In the hot, desert climate of Buraimi, some 300-plus kilometres away from Muscat, you would not believe that you would bump into a bright, young Omani woman who is always buzzing around town like a bee, doing what she knows best: volunteering; helping women become independent and successful. But, in all likelihood, you will. For, she is a force to reckon with and is always up and ready to give a helping hand to other women.
AHLAM RASHID SALIM AL MOQBALI is not just passionate about volunteering, but also makes that vital effort to provide Omani women in Buraimi the necessary skills to succeed. While volunteering is what she does best, she is also a creator, who literally turned an idea and a dream into reality.
Bait Al Banat
Ahlam Al Moqbali’s efforts crystallised into the Bait Al Banat (Girls’ House). This centre, which she founded, is one where women are taught how to turn their traditional skills, like making handicrafts, dressmaking, cooking etc., into successful businesses.
First of its kind
Bait Al Banat is the first of its kind in the Sultanate. “It is an incubator for home projects. And, throughout the year, these home-based entrepreneurs conduct events and various activities for other women and children, charging nominal fees,” Ahlam said.
Close to her heart
Seeing women succeed is something that is very close to Ahlam’s heart. By helping women succeed, she believes that it will open up a future with more opportunities for them and others too, something like a chain reaction. “Volunteering is very close to my heart. I love to volunteer and I also realise the many advantages I have gained a lot because of it,” Ahlam Al Moqbali told the Purple.
Reasons for Bait Al Banat
There were many reasons that led Ahlam to launch the Bait Al Banat initiative. “Being a member of the International Peer Education Network (one of the youth programmes of the United Nation’s Population Fund) gave me many opportunities to know myself, respect and accept others. This is in addition to travelling, learning, thinking about people and helping those in need.
“This opportunity, travelling alone, and volunteering in a society that views volunteering as unacceptable to women at that time in itself exposed me to a lot of criticism. But I have a family, who is firmly and strongly behind me; a family that trusts my abilities and allows me to do what I want to do. It is this support that has given me the strength to live the life I want.
In fact, the project was started from my father’s house,” Ahlam said, walking down a fond memory lane.
Journey into oneself
For Ahlam, travelling was a journey into herself. As most travellers learnt on the way that travelling “fosters a medium to build human connections with one another, by learning about culture, food, new sites, music, and the way people lead their lives in different parts of the world”.
It was the best learning experience and the best arena for transferring experiences, she notes. In fact, it was from a visit to the United States of America that planted the seed of the idea for Bait Al Banat in her. “During my trip to the USA, I came upon a small shop, which taught visitors how to make biscuits. I was totally bowled over by the idea behind this. It is just a simple idea, but very effective,” Ahlam recalled.
The shop was the inspiration for the girls’ house initiative. “I realised the great potential women had in their own homes, where they could turn their small in-house activities into profitable businesses,” Ahlam said.
Earn money, be self reliant
“For example, many women could teach visitors — to the country — how to make Omani bread. It can be taught by women to local girls or tourists and the former could earn some money and help them become self-reliant.”
But things were not very easy at the start. Earlier on, when she tried to invite other women to participate in community-related activities and events, she found reluctance and resistance to participate. Volunteering was not something that everyone caught on to easily. And it was not considered to be of much importance, Ahlam noted.
“But they were keen on home projects. Moreover, it helped them earn a livelihood and this increased its importance. However, with time, the members of Bait Al Banat became aware of the meaning of community work,” Ahlam said, noting that the tide was slowly turning in her favour.
And it also began to help her: “Bait Al Banat helped me a lot in getting great friends; especially, like-minded women who believed in change and supporting women.”
Turning odds to success
Slowly, with her help, many women were able to turn the odds in their favour and build livelihoods, which were sustainable.
“In the first stage, through Bait Al Banat, I helped provide job seekers a suitable place, where they could advertise their experience and talents. It is a free service so that they can make profits. When they make profits, they become a partner and then they pay rent for our services. As for those who have a job, we ask them for financial support, to help meet the initiative’s expenses.”
Biggest success story
Asked about Bait Al Banat’s biggest success story, she said: “Honestly, in 2016, I was very happy because of the success of most of the projects: The Mama Hanan project for children’s activities; the project to teach English (with Maha); Shamayel Al-Zain project for gifts and handicrafts… to name a few. The Girls’ House was a place for all girls to try out their talents and get benefit from it. Many women have benefited,” she happily noted.
And proper acknowledgement has also come their way. “We have received a number of local and international awards. But the biggest success story is the blossoming and growth of true friendship (women’s support for each other). I am overjoyed when I see how a woman’s self-confidence is reflected in serving the community and spreading love.”
However, it was not a journey without challenges. “We had plenty of challenges. One of the biggest challenges that we face is the reluctance by society to embrace community work, which helps women to be independent,” Ahlam revealed. She explains the connection between volunteering and the resultant effect. “It is because I volunteer my time and effort, which succeeds in helping women use their skills to their benefit and earn a living,” she pointed out.
Volunteering concept not yet popular
“But the concept of volunteering has not caught on in the manner it should. Somehow, we need to drive home the all-important message that when we volunteer and teach others, especially women, to be self-reliant, it ends in a success story.
