and teacher trainers were employed from other countries, mainly Egypt and Jordan. The rhetoric of PE provision for all children across the diverse regions of the country is not reflected in reality. For example, in the 2015 Oman Global School-based Student Health Survey (GSHS), it was reported that over 50% of boys and girls had not attended regular PE lessons over the last year (Al-Lawati, 2015).
The greatest challenge remains the design of public schools with no specialist indoor, air-conditioned, sports facilities or gymnasiums in a country where temperatures often exceed 40 degrees. Normally, PE takes place in outdoor concrete or rough areas. Seldom are these even covered to provide shade. These areas are located either in a central courtyard area or on the outside of buildings. Both locations bring unwelcome visibility. The latter can result in community visibility, which is more problematic for both the women teachers and students participating because of negative attitudes and repercussions in some communities. Another alternative to finding a space for PE has been to move desks in a classroom, but again this is inadequate for quality PE experiences. The many private and international schools offer multiple sports facilities for students, including swimming pools and sports halls. However, these can only be accessed by the wealthiest people (Benn & Al-Sinani, 2007a).
At cycle two, the predominantly games-based programme is limited to one session a week. The allocated time for PE is further cut because changing and clearing of equipment are also required within the time allotted. In addition, PE lessons can be lost where pressure from other academic subjects takes over curriculum time, reflecting low status for the subject. This is clearly inadequate for any meaningful learning experience, development of skills, or instilling of motivation for girls in Oman to enjoy a healthier life.
Another problem is that the PE curriculum in Oman has been biased towards competitive sports forms, which is also a global concern (UNESCO, 2014). This domination pays insufficient attention to the specific needs of children, the wider concept of developing physical literacy (Whitehead, 2010), linking health education studies and designing a context-appropriate programme for Omani children. One positive example of linking with health education was seen in the Nizwa Healthy Lifestyle Friendly Project (NHLP), implementing the Gulf‘Move for Health’ programme to raise activity levels in primary schools alongside related interventions (Mehan &. Kilani, 2010). Connections with emerging and related fields of knowledge and increased awareness of the role of movement in human development can only he valuable in enhancing the value, status, and significance of PE.
Community provision and physical activity
There is increasing awareness of the need for all girls and boys, women and men to participate in PA as a contributor to health and well-being, physically and psychologically. In Oman, walking is seen as the most popular activity for women, but there are women’s fitness gyms and women-only specific community sporting and activity projects and initiatives to encourage women to be more active. Increasing numbers of fashion-conscious young women want to exercise to stay slim. The time, space, and expertise needed to provide women-only community spaces and activities have been won gradually from the time when regional sports spaces and activities were developed as sports clubs for Omani men.
Any jointly used sports and health clubs today have separate entrances and exits for men and women and systems that support sex-segregation where this is preferred. Current provision is largely in the main cities, so access, cost, and transport can be issues. Provision for mixed participation is available and used mainly by expat communities. If stronger links between PA and healthy lifestyles could be established while at school, then community participation would grow. There is government support at every level but changing cultural reticence for women’s participation in PA is a slow process.
Success in international sport has not been a priority in Oman, given all the other things achieved since 1970. The women’s competitive sports field is in its infancy but has received much government input. Women’s participation requires deeper changes in cultural expectations and mindset. Omani men are also not well known for international sporting success. However, they do not face the same barriers. They have been fortunate to enjoy resources, publicity, and community support for sports participation, mostly for leisure time enjoyment, for many years.
Women’s sports teams in the 1990s developed from expats activities, and events were informally organized in private clubs in handball, netball, tennis, squash, volleyball, and martial arts. From these beginnings, some Omani women became involved in sport. With the addition of specialist PE teacher education at
SQU, most Omani women interested in sport were attracted to study and develop their sporting capability at the university. Therefore, many early team members were from SQU. A small number of Omani women represented their country in the Islamic Women’s Games in Tehran from the 1990s and events have broadened since, including participating in the first GCC Games in 2008 (a competition run in line with Islamic requirements) and wider international events such as the West Asian Games (Al-Sinani & Benn, 2011). The first Omani woman to compete in an Olympic Games was Buthaina Yaqoubi in Beijing 2008. Shinoon Salah Al-Habsi competed in the London Olympic Games in 2012. Mazoon Al-Alawi and Wadha Al-Balushi competed in the Rio Olympics 2016 in athletics and shooting. To date no Omani man or woman has won an Olympic medal, but they have medallists at other events. A small number of Omani women with disabilities have also represented their country, for example, at the Paralympic Games and the GCC Games levels including Raya Al’Abri, Al-Anbouria, and Al-Hammadi, predominantly in athletic throwing events.
