Conversations between Women: Social Transitions in a Modernising Oman

Em broke the silence that had hung between us for a while, as we sipped our drinks and enjoyed the view down the wadi. "I don't know that this would be enough, though," the young woman admitted from behind her fashionable sunglasses, the very image of a woman from the city.

The four of us were on the rooftop of Misfat Old House, a popular spot for visitors to the village. It was easy to see the attraction.

View of date palms down the wadi from Misfat Old House rooftop terrace
View from Misfat Old House

Just moments ago, we were remarking on how charming the hill village of Misfat al Abriyyin was, and how pleasant it would be to stay for longer. Em's entrepreneurial streak induced her to plot an imaginary marriage with a local man, which would qualify her to own land in the village. She fantasised of commanding a spacious and fruitful date farm, a devoted provincial husband on her arm.

I want more than this provincial life...

But the young engineer was self-aware enough to admit that she would probably hanker for something more than a provincial life, to quote a famous bookworm. A city girl of Muscat, Em saw an open world before her. And perhaps even idyllic days as a landed gentlewoman would lose its lustre after a while.

Her colleague Kay contemplated the valley, sprouting with date palms, the lowering sun in the background. "Yeah."

Chian and I - quite a bit older than the Omani women - said nothing. We both chose that life already. Both of us are female STEM professionals and frequent travellers. But, as Asians, proselytisation is not our thing. How could any woman presume to know what's best for another woman in a culture we only barely understand?

It's enough to simply acknowledge the tension. That we, too, understand the dilemma between the charms of an abundant life - of two very different kinds.

The Astonishing Transitions of the Arabian Gulf

As a Xennial, I don't think that I'm really very old at all. To be sure, I'm not a young woman anymore. But I think I am justified in my amazement over how much the Arab Gulf states have changed within my relatively short lifetime of four decades.

When I was a girl growing up, watching Garfield cartoons on TV, this region was considered to be the boondocks. A place so remote and synonymous with 'nowhere' that if you wanted to get rid of your nemesis, you mail her to Abu Dhabi.

Within 20 years, though, Abu Dhabi is Insta-famous as a fashionable city.

It was the discovery of oil, of course. The Gulf states became flush with cash, and after a relative peace settled upon the Arabian Gulf in the 90s following the Gulf War, the Gulf states ratcheted up ambitious modernisation of their countries.

Oman was no exception to the oil wealth that catapulted the country from the Age of Exploration to modern 20th century life*. While not quite as flashy and cutting edge as Dubai, with its police fleet of Teslas and 3D printing construction, the pivot that the Omanis had made was just as astonishingly graceful.

Millennial Views on Marriage: Conservative/Muslim/Omani version

Reflecting on my own country, and the social transitions that such a sharp pace of modernisation have had to deal with, I wondered how much of it was held in common with a country like Oman.

I didn't find much to answer those questions from this trip. But since we were road tripping with millennial Omani women, I did find out how urban young women in Oman may catapult ahead in thoughts about marriage.

Reared in a time of opportunity and plenty, both of them had the optimism of privileged youth about their future. It was not so much the provincial life that led Em to walk back from her castle in the sky.

It was more that it would be the only life, for the rest of her life. How would she know if she could accept living only one life, for all of her life? Or even, one husband, for all of her life?

Bronze street light falling upon a road at dusk

The other side of the marriage 'coin'

Curious, I held my tongue and listened to the two Omani millennials debate out this question. Of course, I know that the Western solution is to have casual unmarried relationships, unless you find someone you feel you can commit to forever. But the 'til death do us part' assumption is a Roman/Catholic legacy. And sure enough, the two millennial Muslim women settled on a very different solution.

Keep the marriage, just drop the forever. 'Forever' is a nice to have, not a realistic promise. Sometimes, things run their course, but there's still life left over to live through another marriage.

It was a conclusion I have reached myself.

And I do think that being ok that commitments might end sooner than you hope, is a much better path for mental health, courtesy between genders, and community well-being, than to diminish or idealise it. I think it is a far gentler way of managing the social transitions which come from more peace, more opportunities for women, longer life spans, and family planning - than the alternatives.

Social transitions: Controversial views on divorce

Of course, to make such a social transition, Omani society would first have to become more accepting of divorce. In the fairly typical rebellion of youth, the girls spoke their thoughts aloud.