Also, the authorities’ concerned for community work should be geared to support women and help develop appropriate programmes for girls.
Let me explain: The society’s outlook is simple. It wants women to provide free services. But I told them that this is not what our initiative is all about — it is a home project wherein women with talent and skills have to be fully supported. “The other challenge is when everyone gets engaged in the same activities. All of this made me slowly change my approach after five years,” she said.
“We were interested in empowering women in home projects and thereby enhance their participation in society. We follow and are with the Omani Women’s Association. Today, our interests have become varied and are in the cultural, sports and social aspects. Therefore, the initiative now follows Al-Nahda Club in the Wilayat of Buraimi. In our new vision, we target the girls and women of Oman. Not just Buraimi. Currently, the challenge looming before us is the need to furnish our new headquarters, which consists of nine rooms,” Ahlam said, adding quietly that she found it difficult to ask for support for the same.
Volunteer cum professional
While Ahlam leads a hectic life as a volunteer, she also double up as a professional working for a living. “I have been working as a communications and media specialist in the Environment Agency for a decade now. I run the Bait Al Banat project in collaboration with former female entrepreneurs,” she said.
Encouraging women and girls
“Currently, most of the projects have graduated, except for the children’s corner, which is run by my sister Hanan. The current plan is that Bait Al Banat will focus on encouraging women and girls from other governorates to visit Buraimi and do some activities with us, paying a small fee. And because our key focus remains in empowering women, all of the events, trips, and cooking, etc., will be handled by women from the area.”
A man who supports women
Ahlam is married and has two children. “My husband is an Arabic language teacher, and he is currently working as a manager in the Hafeet district. He is an activist in the cultural field. More importantly, he is a man who supports women,” she said proudly.
Blessed with supportive family
Asked how she found the time for all that she did and whether family life suffered because of her work, she said: “When we love and care for the things we do, somehow, we are able to manage to time. But not always. I sometimes suffer because I do not find anyone to take care of my children. But, most of the time, I am able to run both family and work matters smoothly and without any hitches.
Also, it helps to have an understanding husband. The other thing is I have my full support from my dear mother. So, I am blessed. Without their support, I don’t think I could do the things I do,” Ahlam explained.
Running Bait Al Banat has given Ahlam a fair share of the good and the bad. “My happiest moment was when our initiative won the top prize in Qatar. Mind you, we were chosen to be the best among many other wonderful initiatives. Lately, I also decided that we should share our simple ideas to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
As for the other side, there has been frustrating moments too. There was a time when all our projects graduated; we found the market was filled with similar ones. I felt quite disappointed then and that is when I was forced to close the headquarters for a whole year.”
Lessons the pandemic taught
Ahlam also noted that the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic brought in loads of lessons in its disastrous wake. “The most important lesson from it all was the stark realisation of a time-tested adage: health is wealth! It is the most important aspect of all. I also feel that we should thank the Almighty for having given us a normal life before the COVID. Why do we forget that? Before this pandemic, all of us led pretty normal lives. But, we will only remember the pandemic.
We need to spread the values of love and goodness to all and bring out lot of awareness on this front.”
Asked about the challenges and obstacles faced by women entrepreneurs in Oman, she said: “Well, I am a social entrepreneur, I don’t know much about economics and money. But what I believe is that there is still a need for the country to invest in the talents and the intelligence of women, which in turn will assist in the development of the Sultanate.“For me, women are super-heroines; they have minds that have an abundance of intelligence and multifaceted talents, which are yet to be tapped.”
“My fondest dream for Bait Al Banat is that this fascinating girls’ house reach across the world. Omani women are distinguished and we have a lot to show the world as well as benefit from. If this is achieved, then that is my humble gift to my dear homeland, Oman.
Ahlam also voiced the opinion that the stakeholders and the women themselves will restore the status of Omani women’s associations. “These associations need continuous review and development.”
More attention required
“Omani women have succeeded in various fields. We need more attention in the field of volunteering and/or social responsibility. Empowering women in the social and economic field is essential for the advancement of any country,” Ahlam said.
Optimistic about 2040 Vision
“I am optimistic about Oman’s 2040 vision. We all know the difficult situation that the world is going through. I believe that the role of every individual, man or woman, is extremely important to bring about positive change for the sake of humanity,” she concluded.
(*) Bait A Banat began in 2014. Soon after the project kicked off, they got the approval from small-home business. “Then after two years we came under the Omani Women’s Association in Buraimi, because as a social group we need to get proper approvals from clubs or women’s associations. “We were under the Omani Women’s Association until 2021. Our vision grew and we evolved and diversified to sports, culture, volunteering causes… So we came under Al Nahda Club, which is the authority under the ministry of culture and sports.”
Ahlam Al Moqbali is a young woman with many dreams. She lives in Buraimi and is part of a large family, which includes, among others, seven other girls and a brother. She studied at the Higher College of Technology in Muscat. She took Science, and majored in Applied Biology. She holds an MBA/Business Administration from the Majan University, which is in association with the University of Bedfordshire, UK. In 2021, she joined the fellowship programme in social responsibility. She also conducted research on the reasons why women were reluctant to join the Omani Women’s Association.