In the 2018 AlDin International Festival held in Gulf College in Muscat, dozens of young Omani and Arab women had shown great interest for theatre with several of them competing in the street theatre competition. Together with their male counterparts, they had shown what they are made of, communicating a wide range of emotions expected from budding young actors. The festival brought to Oman competitors from different parts of the world competing in three distinct categories — street theatre, kids theatre and adults theatre.
Surprisingly, a record number of six schools from Oman had joined the competition and while theatre had been a male-dominated industry in the country, women are also finding the courage to join. This trend has been echoed in the Youth Creations competition held in February of this year. In this initiative, university students from different places in the country also competed within their districts with performances judged not only for the story that was being told but also for the range of emotions the actors masterfully demonstrated as they performed.
Even during this competition, women had found their voice illustrating that it has been a long time coming for women to become a big part of the scene. “The theatre is where you can be crazy with no one looking at you like you are one. It’s a place where you can feel different emotions all at the span of a few minutes. You can be mad, happy, sad all at once. It allows you to look into yourself and encourage others to feel what you feel,” shared Shaima Al-Aufia, a media student from Sultan Qaboos University who had found her passion for theatre arts. “Other than adopting different characters, I love the theatre because it teaches patience. There are scenes that you may have to keep doing over 50 times but yet you won’t get bored as you find the right approach to a scene,” she said.
While theatre acting has been in Oman for quite someone, it is not really viewed by Omani women as a sustainable or long term career. Although women’s role in the society has grown by leaps and bounds with many of them becoming teachers, soldiers and taking on roles that used to be dominated by men, theatre acting just come with a social stigma that is quite hard to overcome.
Osama al Shaqisi, a playwright and an employee of the Public Authority for Radio and Television said that the Omani society is a conservative society and it is protective towards its traditions and rituals and adheres to its social routine. He added that anything coming from the West is considered an unnecessary trend to emulate.
“Theatre is a Western phenomenon that does not quite fit well with Gulf traditions. A woman’s reputation is very important and women on stage are viewed differently by Muslim countries,” he said.
He added, “If a woman works in an area where she is seen by the public like television or theatre, the common perception by an Omani man is that she is doing something wrong even if she is decent.”
Tourism student Anwar Ambusaidi who also dabbles as an actor for theatre shared that this view of women doing wrong when they join the theatre is influenced by typical tribal ideology.
“It’s the lack of understanding about the theatre and its culture in general,” he said.
He also said that perception is hard to change because some view the theatre as a way for a woman to abandon their modesty.
“Some worry that women will remove their hijab or abaya to perform a role and that is unacceptable,” he said.
Shaima Al-Aufia who also now freelances as an actress added however that it’s not just in theatre that is a challenge.
“This limitation set on what women can do is not just limited to the theatre but in any field of art. Sometimes, those who are working in the industry themselves are setting up the wrong notion. When some male actors have trouble comprehending what the women actors are doing, they help promote the wrong notion about what women do in the field,” she said.
“How can we ask the community to change its view of women in the theatre if the actors who work in the industry themselves spread wrong ideas about what women do,” she shared.
Shaima said that while she enjoys what she’s doing, she doesn’t see it however as a full-time job in the future. Other than the stereotype, she said that community and family perceptions are a big part of one’s ideals.
“What my family and the community think stands in the way of my continuing to act. I may do it as a hobby but as a full-time job, I don’t think it will be enough to provide the basic needs in the future,” she said.
By Angham Al matrushi