What is so bad about it anyway? Isn't it more honourable to marry young, and divorce, then re-marry, than the alternative of cheating and having multiple partners?

Chian and I looked at each other. I supposed I ought to contribute at this point. So I disclosed to them that I am, in fact, exactly that - a Muslim woman and divorced. Which caused a considerable degree of excitement, because I was obviously not destitute nor miserable. In fact, I'm pretty cool, even if I do say so myself.

I made sure to stress that divorce wasn't a go-to solution for marital difficulties. Commitment loses its meaning when you give up at the first sign of trouble. (Also, I didn't want to get them in trouble with their parents, or get Chian in trouble for bringing a 'bad influence' to their children!)

However, on the other hand, there is life after divorce. And our religion does allow for it, if it delivers the most justice. I thought it was my duty as an older sister to give the younger women assurance that marriage is not a trap, that their line of thinking is on the right track.

View of a barren rock ridge alongside the wadi of Misfat al Abriyyin

Social transitions: Marrying a convert

Emboldened by the permissive audience, Em ventured another controversial thought. Maybe, I might even marry a foreigner. If he becomes a Muslim, of course.

But Kay had misgivings about how practical that would be, in their society. The foreigner would not know enough to fit in. How would he fulfil his responsibilities without a clan**?

But it's not wrong. Em insisted. And the idealist in Kay acknowledged that indeed, theoretically, there was nothing wrong with it. A Muslim is a Muslim; we would share the same values. Surely, it would all sort out, they agreed, with the naivety of young maidens reared within the religion.

Despite a wide interest in world history and geography, and taking pains to understand other cultures, I was still naive like that, once.

This could be a plausible thing to happen for one of them, I thought to myself. I should probably give them a heads-up on what would be expected of them, should they make such a choice. So I intervened a second time, and told them I've done it myself. I married a convert. The girls were even more excited over their surprising companion.

Converting to Islam in an Islamophobic era

We severely underestimate the cost of hijrah, of migration, for the convert. How daunting it is to learn how to be in a society, all over again.

Learning the religion itself can be as easy as you like, for sure. But the real difficulty is psychological. The fear of losing one's friends, or even family. Social expulsion from your birth culture. Addictions that may need to be confronted, and dealt with.

Yes, much of the fears are imaginary. And sure, it's often the case that your real friends are revealed, and the rest are replaced by better friends. But you don't know that, at the beginning.

Some cultures make certain habits which are forbidden to us, as an inseparable part of their national identity, or of male identity. So sometimes they can't really make progress on the Muslim identity, until they finish re-interpreting the male or cultural identity underneath.

We build identity through long years of adolescence. Re-making it would not be an overnight thing. And I hope that I left two young women better prepared, from what I shared. It takes a lot of love to marry a convert, more than you can imagine at the beginning.

Mountain range in the background along Oman highway

Social transitions: Marrying 'down'

Kay then turned the conversation towards something she clearly felt strongly about: marriage as the final social barrier between 'respectable' and 'less respectable' clans.

In my visits to Oman, I have been surprised over how diverse it seemed to be. Of course, it was not as diverse as my own country. But, even without counting the foreign workers, it was more diverse than I expected for a Gulf state. Knowing the clan social structure of Arabs, I wondered how far the apparent Omani egalitarianism extended, and how recent it was.

I knew there is some discrimination. For instance, it makes a difference whether you send a South Asian or a Brit to meet an official. But between Omanis themselves, was there a hierarchy, and how much inequality does it really translate to?

When Kay decides to express her thoughts, there's a lot of it. And that was how I learned about Omani social structures.

Marrying across racial lines

Omani society today is still based on the clan, with a 'city society' really only present in a transient sense in Muscat. Between the main clans of Oman, a mild social distinction is drawn between the original Arab clans of Oman, and the newer clans of Indian origin. A much stronger distinction is drawn against descendants of former slaves, gypsies***, and the clanless.

A marriage between a girl from a 'respectable' clan and a boy from the 'less respectable' clans, is all but impossible. It was a reality that the two girls found deeply offensive.

"In Islam, there is not supposed to be racism," said Kay. Em agreed energetically. "Parents should allow it!"

This time, it was Chian who intervened. "Maybe parents are thinking about the future difficulties," she counselled. "They want the best for their children."

Em's face set into stubborn lines, but Kay's softened. Her own parents were not actually racist, she admitted to herself. Only protective, because of the reality that there will be social difficulties faced by children from such unions.

