International Women's Day: Activist tells of the challenges and progress to empower rural women

Humanitarian co-ordinator is now working closely with the UAE’s Peace Forum for Muslim Societies

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 05 MARCH 2018. Manal Omar, Founder & CEO Across Red Lines. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Haneen Dajani. Section: National.
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A woman who spent 20 years fighting for equality in rural and conservative societies has spoken of the progress made as well as the challenges ahead.

Manal Omar has facilitated dialogue between strict religious leaders and women, fought against child marriage and sought to ensure women don’t need the permission of men to seek healthcare services.

The Dubai-based humanitarian co-ordinator was speaking ahead of International Women’s Day, of which one of the themes is “Activism for Rural Women” this year.

From Iraq to Afghanistan to Yemen, Sudan and Northern Nigeria, the 42-year-old activist and author has facilitated projects from saving lives, lobbying for law changes, and training midwives in rural areas.

Ms Omar is now working closely with the UAE’s Peace Forum for Muslim Societies to enhance women’s participation in the religion and global peace-building efforts.

Her focus for the past two decades has been to increase flexibility within Islamic thought and is now encouraging greater female participation in forums and projects organised by the group.

Last year, she founded Across Red Lines.


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“The project looks specifically at Muslim women leadership and helps empower Muslim women by looking at their bodies from an Islamic lens,” said Ms Oman.

She has devoted the past year to organising workshops that promote such conversations in cities across the world.

She said the aim of Across Red Lines workshops is to support women who may already be working or have founded campaigns but “feel stuck and blocked, they know they can do more but they are not sure how to get to the next level.”

Sometimes going to the next level requires convincing an entire tribe.

While working with Oxfam in 2006, Ms Oman moved to Yemen where she was placed in charge of designing projects to benefit women in rural areas.

The job involved leading conversations with the locals to facilitate the projects - starting with religious leaders and local imams.

She said she spent a long time negotiating with men in the community before she was able to have access to the women.

“Their biggest fear is you are coming to corrupt the women,” she said.

Her projects included an anti-childhood marriages campaign, a water and sanitation project, a campaign for women prisoners and a midwife training programme.

She said women were willing to sign up for training, but the problem was when they finished they would not be welcomed back into their communities and would end up having to stay in urban areas “while the goal was to help rural areas.

“If you don’t have community backing, you are wasting time,” she said.

The anti-childhood marriage campaign – which aimed to cap the minimum marrying age at 17 - almost made its way into law.

The draft bill was introduced and debated in parliament in 2009, but was not passed.

“I still think that the fact the campaign made its way into a law and into parliament is a huge win, as most campaigns stay in their bubble.”

Ms Omar is also the author of Barefoot in Baghdad (2010), which chronicles her work with women in Iraq.