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Oman's women entrepreneurs mean business

From Rima Maktabi, CNN
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How Omani women are changing their lives
  • Mariam Belhaf is one of a growing number of successful businesswomen in Oman
  • Women were first invited to enter the work force in the mid-1990s
  • Three of cabinet ministers and a third of all civil servants in Oman are women
  • According to the U.N., Oman is "one of the more progressive states in the Gulf region"

Salalah, Oman (CNN) -- In Oman, a traditionally male-dominated society, women are beginning to make their mark in the workforce.

One woman who's carving out a niche in business is Mariam Belhaf, who sells products made from frankincense.

Frankincense is an ancient scent, native to Oman. It's as old as the Bible and was one of the gifts the Three Wise Men brought baby Jesus.

But for Mariam Belhaf, it's also a modern reality and her lifetime passion.

The 45-year-old mother of seven, now a grandmother, started making frankincense in her own house. Now, she runs five shops in the capital, Muscat.

I want to prove that a woman can do everything. She can make success by herself, she can prove herself by her own business.
--Mariam Belhaf, Omani businesswoman
  • Oman
  • Middle East
  • Business

"I started in 1997, but before I work from [my] house -- I had no shop yet," she told CNN.

She opened her first small shop in 2003.

Belhaf is one of a small but growing number of women entrepreneurs in this Middle Eastern nation.

While frankincense is usually manufactured in factories, Belhaf prefers the manual route, spending long hours hand making oil, creams, incense and perfumes.

She comes from a wealthy background, but that's irrelevant, she told CNN. She wants to be a successful entrepreneur on her own.

''I want to prove that a woman can do everything," Belhaf said. "She can make success by herself, she can prove herself by her own business. I don't need people to help me. So this is my secret.''

Belhaf's success represents a major change for this generation of Omani women. Her mother did not even attend school. But this is still a male-dominated society, where there are nearly a third more men than women.

It wasn't until the mid-1990s that women were invited to enter the work force, encouraged by the country's ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said. He also allowed them to enter politics.

According to Oman's Ministry of Information, the country has three female cabinet ministers, and about a third of its civil servants are women.

The U.N. Program on Governance in the Arab Region describes Oman as "one of the more progressive states in the Gulf region in the area of women's rights."

But it acknowledges, "Female participation in the workforce remains low and areas of discrimination persist."

Even today, change is slower to arrive in cities beyond the capital, Muscat. In the southern city of Salalah, women are still fully covered in burqas and segregated from men.

Still, the landscape is slowly shifting. For instance, more women than men are graduating from university. And according to Freedom House, a global watchdog group that promotes democracy and human rights, women make up 20 percent of the Omani workforce.

This is the message Belhaf is teaching her children. She told CNN, "I said for my daughter, you are lucky, we are lucky. We're not like our grandmother."

Belhaf says luck is not the only factor. The secret of her success is what every entrepreneur -- man or woman -- would appreciate: hard work, perseverance and sheer determination.