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A mermaid with a message

August 04, 2022
tags:#Oman, #conservation, #gender equality, #marine life, #water pollution, #Middle-East
by:Samia Qaiyum
Ehdaa Al-Barwani, Oman’s first and only female PADI instructor, has launched her own dive centre in order to encourage more Arab women to give scuba diving a try. Her ultimate goal? Educating the sultanate's residents on how to play their part in environmental conservation - both under and out of the water.

It’s hardly a hot take that scuba diving - like countless other types of sports - remains a male-dominated field. But leave it to Ehdaa Al-Barwani to change the narrative, one dive at a time.

The first and only female dive instructor from Oman, Al-Barwani earned her PADI Divemaster certification in 2018, but found herself in the spotlight in recent years after spontaneously taking a dive in traditional Omani attire.

Her mission? To showcase the symbiotic relationship between her culture and ocean health while inspiring others to join her efforts of marine conservation

Today, she’s the founder of the Muscat-based dive centre Aura Divers and is often likened to a mermaid, a nickname she rather modestly refers to as "endearing."

Following her recent involvement with PADI Women’s Dive Day 2022, hosting a clean-up dive while encouraging more female participation in scuba diving, Al-Barwani spoke with FairPlanet about defying gender roles and diving with purpose.

FairPlanet: You dived in traditional attire to showcase how Omani culture is symbiotic with ocean health. Can you share some trivia about the resulting photographs?

Ehdaa Al-Barwani: A little confession about those photos: I didn't plan them as much as people think I did. It was supposed to be a little photo series for Instagram. I didn't have many followers at that point - maybe a few hundred. It was an idea I wanted to put out, but I didn't expect it to blow up as much as it did.

I actually had to lead a dive on the day, and some of the divers were beginners, too. And I only had one hour in between dives, which is the surface interval, to take the shots.

I did my first dive, came up for the first surface interval, and changed quickly. One of my divers just happened to be a photographer, so I explained my idea and asked him to take a few photos. But because I didn't have a set plan, we just sort of went with it - we jumped in, I swam around for a bit. And by the time I came back up, it was time for the second dive.

I didn't have time to change, so I thought, 'That's fine. I can dive in this.' I got my students to prep, and we all jumped back into the water again.

Were you surprised to be able to swim in an Omaniya [traditional Omani clothing]?

Well, Omani clothing is made to be versatile. Traditionally, women used it for making fishing nets, they used it for farming. It was something they wore in their daily life, so it is quite comfortable. You can get the fabric to be thick enough to stay warm, but the beauty of Oman is that it's warm. We don't have many currents, and the seas are very calm most of the time, so it wasn't much of a challenge swimming in it.

In fact, at one point, I spotted a net and started chopping away at it with that elaborate dress on.

Considering what you stand for, how do your short-term goals differ from your long-term vision?

I suppose the main one would be focusing on conservation. I think Oman has quite a way to go when it comes to teaching or spreading awareness about conservation. We don't do it enough. And we need more aggressive tactics to do so.

But I hope that 10 or 15 years from now, enough people will come to my dive centre not only for diving, but also to gain knowledge about things like coral reefs and marine ecosystems.

Defying gender norms, one dive at a time

Some women take offense to the term 'female entrepreneur.' As the first female Omani diving instructor, has your gender proven to be an advantage or disadvantage?

In Oman, we're still very much governed by our traditions, by our family, by our values. Men and women still have very set roles to play in society, and it takes a lot to move away from them. It's especially courageous for women to do so.

I was lucky because I never have such expectations placed on me. As for me, describing myself as a 'female diver' or a 'female entrepreneur’? It's a way of creating a community, for women to be able to find me easily and join me. 

By doing so, I’ve hopefully created a safe space for them alongside other women. And I think this is important for us in Oman, considering where we are right now. In the future, that 'female' title will naturally go, but it’s essential for now.

Let’s assume there’s a woman who is curious about scuba diving, but uncomfortable being around men. She'll look up 'women’s scuba diving' or 'woman scuba diver,' right? It’s these words that direct them towards me and this community I'm creating.

But yes, I understand objecting to the gendering of terms like 'entrepreneur.'

"I hope [...] enough people will come to my dive centre not only for diving, but also to gain knowledge about coral reefs and marine ecosystems."

Have you faced any gender bias in the process?

Yes and no. As I said, we’re very traditional, so there has been backlash of sorts, especially since I'm quite liberal. I don't wear the headscarf and things like that. Some men aren’t used to that.

Sometimes, they also teach me how to run my business - do it this way, don’t do it that way. I think they call it 'mansplaining.' It happens a lot here, and I choose not to acknowledge them. I'm picking my battles. Maybe later, once I’m calmer and more established, I will fight this cause, but right now, it's a case of allowing them the time to get used to the idea of me.

And I'm not the only woman who owns her own business - there are so many in Oman. It is a new idea, but collectively, we're starting to make a difference. We're starting to make a big impact.

promoting marine health

You incorporate an aspect of education into your underwater adventures, encouraging participants to collect trash during their dives. Is this considered a norm?

It's the norm in the sense that I teach PADI, which very heavily focuses on sustainable diving. They have programmes like Project AWARE that’s rooted in teaching your students about matters like sustainability and the fragility of coral reefs.

The reason why I've implemented this so heavily in my teaching is because of how I was taught. I was taught in Thailand, and everything was about minimising your impact on the surroundings - swimming with your hands close to your body so you don't hit anything, ensuring that your fins are nice and high in order to protect coral reefs, using cotton nets because nylon nets don't disintegrate.

It is predicted that plastic will outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050. What are your thoughts on this deeply disturbing statistic?

It's not a great prediction, is it? It tells us exactly where we're going. And when I address conservation, I don't mean that we need to get to a point where there is no plastic, you know?

We're so far down this path where every other thing we use is made of plastic, but what we can do is minimise the damage. And hopefully, we'll eventually get to a point where we can get rid of it completely.

Back in the '90s, it was all about deforestation, about how no one was replanting all those trees getting chopped down. What did we do? We ended up cutting back on chopping down trees. We ended up planting trees. We found different avenues.

Everything is online now, even with PADI, everything’s designed around online learning. Yes, we haven't completely stopped deforestation completely, but we've at least slowed down the destruction.

Lastly, what advice would you give to someone who's not necessarily up for diving, but is looking to contribute towards improving marine health?

There are different ways to contribute, but it really is the small, everyday changes that make an impact. People are more likely to stick to them, too.

You can monitor your carbon footprint and track how much single-use plastic you consume. You can also opt for reef-safe sunblock, volunteer for beach clean-up sessions and remember to be mindful of where you dispose of your rubbish.

In Oman, we take the car to go the shortest of distances, so maybe cycle if you’re close by or walk to the corner store once or twice a week? There’s also this idea that, as a small population, our actions don’t make an impact. But that’s just not true - every bit helps.

Image by Ehdaa Al Barwani.

Article written by:
Samia headshot
Samia Qaiyum
Ehdaa Al-Barwan.
© Ehdaa Al Barwani
Ehdaa Al-Barwan.
\'Describing myself as a ‘female diver’ or a ‘female entrepreneur\' [is] a way of creating a community, for women to be able to find me easily and join me.\'
© Ehdaa Al Barwani
"Describing myself as a ‘female diver’ or a ‘female entrepreneur' [is] a way of creating a community, for women to be able to find me easily and join me."
\'There are different ways to contribute, but it really is the small, everyday changes that make an impact.\'
© Ehdaa Al Barwani
"There are different ways to contribute, but it really is the small, everyday changes that make an impact."
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