Piercing Cultural Stereotypes in Oman

 When many of us see Middle Eastern women whose faces are veiled and who wear floor-length black burqas, our minds immediately translate these scenes into examples of injustice and oppression.


For enlightenment on the burqas worn in such countries as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and those known as abaya worn in the United Arab Emeritus (UAE) and Oman we turn to a blog (OH MY, OMAN) by a lawyer friend who writes about her experiences living in Muscat. In her 8/20/2014 post she stated that the Qur’an (the Muslim bible) requires both men and women to dress conservatively. She continues by saying:


           There is nothing in the Qur’an requiring women to veil their faces, and what “modesty” means is up for interpretation. So how Muslim              women in Afghanistan wound up covering their faces and wearing a burqa has more to do with ideological and political reasons than               purely religious reasons.

          Most women in the UAE and Oman wear an abaya and hijab. The abaya is a loose-fitting robe (generally black, though in Southeast                   Asia they are very colorful) that is worn over normal clothing and the hijab is the headscarf that covers everything except the face.



          While it may seem like a boring outfit, the opportunities for customization are endless and some abaya and hijab cost a fortune. Below             is an example of a abaya and hijab available for purchase.



           So while the customization of the abaya and hijab might be interesting and even fashionable, none of the above makes me want to                       trade in my normal wardrobe in exchange for a long-sleeved robe and a headscarf. But then I have second thoughts about this — my                  normal morning routine for work consists of washing and blow drying my hair, finding an outfit where everything matches and then,              throughout the day, making adjustments (trying to figure out how to get my skirt to look less wrinkly, maybe adjusting a waistband                after eating too big a lunch, etc.). Meanwhile, my coworkers grab an abaya, throw it over comfy clothes (usually yoga pants and a tank          top), put their hair in a ponytail and hide it under their hijab. I’ll admit – there are definitely days when I’m jealous that I can’t wear an          abaya and hijab to work.

         The other thing to consider is the whole reason behind the abaya and hijab – dressing modestly. I can’t count the number of times when            I’ve wanted to snap my fingers and say, “Hey buddy, my eyes are up here.” Or how many of my girlfriends have complained over the                years that men never look at their faces, only their bodies. Here, a woman’s body isn’t constantly on display. So while I don’t wear an               abaya and hijab, the more modest style of dress is nice, and it’s certainly more comfortable. 

         Most of my Omani friends don’t mind wearing an abaya and hijab. For them it’s a cultural uniform – just like a lawyer might wear a                  suit to work, they wear an abaya and hijab to work. . . . One of my Omani colleagues dresses completely Western, except she wears a                 hijab to work. She started doing that because it saves her time in the morning and because some women at work gave her a hard time               about not wearing one. I asked if she wears an abaya. She said she does so fairly often when she doesn’t want to attract male attention,           particularly at busy places like malls. 

         In my experience, most women in Oman don’t see the abaya and hijab as a demeaning method of keeping them subservient to men (as               many Westerners perceive), but rather as a way of diverting unwanted attention. . . . 

        But I personally think the abaya and hijab can make it difficult to garner respect in a professional environment. I’m a lawyer, and in                 order to be a good lawyer sometimes I have to give people advice they don’t want to hear or to drive a hard bargain. I have to be able to             look someone in the eyes and speak with authority. And if I need to look very authoritative, I’ll wear a suit since a suit is much more                   official than my normal business clothes (I’ve even read advice that you should wear a suit even during a phone interview because the             mere act of wearing a suit makes the interviewee feel more serious and important). I think it would be much more difficult to do my job              successfully if I wore the equivalent of a hooded bathrobe, especially if I were wearing yoga pants and a tank top underneath.

       In sum, the way that many Muslim women dress in Oman and the UAE isn’t about oppression; it’s about freedom. Freedom from being             ogled by men; freedom from being judged on their bodies or their clothes; freedom from having to style their hair in the morning or wear        uncomfortable “professional” clothes to work; and freedom from even needing a professional wardrobe. But if you’re worried that they            may be missing out on all the fabulous fashions in the magazines . . . don’t worry; they’re wearing them under their abayas.


2 Responses to “Piercing Cultural Stereotypes in Oman”

  1. Ha ! Interesting commentary on the “costume” — and its advantages … hey, not so bad. And, I’ll take one of those red and black outfits — very handsome!

  2. derekedge@talktalk.net October 29, 2014 at 5:39 am

    Hello Carolyn.

    We hope that you are enjoying your cruise now that your health is somewhat picked up, do you think that I would look better in a burqa or a jil bab. Give our love to Barbara.


    Jean & Derek

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