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Veteran activist and retreat owner Manal Omar is determined to teach women in the Middle East how to access their own internal power for a better society.

Can faith and women's rights be reconciled in the Middle East?

Empowering women Manal Omar believes that women hold the key to making the world a better place

Palestinian-American humanitarian Manal Omar has spent two decades cultivating her personal power within the arenas of global NGOs and the US government. Now she is determined to teach women in the region how to access their own internal power for a better society.

Omar founded Across Red Lines (ARL) in 2017, a series of three-day retreats that work to empower women through Islam and personal transformation coaching.

“After many years of seeing how the same awful humanitarian situations were preventable, I realised that my skills would be best used in prevention,” Omar tells CEO.

“So I stepped back from the highest level of government meetings and I really started to think about what prevention would really mean... I realised that nurturing truly evolved women is a step towards creating a world with purpose and a region without conflict,” she says.

Omar has worked with the World Bank, Oxfam, Women for Women International and the United States Institute of Peace. It was working with these organisations, focusing on programmes in the MENA region that inspired her to launch ARL.

“For women to lead, they need to be integrated into their own power and their own leadership style,” she says.

“Since the beginning of time, religion has told women stories of how they must sacrifice or suppress their character. Let’s face it, women have been hung, stoned, drowned and burned across the ages in the name of religion.”

According to Omar, women who love their faith also want to be empowered.

“Women aren’t sure they want a secular personal leadership model because it’s too detached from their faith. But they also don’t want to have to choose between leadership, their full potential and their faith,” she explains.

Omar’s ARL retreats are designed to empower women to “create a more peaceful world” by enabling them to tap into their true self. An intimate group of eight to 12 women come together and work through a curriculum crafted by Omar. Topics range from Reiki and facing the true self, to negotiating conflict, management skills and mediation, to Islamic tradition, in group sessions and workshops.

“I use a lot of my conflict and negotiation skills to teach women to ask for what they want,” she says. “I try to bring  joy and happiness as a form of transformative energy.

“What would happen if women actually stepped into their own joy? That’s my theory of wider change.”

The workshops provided by ARL are developed to challenge women to become leaders in their own lives, their communities and the world.

“It has been communicated through the years and politics that have particularly targeted women, especially Muslim women, that somehow they are not worthy of personal pleasure,” says the company’s literature. “ARL has found that not only is Islam and women’s rights to pleasure in line with one another, but Islam provides a framework to personal freedom, pleasure and expression of power.”

By teaching women to access their own personal power, they will no longer be defined by their external circumstances, Omar says. “Even in the midst of war, we still need to be able to find that oasis of peace and stability.

Our retreats teach women that your world can be found inside you, not externally. That lends enormous power.”

Much of the course’s power lies in reengaging with and becoming conscious of the body. There are verses in the Quran that say ‘the body will testify’, but Omar teaches women that the ‘body is testifying every day’.

“This isn’t about the day of judgment – it’s about here and now. Our body is always guiding us. Women are taught to over-ride our body’s natural release mechanisms, but it’s important to release emotions to clear our traumas.

“It’s not just about releasing trauma, it’s about creating space for inspiration. Releasing all your grudges helps you find inspiration.”

Omar, who is a trained Reiki practitioner, says women have become so obsessed with beautification rituals that they have forgotten the rituals of spirit and pleasure. She also says that women have forgotten to look out for one another.

“At ARL retreats, we are in the desert, we cook together and stay overnight. It is a bonding ritual threaded with pure learning.

Each woman indirectly has a message for another woman. Half of them are non-Muslim females and it’s an amazing exchange – it’s interesting to see the perceptions they have.”

“Women uplift women naturally but we are trained to do the opposite. I think a lot of the state of the world comes from that lack of support and connection.”

She believes that women often tend to try to align to values that are more inherently masculine, especially in corporate environments, instead of connecting with their own energy.

“A shaman once told me that if you’re only exhibiting masculine energy you’re in a desert and if you’re surrounded by feminine energy, you’re in a swamp; neither of them can produce life. That really struck a chord with me.”

Omar says the ARL retreats are a mere “sliver” of her life’s work, nevertheless she spent four years building the curriculum to help women find their personal fulfillment.

“Before I really stepped out with the curriculum, I wanted to make sure it was valid. I needed to make sure it was protected before I rolled it out and now I’m hoping to roll it out to effect policy.” She adds with a smile: “If you’d told me 5 years ago I’d be doing this I’d be like ‘No I’m in line to be an ambassador’.”

The bigger picture

Omar says she has spent her life until now running her own “R&D” department.

“I research all the global laws that are traditionally used against women and then I take my negotiation skills and talk with religious leaders. I believe that law should be a fluid, growing system.”

Omar says only 3 per cent of the world’s negotiators are women. “I can’t tell you how many times I’m the only woman in the room. It’s really outstanding to me that we ignore it.”

She says the global activist network is made up of two types of people: ‘fire fighters’ and ‘architects’.

“I was spending too much of my time being a fire fighter, now I want to be an architect. I’m trying to build a new way of being – something that we can be proud of and something that is within the bounds of our religion.”

Whatever change Omar enacts, through the ripples of her retreats or otherwise, the veteran activist insists that all progress must be ‘authentic’.

“There are a lot of people looking from the outside in at the progress of women’s rights in the region and they are frustrated because progress is slow.  But many programmes that are implemented too quickly are too artificial; it takes times for mindsets to change. It has to be real.”

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