They both have a point, the youth and their families. One is an ideological one, and the other a practical one. The energy to put back into balance, what is not in its right places. But you can only move so much faster, than the majority of your society.

Rocky shoreline near Bimmah sinkhole

Worst case scenario of being clanless

"You know, there is still slavery," Kay confided, deeply disapproving again. Surprised, I waited to hear what the loophole was. I had thought that Oman was a free society.

It was kidnapping.

Apparently, a slave trade exists that traffics in kidnapped children. Having been taken from their families, their clan status becomes unknown. So they have no grounds for citizenship.

"For all you know, a kidnap child might have come from the most respected clan. Sometimes you can see it on their face. And all because they were kidnapped, their lives are ruined. It's not their fault!"

As for marrying a clanless of kidnap origin? Forget it! That's the most impossible option of all!

Some things survive social transitions: The match-maker

We re-visited much of the clan discussions on the drive back to Muscat. But the day had been a good one, and the girls' mood lifted again. And that was when I learned about one of the most important personalities in Omani society: the match-maker.

Unlike some Asian versions of this persona, in Oman the match-maker is a voluntary, informal role. A match-maker (regrettably, I've forgotten the Omani word) becomes recognised as such by merit, i.e. she simply knows the most people in the community sufficiently well, to consistently match eligible men and women to their mutual satisfaction.

Since it is a socially valued role, but an informal one, it can emerge in any community. So, Chian and I found to our amusement, that there was a match-maker within the corporate community of the oil company the three of them worked for!

Mountains rising over a paved road to the horizon

Gender Differences in Oman's New Middle Class

After dropping off the girls, Chian asked what I wanted for dinner. She had just hosted another friend before me, and Omani food is often the fan favourite cuisine, but she was getting tired of it. Since I wasn't a fussy eater, we ended up at one of Chian's favourite hangouts in Muscat, a little Mexican cafe.

We were of an age in our careers where we were no longer just learning, but teaching or mentoring. Kay and Em were among Chian's favourite mentees. They were decent enough engineers, she confided to me. Moreover, they were motivated to get better. I nodded in understanding. Really, these are the only two things that matter, for me to even consider to teach someone.

But then she complained over how much more difficult it was to find promising male engineers to groom into the next generation of specialists. The women, she said, were more keen to work on their careers than the men. She mentioned one, a very good engineer. But he was not willing to go abroad to increase his experience.

She was baffled. And so was I, until she griped further.

The Mystery of the balik kampung @ Hometown returns

"You remember the two girls yesterday? They quite progressive, right? Somehow ah, the men here more conservative than the ladies one." She cited an example to underscore her conclusion. "Omani men is always going back to their hometown on the weekend. Even if they have a house in Muscat, weekend must drive all the way to the clan home one." She shook her head in confusion.

That was why there was no real local urban community in Muscat for Chian to socialise with. There were only expats, and most of them had families and were consequently boring for a single woman.

It would be much more practical to stay put in Muscat, Chian remarked. What was the necessity to return to clan territory so regularly?

Social transitions: Ladies first

And indeed, being Malaysians raised by the first generation that migrated to cities during the optimistic phase of the country's urbanisation, we felt no pressure to return frequently to our hometowns.

Yet I am aware that today, the millennial Malaysians do. Was it a coincidence that the optimism we grew up with, has been replaced by a sense of pessimism and insecurity? Does such an atmosphere cause people to instinctively fall back to the tribe, to secure access to resources in anticipation of hardship and uncertainty?

On the surface of it, Oman is fairly optimistic, safe, and stable. But it lies within a very changeable and volatile region. I can't begin to imagine the diplomatic skills required to maintain sovereignty and neutrality with such restive regional neighbours.

And if you consider that in the Arab and Muslim social paradigm, the burden of protecting the family lies on the men, you can begin to appreciate why Omani men feel they cannot venture too far from the clan, cannot afford to let those relationships lapse. But the women can, at least for the more progressive families.

We don't understand, because we don't face the same risks.

I explained my views to Chian. I said, I wouldn't be surprised if Muscat - and Oman - will be slower to develop a truly urban, state-loyal (rather than clan-loyal) population. Compared to, say, ourselves. Oman's state identity is still fairly young, and had not yet survived beyond one monarch. Its ability to assure the people's peace and prosperity is proven, but had yet to be tested by time.