In addition to hegemonic cultural attitudes about Omani women and sport, a significant barrier for women has been international sports federations’ uniform regulations and systems of organization that have not been conducive to Omani cultural and religious customs of sex-segregation and modest dress codes. Efforts by lobbyists internationally, in solidarity with Muslim women, have led to some international sports governing bodies changing dress code regulations to enable the participation of those Muslim women preferring to cover. Examples include the IAAF - athletics, FIFA - football, and the IWF - weightlifting. The process is slow and contentious, as indeed are transgender issues being discussed today. Despite the challenges and slow rates of change, role models are emerging, and some women are choosing not to wear hijab, reinforcing the fact that covering is not a dictate from the government but a matter of personal resolution.
Champions in other sports have emerged in tennis, notably Fatma Al-Nabhani, bowling, taekwondo, and handball. In February 2020, Ibtisam Al-Salmi and Marwa Al-Kaifi were part of an all-female team to finish third in the EFG Sailing Arabia Tour. In 2019 Oman’s first women’s football league was launched. In June 2020 the Omani Football Federation appointed its first female coach - Maha Jandat from Syria. Fatma Al-Harthi, a basketball player and graduate from SQU, recently became a referee of the International Basketball Association (3x3) (Al-Rijabi, 2020). Aisha Al-Sibani, a top international medallist in bowling, became the first Arab woman to receive an accredited coaching degree in her sport. Her ambition is to turn professional (Oman Bowling Committee, 2020). In 2019 Saada Al Ismaili won the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ‘Women and Sport’ award for Asia. She is a Board Member at the Oman Olympic Committee (OOC) and Director of the Women’s Sports Department at the Ministry of Sports Affairs (IOC Women and Sport, 2019).
All of these women are pioneers and role models. More Omani women are needed in senior government positions; sports board management, research, journalism, and media work; as sport officials and administrators, as well as professional sportswomen. Such opportunities would encourage all girls and women to be positive about careers in the field and the value of exercise across the lifespan.
Teacher training and coach education
Higher Education (HE) efforts to improve Omani women’s training of specialist teachers of PE, health educators, community providers, sport coaches, administrators, and managers are happening on a small scale. In turn this will impact in schools and communities, but the context of the country should never be forgotten in international efforts to support progress, as expressed by Al-Balushi et al. (2020):
While HE institutions in the Western world struggle with issues pertaining to race, ethnicities, marginalized groups, gender, and diversity, HE institutions in the Arab world are searching for ways to combat poverty, ensure access to education for all, establish democratic societies, face economic crises, and reach a compromise between religious values and modernization.
(Al-Balushi, Emam, &. Al-Abri, 2020, p. 2)
There are a few previous studies about training of teachers in PE in the Arab world and most were undertaken by male researchers on male provision. Al-Sinani (2007) provided the first in-depth research undertaken by a woman in Oman on PE in the country and the women’s PE teacher education programme at SQU. While the percentage of female teachers in the Oman Ministry of Education and in HE is greater than in other sectors (Al-Wahaibi, 2020), women specialists of PE and women sport coaches remain sparse across the Gulf countries (Al-Sinani, 2012).
In Oman, there have been efforts to develop competencies through teacher training since the 1970s when public education became a reality for all girls and boys and a broad curriculum was being developed, including PE. The most prestigious specialist degree-level training in the subject for men and women started at SQU, Muscat, in the 1990s. Including the subject in the College of Education of SQU raised the profile and status of the subject because the university carried the respected Sultan’s name and therefore formed part of his vision for Oman (Benn & Al-Sinani, 2007b).
