In Oman, a young female editor exemplifies new boldness
Kawkab al-Balushi, a bold student newspaper editor, wants to challenge authority – but disagrees with the divergent approach of some of her more rebellious peers who just 'want a Blackberry,' she says.
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She’s already battled resistance from her university to publish a student magazine, continuing to churn out glossy editions after an official reprimand for having started without permission.
By 30, she plans to hold public office on the country’s only elected council. By 32, she will become a minister, she says, helping to run this quiet sultanate that has experienced unprecedented civil unrest in the past month.
Like nearly everyone in the modern, relatively wealthy Gulf nation, Ms. Balushi professes a deep, unflinching devotion to Oman’s leader of 40 years, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said.
But she’s also emblematic of a new willingness here to challenge authority after years of public silence. Whereas other Arab revolutions have solidified around a single demand or set of demands, the revolutionary development here may be that Omanis are asking for anything at all – even if they are not unified on what they want or the best way to achieve it.
'They aren't asking for democracy. They want a Blackberry.'
As about 20 male students gathered in the campus quad of Sohar University recently to demonstrate outside the library, Balushi, dressed in a black abaya and a lime-green head scarf, clucks her tongue in disapproval.
“If I were His Majesty, I’d feel so insulted,” she says. “This doesn’t solve anything.”
She also describes how rebellious attitudes have spread to the classroom, recalling a recent incident when students began chatting on their mobile phones in the middle of a lecture and challenging the Canadian teacher in Arabic.
“These demonstrations had a bad effect on everyone,” says Balushi. “They are being rude to everyone. They aren’t asking for freedom and democracy. They want a Blackberry.”
Her reaction to the demonstrations in her country, which so far have been mostly peaceful, highlight the challenges both for those pushing for change and for a government that has responded with unprecedented concessions only to be met with new demands, more strikes, more demonstrations, more protest.
Significant issues, such as government reform and citizenship rights, are getting lost in the noise. It is generally accepted, however, that whatever is happening in Oman, there is no turning back.
“It’s a matter of the pressure building, of people feeling, ‘If we can’t do it now, when can we?' ” says Brenda Bickett, a librarian at Georgetown University who lived in Oman in the late 1980s and visits periodically. “It’s just a sense that, ‘We’re going to do this and see what happens.’ ”
At home, 'Omanis are all politicians'
This is not strictly a youth uprising in Oman, though young people are heartily taking part.
In the northern city of Sohar, where at least one protester was killed in late February during violent clashes with riot police, the protesters are predominantly young men angry about their inability to get jobs, who can’t afford the roughly $25,000 dowry needed to get married.
But in the capital of Muscat, which has seen multiple protests daily for several weeks, all age groups are pressing for higher salaries, more maternity leave benefits, citizenship for the children of Omani women who marry foreigners, better housing allowances, and a myriad of other demands.
In fact, the entire country seems to be protesting something these days.
In one recent example, residents stopped traffic for hours after a child was killed when a school bus collided with a bus at a highway junction north of Barka. Residents complained that they had been asking for safety improvements at the intersection for years. In the new Oman, the Oman that has emerged only in recent weeks, their discontent spilled over into the streets in a spontaneous outburst of public anger – and the police did not intervene.
“Omanis, in the house, are all politicians,” says Badria al-Shihi, an applied chemistry professor at Sultan Qaboos University. “But outside you’re not sure whom you are talking to. I speak freely, and I’ve never had anyone drag me to prison. It’s the fear that this could happen that [kept] people from talking.”