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Oman puts women at forefront of Olympic ambitions

By Lauren Said-Moorhouse for CNN
November 17, 2011 -- Updated 1806 GMT (0206 HKT)
Since its launch in 2008, Oman Sail has taken nearly 6,000 Omani children sailing, over half of which have been females. Since its launch in 2008, Oman Sail has taken nearly 6,000 Omani children sailing, over half of which have been females.
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Oman's women take to the water
Oman's women take to the water
Oman's women take to the water
Oman's women take to the water
Oman's women take to the water
Oman's women take to the water
Oman's women take to the water
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Oman has launched a women's sailing program to create a new generation of female sailors
  • The program is seen as an important step in the region for female empowerment
  • Oman has a history of maritime successes and organizers hope to continue this strong tradition

(CNN) -- Four months ago Raya Al Habsi didn't know how to swim and was a complete sailing novice. Yet Al Habsi is set to become one of the first professional women sailors in the sultanate of Oman.

Al Habsi is one of 30 women being trained as part of a scheme to create a new generation of female sailors and boost the country's Olympic chances.

The women were chosen in July to take part in the program --which started in October-- and will see them qualify as sailing instructors after an intensive six-month training course. For Al Habsi, it has been a life-changing event.

"I didn't know anything about sailing, just what I have watched on TV," she says. "I was a complete beginner."

A new challenging field has been introduced for women to take upon the challenge of sailing
Raya Al Habsi, participant in the women's sailing programme

"What I enjoy the most is how every single day we learn something new. It is a breath of fresh air... Oman is such a great place to sail. And I absolutely love racing with my colleagues."

An insight into the extreme series

Before winning a place on the programme, Al Habsi had recently graduated from a degree in business management. But she was looking for a change and for a career that was unique. She says she found that in the Oman Sail program for women.

"Life has changed a lot since I joined," says Al Habsi. "We start the day laughing and singing and having lots of fun in the bus on our way to sailing school.

"Our daily work schedule differs on a weekly basis. (It) includes theory and practical lessons that help the development of our personal and professional skills."

It's a pioneering project in Oman, where women have only been able to work since the mid-1990s. Women are now being encouraged by the country's ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, to engage in a range of areas, such as politics and now sailing.

Since launching three years ago, Oman Sail has taken nearly 6,000 Omani children sailing, over half of whom have been girls. Young women were recruited into its sailing centers at Mussanah and Marina Bandar Al Rowdha in July, where they underwent training.

Al Habsi says, "We continue the day in developing our fitness levels by swimming, kayaking and, of course, sailing. Sometimes I feel like I'm on a trip with my colleagues. I do not feel tired or bored after a long day of work."

"We have (been) allowed a golden opportunity for women to go into this field of sailing," she says. "A new challenging field has been introduced for women to take upon the challenge of sailing and represent their country in international venues."

The journey is amazing. They don't just have to learn to sail. Some have to learn to swim first.
Shirley Robertson, a mentor on the programme

Double Olympic sailing gold medalist and CNN Mainsail host Shirley Robertson is a mentor on the program. "When I first went to the marina in July some of these girls didn't know how to swim.

"Some had only seen the sea a few times in their lives. We saw girls sail before but it was hard to retain them in the sport as they grew older because there were no women instructors."

Considering that many of these women had little experience prior to starting the program, the experience has not been without trials. Robertson adds, "The journey is amazing. They don't just have to learn to sail. Some have to learn to swim first. At the beginning their fitness levels were low and after the first few weeks they were wrecked... But these girls are thirsty for knowledge."

Robertson explains that is was an ambitious project that intrigued her from the beginning but she was unsure at first if the organizers would be able to pull it off.

"Oman Sail had to build a pathway and the building blocks had to be laid down right... But they got stuck in. The project has been blessed by the Sultan and Oman Sail has a good reputation in the country so family members feel more comfortable allowing girls to being involved."

The fact that the project has received a royal blessing is extremely important in the sultanate of Oman. Qaboos bin Said is widely recognized as a reformer in a region where women's rights have traditionally been overlooked. Since coming to power, he has pushed for gender equality in many sectors including politics and education.

Al Habsi points out, "His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said has always emphasized on giving opportunities for Omani women to work in all possible fields shoulder-to-shoulder with their male colleagues."

Robertson adds, "Things in Oman are changing. The Sultan embraces women. There's equal education and an Omani Women's Day which was an initiative of the Sultan."

And while the government has been pushing for an integration of genders, families also need to agree with the project or it is doomed to fail. The family unit is an important institution of many nations like Oman.

Robertson says, "Families are brave to have the love, support and trust to let the women do this. If it's going to work, the whole family has to buy in, especially the men.

Jill Reilly contributed to this report

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