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. One who was a part of the millennial generation, who knew nothing but the rapid economic and social transitions in the Gulf region.

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

I want much more than this provincial life…

We were admiring the charming hill village of Misfat al Abriyyin, wishing we could stay for longer. Em’s entrepreneurial streak induced her to plot an imaginary marriage with a local, which would allow her to own land in the village. She fantasised of commanding a spacious and fruitful date farm, her devoted spouse on her arm.

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 contemplated the valley, sprouting with date palms, the lowering sun in the background. “Yeah,” murmured Kay.

Chian and I – quite a bit older than the Omani women – said nothing. We both had chosen that life already. Both of us are female STEM professionals and frequent travellers. But, as Asians, we refrained from intruding into their change experience. How could any woman presume to know what’s best for another woman in a culture we only barely understand? Let every nation work it out on their own, the way that feels true to their values.

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 in the Gulf countries

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 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.

Bronze street light falling upon a road at dusk
Fast forward to the future

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

It was the discovery of oil, of course. The Gulf states became flush with cash. And in the 90s, after a relative peace settled upon the Persian Gulf following the Gulf War, they ramped up an ambitious modernisation plan.

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

Conservative millennial views on marriage

Reflecting on my own country, and the social transitions that such a sharp pace of modernisation had entailed, 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 with regard to marriage.

The other side of the marriage debate

Reared in a time of plenty, both had the optimism of privileged youth.

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 it? Or even, one husband, for the rest of her life?

Curious, I listened to the two millennials debate.

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’ norm is only a Roman/Catholic legacy. And sure enough, the two millennial Muslim women settled on a very different solution.

Keep the marriage, drop the forever. In an age of lengthened life spans, ‘forever’ is something you’re gifted with. No one knows if it is a realistic promise. Sometimes, things run their course, but there’s still life left over, to be lived in 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 and well-being, than either diminishing or idealising it.

I think it is a far gentler way of navigating the social transitions which come from more peace, more opportunities for women, longer life spans, than the alternative.

The transitions on views about divorce

Of course, to make such a social transition, Omani society would have to become more accepting of divorce. In their youthful rebellion, 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 exchanged glances. I supposed I ought to say something. So I disclosed to them that I am, in fact, exactly that – a Muslim woman and divorced. This caused a considerable degree of excitement, because I was obviously not destitute nor miserable.

I made sure to stress that divorce wasn’t the first 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 it, if it delivers the most justice. I thought it was my duty as an older woman to assure them that marriage is not a trap, that their line of thinking was justified.

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

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 it entails, should they make such a choice. So I intervened a second time, and told them that I’d done it myself. I married a convert. The girls were even more excited over their surprising companion.

Converting to Islam is especially difficult in an Islamophobic era

Learning the religion itself can be as easy as you can manage, for sure. But the psychological barriers, and the social cost, can be extremely high in an era when Islamophobic media content is pervasive.

The fear of losing one’s friends, or family. Sometimes both. Social expulsion from your birth culture.

And that’s not even counting, having to confront addictions that may be normalised in the birth culture.

The Muslim community severely underestimates the cost of hijrah, of migration, for the convert. We don’t understand how daunting it is to learn how to be in a society, all over again.

Yes, much of the fears are imaginary. And sure, it’s often the case that the experience leads you to discover your real friends. And better friends often replace the others, in the end.

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 their Muslim identity, until they finish re-interpreting what it means to be male, or from their culture, for themselves.

We build identity through long years of adolescence. Re-making it would not be an overnight thing.

I hope that I left two young women better prepared for the possibility. 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
A challenging path

Social transitions: Marrying across clans

Kay turned the conversation towards something she clearly felt strongly about: marriage as the final social barrier between ‘respectable’ and ‘less respectable’ clans. And when Kay decides to express her thoughts, there’s a lot of it. This was when I learned about Omani clan social structures.

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

I knew it did not extend everywhere. For instance, there are different outcomes when you send a South Asian or a Brit to see a government official. But between Omanis themselves, was there a hierarchy, and how much inequality remains in practice?

Clan hierarchy in Oman and what it means for marriage

Omani society is based on the clan, with a ‘city society’ only present in a transient sense in Muscat.

Between the main clans of Oman, there is a mild social distinction between the original Arab clans of Oman, and the newer clans of Indian origin. The former are considered more respectable due to being native. However, a much stronger distinction is drawn against descendants of former slaves, gypsies***, and the clanless.

It’s not very obvious, on the surface. But it is very obvious, when it comes to marriage.

A marriage between a girl from a ‘respectable’ clan and a boy from a ‘less respectable’ clan is all but impossible. (The opposite is more tolerable.) 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 racist, she admitted to herself. Only protective, because of the reality that the children of such marriages will have less access to social opportunities.

