Visiting a Middle Eastern country made me appreciate Australia more

There are 600,000 Swarovski crystals hanging from the ceiling in the main prayer hall at Muscat's Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Those crystals cling to a gold-plated chandelier that sits in perfect symmetry below a beautifully decorated dome, a stunning feature that towers 50 metres high.

The floor of that prayer hall is laid with what was once the world's largest single carpet (it's now only the second-largest), upon which there's room for an impressive 6500 worshippers, the Omani devout who come to pray multiple times a day. The entire hall is a truly spectacular space, one of the most beautiful buildings you'll ever lay eyes on.

And it's reserved solely for only one half of the Omani population: men.

Women can't pray in the main hall. They gather in a smaller and much more modest space nearby, where a few lights hang from a wooden ceiling, and where there's room for 700 people to pray, linked to the imam via flatscreen TVs.

There are reasons for this gender separation, of course, which anyone at the mosque will be quick to tell you. Worshippers shouldn't be distracted by the opposite sex when they're praying, people say; fewer women attend mosque because they're taking care of the home, therefore less space is needed for them; it's a gift for women to be separated from men, it's a favour to them.

You hear all of those things, and yet you still walk away from this beautiful mosque thinking that something's not right here. You figure that a woman's place in this part of the world is nowhere near equal to that of man. You conclude that many of the small gains that have been made in the Western world towards gender equality have yet to find their mark over here.

I don't blame Islam for that either, despite using this mosque as an example. These two prayer halls are just the most obvious demonstration of a gender inequality that's ingrained within society here, one I'm sure is just as cultural and historical as it is religious.

Women get a raw deal in the Arabian Peninsula (and much of the rest of the world, for that matter). They don't enjoy the same freedoms as men. You don't have to spend a lot of time in this part of the world to work that out.

However, it's not really my place to argue for change here. I'm not Arabian; I'm not aware of all the cultural nuances or the historical perspectives. There are reasons and explanations that people can give, I'm sure.


What I am saying, however, is that it's experiences and insights like these that make you, as a traveller, look at your home in a different light. In a better light.

I don't think Australia is perfect – far from it. There's a lot we could be doing better, in terms of gender equality, in terms of race relations, in terms of our treatment of our country's first people, in terms of our political representation and so much more.

However, experiences like that brief wander around the Sultan Qaboos mosque do make you realise that Australia is not all that bad. It makes you realise we've taken some big steps forward; that we're headed, generally, in the right direction.

This is a notion that surely strikes travellers often. Australia isn't perfect, and you might still feel some frustration with the way the country is run – but it's really not that bad either.

When you travel through the US and you hear about the problems they have there with gun violence, and you witness the obsession that Americans have with weapons, it's makes you think, 'Wow, I'm glad we're not like that'. When you marvel at the political chaos in Italy, you realise that maybe the goons currently running our own country aren't all that terrible.

When you look at the racial violence in South Africa, and the deeply ingrained caste system in India, and the police brutality in the Philippines, and so many other issues in so many other countries you think, 'Yeah, Australia is not that awful'. It's not perfect, but we do some things right.

Travel is good in that way. It gives you perspective. It lets you see and experience all the myriad ways that things could be done, that society could be arranged, and to pick and choose which of those you'd like to see back in your own home.

The world is a richly diverse place, and things that are different in certain places aren't always wrong. It is, however, nice to be able to look back home and realise you're much happier with the way things are done there.

Has travel made you realise that Australia does things pretty well? Or are there customs from other countries you wish we would adopt?



​See also: Should female travellers cover up in Islamic countries?

LISTEN: Flight of Fancy - the podcast with Ben Groundwater

To subscribe to the podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here.