Oman: As They Sew, So They Reap

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By Priyanka Sacheti, Womens Feature Service

The headquarters of Sidab Women’s Sewing Group in the scenic fishing village of Sidab, Oman, was abuzz with activity.

In one room, Badriyah al Siyabi, the founder, was discussing new strategies with Al Mutasim al Mairi, the social performance manager at Shell Oman. In the adjoining two rooms, 35 women were furiously sewing an array of fabulous products. Just ahead, in the storeroom, reams of fabric were being stacked alongside the sewing machines and calico material. A few tourists were browsing through handmade calico shopping bags, mobile cases, cushion covers, tissue boxes, and CD and waterbottle covers in the well-stocked and colourful gallery.

For the women of Sidab, the formation of the sewing group has been a blessing. The non-profit organisation gives them a chance to learn and upgrade their sewing skills and supplement their household income from the products created, even as they continue to render their household duties. And banker Badriyah al Siyabi has been instrumental in giving them this invaluable opportunity.

Badriyah, who currently lives in Muscat but hails from Sidab, was always inclined towards social work. “I believe that if you’re part of society, you must help by not just giving money but your time as well,” she says.

As a youngster she had wanted to establish a community centre where women could nurture their vocational aspirations. But, it was only after she visited her brother in the US and where she observed the functioning of community centres, that the idea of combining community development with income generation occurred to her. When she talked to women in Sidab to get an idea of what they wanted to do, many expressed an interest in learning how to sew. Thus the Sidab Women’s Sewing Group came into being.

Badriyah started the group with the help of local and expatriate volunteers. She roped in Naima Abdullah al Maimani, an artist and jewellery designer to provide design inputs as well as to ensure quality control. Volunteers Muneera and Nadia agreed to attend to administration, stocks and finances; and one of Badriyah’s cousins donated the house that serves as the headquarters.

Initially, the group comprised six women who had a basic knowledge of sewing. Badriyah and Sue Ross, an enthusiastic Australian expatriate volunteer, brainstormed on the possible products they could create. “As Oman is a popular tourist destination, Sue came up with the idea of designing something modern, yet with a definite Omani signature that tourists would like to take home,” she reveals. So, they decided to make calico bags decorated with coloured ‘wizar’ (traditional Omani fabric) and embellished with Omani designs. After zeroing in on a basic design template that included motifs such as camels, date-palms and forts, and after sourcing the material from a tent factory in Rusyal, the duo took a sample of forty bags – that were made at the tent factory itself – for the women to work on. They asked them to embroider the designs one of Badriyah’s friends had sketched on to the bags. Subsequently, Badriyah and Ross retailed these sample bags at a community bazaar organised by the American Women’s Group where they were an instant sell-out.

Encouraged by the response, Badriyah set up shop with support from groups like the Women’s Guild of Oman and the American Women’s Group, Muscat. Shell Oman backed them with logistic and training support and provided the group with sewing machines and computers. It also arranged to train the women in people skills to enable them to interact with tourists. Besides, even local schools like ABA: The International School of Oman lent a helping hand by holding sales and proving volunteers.

Today, the centre has grown in number – there are 35 women, mostly in the age group of 25 to 40 years. Everyone is encouraged to come up with their own design ideas and each one is responsible for conceptualising, sewing, and embroidering her own pieces. “Most have really creative ideas and constantly innovate,” Badriyah reveals. In fact, it was the women who decided to embroider the bags with Omani women and men’s clothing, giving birth to a novel concept. Omani women’s clothing basically consists of a ‘kameez’-type (long) top worn over trousers, while the men wear a ‘dish-dasha’ – an ankle-length collar-less grown with long-sleeves. The women embroider miniature versions of the ‘kameez’-top and the front portion of the dish-dasha on the bags.

But before all the exquisite hand-made items are sent off to city stores or put up for sale at the centre, quality control checks are conducted. The products are retailed under the label, ‘Nissa Sidab – Made in Sultanate of Oman’. “We are very proud that we are able to maintain such high standards of quality and that our products feature the Omani flag,” says a delighted Badriyah. In fact, the group has registered a copyright with the Ministry of Commerce to prevent imitations.

The women at the centre are paid per piece – approximately half the price tag. So if an item is priced at RO 4 (US$1=RO 0.38) the women receive RO 2. “The final product cost price includes material and labour cost. A little profit is factored in as well,” informs Badriyah. “The additional income is of great help to the women’s families. Some even manage to make RO 100 a week when there are big orders during the tourist season.” The women generally walk down to work at nine in the morning and continue till noon.

However, the project has moved on from being a mere income-generating initiative. Badriyah explains, “The women have become more aware. While earlier they would be happy to accept whatever money they received for their products, they now demand a commensurate price, as they know the value of their work.”

Beside, several have also assumed leadership roles. The women are divided into two groups, each headed by a leader who then reports to the supervisors, Muna and Attiyah Mohammed, who are responsible for providing salaries and ensuring the smooth running of daily operations. They also interact with prospective customers and visitors.

Suad Mohammad al Belushi’s freshly acquired confidence is evident. “I like it here very much,” she says. “We are doing something useful and helping our families instead of just sitting at home.” When she joined the group three years back, Suad had no real interest in or aptitude for sewing. Now, she is an expert and takes home a steady income. “It is nice to have money of my own. If my baby wants something, I can immediately attend to her needs rather than wait for my husband’s salary to come at the end of the month,” she reveals proudly.

Suad also emphasises that being part of the group necessitates interaction with a world beyond that of Sidab, whether it is with officials or foreign customers. This has made her confident in dealing with new experiences and situations. “Earlier, I would have been scared and fearful,” she says.

Besides picking up the handmade knick-knacks at the high-end Shangri-La Barr al Jissa Resort and Spa, Raz Salon, Chedi hotel, visitors can access the entire range at the gallery in Sidab and also interact with the creators of the products.

Though the group has grown considerably, Suad says, “We work like a family.” This sisterhood sews together to stay together.