The first intake in PE at SQU was in 1991 with three women and ten men, but the numbers have grown. The process of Omanization has seen Omani teachers replace migrant specialists, but the process is not complete. There is a need for research on the efficacy of the current programme, and on career retention of Omani women teachers post training. In recent years SQU students have ben-efitted from government enrichment programmes in the areas of sports curricula and teaching. For example, many have volunteered socially in the Sport for All programmes and Sport for Better Health. There is no doubt that the department has provided the Sultanate with Omani women teachers and sports coaches, role models capable of inspiring other girls and women and of having an influence in their schools and community.
A 2016 review of the SQU programme regarding accreditation for national status by the US-based National Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (NACTE), and specifically the standards of the subject association the National Association for Sports and Physical Education (NASPE), has highlighted the work achieved but with changing trends more needs to be done (Al-Balushi et al., 2020). To ensure positive change across Oman, any improvements made in initial teacher education for PE specialists need to be cascaded across the country for serving teachers through the continuing professional development programme (Al-Maqbali, 2019).
Despite the positive rhetoric for Omani girls’ and women’s participation in all areas of PA, they still lag behind men for a number of reasons.
- ( 1 ) The community and Omani socio-cultural norms have the strongest influence on women’s lives, and these forces may deter women from moving forward in their careers and lives. Al-Wahaibi (2017, p. 196) stated that “Omani females’ lives are driven by a raft of complex factors stemming from cultural norms and social realities, which delineate boundaries and set restrictions on women’s progression”.
- (2) There is considerable evidence about the role of Omani women’s families in their career progress and personal empowerment (Al-Abri, 2010; Al-Wahaibi, 2020; Mujtaba et al., 2010). Where there is familial support from parents, siblings, and the wider family, girls and women can participate in physical activities.
- (3) Poverty also influences participation. Where there is wealth, Omani women enjoy many activities including pilates, swimming, and yoga in women-only private facilities, while other women do not have the means or transport facilities to access such pastimes.
- (4) Myths and negative stereotypes remain to restrict women’s participation in PA, for example, about risks to femininity and to child-bearing, therefore some women still have deep-rooted negative dispositions towards participation. Socialization into gender expectations alongside lack of education and understanding of the potential life benefits serve to restrict women’s receptiveness to new opportunities.
The following recommendations are presented for future endeavours:
( 1 ) Advocacy campaigns to change attitudes and challenge negative dispositions to women’s participation in physical activities and sport;
- (2) Target whole family lifestyle campaigns that encourage active lives for all generations and sexes;
- (3) Improve education about the health and lifelong benefits of being physically active for all boys, girls, men, and women, including myth-busting regarding negative stereotyping of women who participate;
- (4) Improve the PE facilities in public schools by adding appropriate indoor sports spaces and maximize their usage for education and community purposes, since the schools serve every village, town, and community;
- (5) Review and update the policy and practice of the Omani PE curriculum using an appropriate change management process of negotiation between all stakeholders from ministers to teachers. Issues for focus include goals; content, breadth beyond competitive sports; a more appropriate cycle one programme; links across school and community provision; links with health education, fitness campaigns, and community sports clubs (e.g., UNESCO’s established work on Quality Physical Education, including internationally relevant benchmarks, reference to physical literacy, and emerging resources for successful policy reviews in diverse cultural, social, and economic situations (UNESCO, 2020));
- (6) Where expertise from outside countries is used, ensure developments and visions are context specific and relevant to the Omani situation and needs;
- (7) For competitive sport a talent identification programme could be developed to support young women with potential to develop their skills and potential.
This chapter has highlighted the effects for girls and women of living within the socio-cultural context of Oman today, either facilitating or hindering their participation in all aspects of PE, PA, and sports. Fortunately, it appears that there will be a significant shift in the status of women in sport in Oman with the appointment of His Highness Dhi Yazan bin Haitham, the Sultan of Oman’s son, as the Minister of Culture, Sports and Youth. This positive change and the restructuring of the government have the potential to further improve opportunities for women in general and women in sport. Further research and monitoring of progress in gender equality are essential to understanding rates of change within the complexity of challenges across Oman and in relation to progress for women across the world.
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Chapter I 5