Girls in Oman Have a Rocking New Career Option

By Priyanka Sacheti, Womens Feature Service

Girls in Oman have a rocking new career option – geosciences. Defying and reinterpreting the notion of geosciences being a male-dominated field – what with the inescapable and rigorous fieldwork involved – the talented women-dominated batches of the geosciences programme at Sultan Qaboos University and German University of Technology exhibit great enthusiasm for the subject as well as the varied career opportunities that stem from it.

Oman is dotted with awe-inspiring geological formations – be it the lofty Al Hajar Mountains and the drowned valleys of Musandam – that attract renowned experts from across the globe. Therefore, it is only natural that the local talent in this field is encouraged and nurtured by providing the right academic guidance and subsequent career opportunities. Interestingly, it’s the girls who have shown a greater interest in learning about the incredible rock heritage of their country, as is evident from the number of women enrolled for degree courses available at the universities.

Apart from the Sultan Qaboos University, the national university of Oman, where a bachelor’s degree in Applied Geosciences is offered, youngsters also have the option of taking admission at the German University of Technology (GUTech). According to Professor Dr Burkhard Rauhut, Rector, Gutech, “It made sense to introduce the geosciences programme here considering the immense global popularity of Oman amongst geoscientists.”

At the Sultan Qaboos University’s Earth Sciences department around 45-50 female students are enrolled and the number are only increasing every year. The GUTech course was introduced in September 2008, with the institution itself having begun in 2007. But the remarkable aspect undoubtedly is that a majority of the students in the programme are girls and all of them Omani. In fact, their second year batch solely consists of girls, informs Manuela Gutberlet, a public relations executive at the GUtech.

Though Shamsa al Batrani and Zeena al Naamani, first semester students at GUTech, had originally not planned to take up geology – both were more interested in studying architecture – when their parents got them interested in the subject, they decided to go for it. So far both are immensely happy with their choice. For their classmate, Sumaiya al Toubi, however, geology was the preferred stream from the beginning. Elaborating on the advantages of taking up a unique subject like geology, Kausar Al Qurashi, a third semester student, says, “It offers us a refreshing alternative to the cliched careers in medicine and engineering. It also enables us to develop critical thinking.”

Unlike the glass and concrete skyscrapers that make up the skyline of most cities around the world, a majority of Omanis grow up amidst magnificent mountains and valleys. But the girls say that it is only after they have started studying these natural formations that they now truly understand their beauty and historical importance. “When you take a look at the rocks, the history of the planet unfolds before you. Earlier, when we used to pass the mountains, we didn’t give them a second glance but now one can appreciate them and what they are made of,” remarks Hiyam Al Kindi. The girls’ tremendous pride in the rock heritage of their country is clearly palpable and what furthers their pride is their professors’ enthusiasm. “Our professors’ passion is contagious as they are so into Omani geology,” reveals Zeena.

Just as the girls love to attend his classes, Dr Gosta Hoffman, who came to Oman in August 2008 (FROM WHERE), immensely enjoys teaching his lively bunch of students. He gives a unique description of the subject: “Geology is essentially detective work; if you chance upon even a tooth of a dinosaur, you can deduce so many things about it: when it lived, what it ate.” Elaborating about his teaching experiences in Oman, Hoffman says, “It’s very fascinating to plan out activities with the students; here, it’s more about what fields I should not visit simply because there are so many.”

For the girls, the favorite part of their course is undoubtedly the mandatory fieldwork – the very reason why, until a few years ago, women geologists were unable to take up the profession wholeheartedly. Fieldwork can be physically demanding and there is always the need to juggle family and work.

But even though they have the full support of their parents and they have an encouraging faculty, the GUTech girls agree that women working in the field, chipping away at rocks attracts a lot of attention and elicits many a bemused query. “Even the male Omani driver, who takes us for the field trips is always baffled as to why us ladies spend so many hours beneath the sun looking at rocks,” smiles Zeena. In fact, they recall that during a recent field visit to the Muscat suburb of Bausher, cars slowed down on the road to figure out what exactly the girls were up to.

“I think the girls appreciate the fact that they are working out in the open, which would otherwise be considered a masculine domain,” says Hoffman. However, while agreeing that field trips are an integral and inescapable aspect of studying geology, he points to an interesting change in the field with regard to gender representation, all thanks to the advent of computer technology. Technology, he says, has resulted in a shift from purely field-oriented study to a computer-oriented one and that knowledge of computers and IT has become increasingly and equally vital towards engaging with the subject, thus allowing more women to be a part of it.

Hoffman nevertheless emphasises that the BA programme at GUTech has been tailor-made for Oman and that he and his colleagues constantly strive to show how the students can apply the theoretical knowledge of geology to other fields. Talking about careers in the field, there is good news for the GUTech students at least. The country’s leading petroleum company, Petroleum Development of Oman (PDO), is keen to bring in the present geosciences students (OF GUTech?) into their fold.

The university also has plenty of initiatives to keep the students’ interest going. Recently, Salima al Mahruqui, a woman geoscientist working at PDO, spoke to the students about her experiences. A great role model for upcoming women geoscience professionals, Salima – whose interest in geology was sparked off during her childhood years in Adam, a small hamlet near the interior town of Nizwa, which is surrounded great rocky formations – studied the subject in the UK. But she feels that there are many advantages to studying geoscience in Oman. “Students in Oman have a much better experience as there are a lot of sites to go to,” she says. Even as she points out that Omani women geoscientists undoubtedly have to overcome cultural issues such as physical difficulties experienced while going out in the field or families being reluctant to allow them to work in a male-centric work environment, she feels nevertheless that women have been given many opportunities to pursue their desired line of work, at least in her company.

“A country that encourages women to go ahead in such industries is a step forward – not just for the women themselves but for the country at large,” she asserts, adding that the commencement of formal study courses in this field is certainly very encouraging for budding women geoscientists.

Priyanka Sacheti, a writer who loves art and travel, whose wanderings have taken her to many different countries.