Rocky shoreline near Bimmah sinkhole
Unequal ground

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 kidnapped child might have been taken from the most respected clan. Sometimes you can see it on their face. But because they were kidnapped, their lives are ruined. It’s not their fault!”

As for marrying a clanless person of kidnap origin? That’s the most impossible match of all!

The match-maker evolves with the social transitions

We re-visited the clan discussions on the drive back. But the day had been a good one, and the girls’ mood lifted again. So they told me 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 an informal yet socially valuable role, the match-maker can emerge organically in any community. So, to our amusement, we learned that there was even such a match-maker within the corporate community of the energy company they worked for!

Road approach to Qantab fishing village
Meeting new people is hard

Gender differences in Oman’s new middle class

After dropping off the girls at their respective homes, Chian asked what I wanted for dinner. Omani cuisine is often the fan favourite. But she had just hosted another friend before me, so she wanted something different. I wasn’t a fussy eater, so we ended up at one of Chian’s favourite hangouts in Muscat, a little Mexican cafe.

We talked about mentoring, over dinner. We were at that stage in our careers where you start teaching or mentoring others. Kay and Em were among Chian’s favourite mentees. They were decent enough engineers, she confided. Moreover, they were motivated to get better. I nodded in understanding. Really, willingness to learn is the only thing that matters for me to even consider teaching 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 in perplexity, 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. And I saw where Oman’s social transitions were happening a lot less quickly, and deduced why.

The reason why Muscat’s city society is transient

“You remember the two girls yesterday? They quite progressive, right? Somehow ah, the men here more conservative than the ladies one.” Chian 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 continued, in the Manglish commonly used between Malaysians when no foreigners are present.

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

It would be much more practical for them to stay put in Muscat, Chian remarked. Why need to return to clan territory so regularly?

Indeed, as Malaysians raised by the first generation who migrated to cities during the optimistic phase of our 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? Perhaps such an atmosphere causes people to instinctively fall back to the tribe, to secure access to resources in anticipation of hardship and uncertainty.

Ladies first, in Oman’s social transitions

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 wouldn’t be surprised if Muscat, and Oman, will be slower to develop a truly urban, state-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 itself, you don’t abandon the old one. Not when what’s at stake is your whole family under your protection.

Mountains rising over a paved road to the horizon
~

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. 

Notes:

Skipping the Industrial Age.

*One of the common gripes of expats working in the Gulf, is the disparity in work ethic. 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 is 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 in the world.


Cultural equality, and when it isn’t real.

** 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’ superficial elements only. (Paradoxically, generations past were more willing to mate on more equal ground).

And, to be fair, they are usually justified in the expectation. Many Southeast Asians find such a proposition tolerable. 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 respect.

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.


Using the term ‘gypsy’ for equivalent non-Roma peoples

*** Whenever 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 just 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 is distinct from ‘nomad’, which could be a different local concept. Thus, the two words 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 respect and amity between them and the settled peoples (as in the Himalayas). This is because, even if they’re not considered ‘noble’, it doesn’t mean that people think of such a lifestyle as inherently derogatory.

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 don’t see the point in 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.


Conversations between Women: Social Transitions in a Modernising Oman

2 Responses

  1. Arabela says:

    Such a fascinating read! I was in Oman last year (and hoping to go back maybe this month) and during my short two weeks couchsurfing throughout the country, I did make some interesting observations regarding gender dynamics as well. As you can imagine, 100% of the local people on couchsurfing were male. They all had multiple nice apartments where they would house their guests or if not they would even pay for your hotel. However, they never take you to meet their families. This is in stark contrast to Pakistan, where similar tribal structures exist in some parts of the country, yet as a solo female traveler you’d ALWAYS get to meet the family, even if you just stop by for a cup of tea. In Oman, I never talked to any local woman. 100% of the time I was surrounded by men, and their family matters were treated as private affairs. Only at the end of my trip, when I visited Masirah Island, my host, who also had an entire apartment for his couchsurfing guests, invited me to his family home to meet his mother. It turned out like many locals his family was Baloch and he was impressed by my Balochi skills and wearing Balochi dress. He wanted to show me his camels at home and have a cup of coffee with his mother in a home that looked just like any rural home in Balochistan. Apparently this host, who receives so many guests from all over the world, never lets anyone meet his family. He made a huge exception for me and this was my only time speaking to an Omani woman during my entire two-week-long trip!

    • Teja says:

      Oh wow! Thanks for commenting! That’s an amazing sharing. I also found Oman somewhat impenetrable socially. I mean, I went there maybe 4 times until I had an expat colleague who was there long enough, and made close enough friends with her (likewise female) mentees, that she was finally invited to meet their families. It was only that visit that I learned so much, way more than all previous visits combined. I think culturally, the family is always kept secure behind the ‘clan fort’, and only trusted people ever get in.

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