Until a new social structure has proven its stability, you don't abandon the old one. Not when what's at stake is that valuable.

Road approach to Qantab fishing village


Skipping the Industrial Age

*One of the most common gripes of expats working in the Gulf is the disparity in work ethic with the locals. Specifically, the foreigners are a lot more accepting of the '8 hour workday' than the locals, irrespective of what the formal work hours are (sometimes they are, in fact, less than 8 hours). When Chian expressed her Asian frustration over the laidback Omani approach to productivity, I eventually pointed out that the 'work week' and the 'work day' are relics of the Industrial Age. They were factory hours, and the fact that we even have weekends off, and that the work day was capped at 8 hours, was won by union actions of long ago. Malaysia has it, because we were colonised by the British.

However, Omanis pretty much skipped the Industrial Age, and went straight into the 20th century. So, as a people, it is quite understandable if they see work as something that you do for part of a day, which may also contain other important things such as family time, meeting up for a barbecue with friends, and hobbies - which the rest of us relegate to the weekend. Before the Industrial Age, the Omani view of work was the default view.

'Allowing' you to keep your culture is not the same as treating it equally.

** Something I found interesting in this line of thought, was that it never crossed their minds that they would have to leave their culture to follow the foreign man's. Not even, apparently, if the foreign man is Western.

As a Southeast Asian woman, I felt the contrast sharply, because in my region today, Western men assume that the Southeast Asian woman will become Western, or at least dilute her Asianness to 'exotic' outward signs only (generations past were more willing to mate on more equal ground, paradoxically).

And, to be fair, they are usually justified in the expectation. I am a diminishing breed of Southeast Asian woman who simultaneously has enough of the openness trait to consider such a marriage in the first place, but with a high self-worth in my own cultural identity to require equal standing.

And if you're Western yourself, how would you tell if this is the case? Well, once I volunteered in Australia and a white co-volunteer from the USA mentioned that she has a relative who married a Filipina, who seemed to continue 'being Filipina'. I asked her whether there is a Filipino community where they live in the USA, and she said yes. And I asked her whether the woman, whether alone or with her husband, is part of that community even sometimes, in any way. The light bulb flickered on in her mind then, as she saw what she didn't see before.

'Gypsy' and the difficulties of its translation for a multi-lingual non-Caucasian traveller

*** When this term is used in the developing world (e.g. West Asia, Southeast Asia archilepagos, etc.), it almost never refers to the original 'gypsies', i.e. Roma people in Europe, for whom this term is used as a slur by the settled peoples around them. The non-European nations who use the term generally are looking for an English word that describes their own itinerant folk of similar traits: unsettled, loose social organisation, free-living, and outside the respectability expectations of organised society. In some of these places, this folk is distinct from 'nomad', which could be a different local concept. Thus, the two are not always interchangeable.

In none of these places is the term 'gypsy' used with derogatory intention, whether there is some discrimination against the local version (as in Oman), or whether there is actual respect and amity between the nomad and the settled peoples (as in the Himalayas).

The word is used at least twice removed from the original context, and it is difficult to casually explain the problems with it where there is insufficient English vocabulary to work with. You have to cover multiple concepts that are usually alien: (1) that there are a people who live similarly to their itinerant folk in Europe, (1a) *but* that in Europe this way of living is - for some reason - seen as deserving of uncivil treatment, and (2) that the English word used for them is an insult. I don't know if Caucasians realise this, but even though racial discrimination is present in most places in the world, these concepts are not common. More often, the actual name of a disliked folk becomes used as a derogatory term. But generally people do not invent an insult and that becomes the word for that folk. The only exception I can think of is the Chinese 'white devil', used for Caucasians.

Where the meaning makes no difference, I tend to substitute it with 'nomad' or the local term for the folk. However, occasionally I do use 'gypsy' when quoting the actual expression used by the people I meet, especially if I suspect 'nomad' might be incorrect. I also don't believe there is a point to assiduously hiding what is actually said, in places where the racism failed to be transmitted with the word because there is simply no cultural context for it. These anomalies and paradoxes are part of how travel makes us question the edges of our understanding.

Conversations between Women: Social Transitions in a Modernising Oman

Carbon offsetting information to Oman

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Muscat produces carbon emissions of approximately 4,184 lbs CO2e. It costs about $21 to offset this. 

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