Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Burqa - A Dying Tradition

If you live in Muscat and spend a considerable amount of time in shopping malls, chances are you've spotted a rather large number of women in fashionable abayas wearing the black face veil with a slit for the eyes.
It's safe to say that almost every one of those women is from the south of Oman. The veil, more commonly referred to as simply 'the burqa', is almost exclusively Dhofari. The south of Oman has traditionally been more gender-segregated and conservative than any of the other regions. Women in Dhofar start wearing the burqa from the age of about 18.
During my years at a public girls' high school in Salalah, most of my classmates were already wearing it. When I first started college, I was one of a handful of females on campus who did not wear it.
All the hundreds of other females at my university were hidden behind veils. The only time I ever saw my colleagues' faces was in the prayer hall.
In 2005 while I was still at college, the government enforced a burqa ban in all institutions of higher education in the country. Naturally, the ban hit Salalah like a tsunami. Tribal meetings were held non-stop for weeks on end while furious families tried to decide what to do. Locals staged demonstrations and wrote long letters to various ministers, but to no avail. Many young women dropped out of college because their families couldn't handle the so-called 'shame' of having their daughters' faces exposed to the world for the first time.
For months Dhofar suffered what can only be referred to as severe social unrest. Slowly but surely, the young women got used to having an identity on campus. They became more confident and started carrying themselves differently. Some of them even stopped wearing the veil outside campus. The changes were fascinating to watch. Today, most young women in Dhofar don't think twice about uncovering their faces at college or at their offices.
The past couple of years or so have also witnessed hundreds of young women obtaining their drivers' licences and heading out onto the road without a face veil. Things are changing, but the general consensus down south continues to be that a woman's reputation and identity should be concealed and 'protected' whenever possible. The burqa is a symbol reflecting that mentality.
The one and only time I wore a burqa was about ten years ago when I was forced to go wedding crashing with my cousins. You may lower your raised eyebrow while I explain. Dhofari wedding crashers, otherwise known as ‘mutafarrigat’ are women whose greatest pleasure is putting on their burqas and slipping in to strangers’ weddings anonymously to view the bride and guests without being recognised. I refer to them as simply 'Dhofari paparazzi'. Many families line up chairs along the walls of the wedding ballrooms especially for these women.
As much as I respect freedom of choice, I am sorry to say that the face veil is not something I would wish upon anyone. Covering a woman's face is not something I associate with my religion. If a woman makes the decision to wear the burqa, then it is entirely her choice - if it really is her choice. From my experience, I can assure you that no young woman wants to wear it nowadays.Once you've become empowered and discovered what it's like to have a public identity, there's no going back. The tradition of the burqa is dying slowly in Dhofar, but it couldn't go away soon enough.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Mall

Published December 4, 2012 - Muscat Daily

Anyone who has been to Salalah in the past year or so will have noticed the humongous fortress being built on our main highway (or what we call a main highway, but what is rather a narrow old road with several dolled up roundabouts that contribute to the worst traffic jams during rush hour). Ladies and gentlemen, that towering fortress is soon to become Dhofar’s first shopping mall. Do I hear cheers? Or were those moans?
The arrival of a state-of-the-art shopping mall in Salalah may be the making or breaking of this town. I tend to think the latter may be more appropriate. Before you pounce on me, rest assured that although crowds terrify me, I have nothing against shopping malls. Shopping malls mean more opportunities to buy things I don’t need. Shopping malls mean an occasional visit to the cinema. Shopping malls mean the possibility of a decent cup of coffee every once in a while. Shopping malls mean people-watching and a cool escape during the summer. You see, I have nothing against malls…as long as they steer clear of my hometown!
While shopping centres seem to be growing like mushrooms in Muscat, we have done a pretty good job down south of keeping the commercial world of malls and franchises at bay for the past couple of decades. The pace of life in Dhofar is a little slow, but that’s okay. It’s how we like it. Many visitors who come to Salalah complain that there is ‘nothing to do’ and that we need a dose of ‘modern civilisation’. When asked what they mean by modern civilisation, it always comes down to shopping malls. These types of conversations always make me laugh. Since when are shopping malls considered the pillars of civilisation?
If you think I’m being a pessimist, let me tell you a story. Nearly 15 years ago my family and I visited a small town in the middle of Kentucky, US. The town consisted of a bunch of farms, a church, a main street that boasted tens of boarded up little shops and restaurants that had gone out of business, and naturally… a big shopping centre.
As honoured foreign guests, the shopping mall was the first ‘attraction’ we were taken to by the eager locals. It had become the town centre where locals spent much of their time and money. That one building had destroyed the spirit of the town and robbed it of its local economy. I’m not saying the same exact scenario will take place in Salalah, but I know local businesses and people will be affected.
The South of Oman is very special. Before the world of crude materialism comes storming into Salalah, I invite you to come and visit. Browse through traditional stores in Al Haffa or Al Salam Street, eat a delicious meal at a hole-in-the-wall Pakistani restaurant or a little Thai eatery tucked between farms in Dahariz.
Sip hot chai on the beach at sunset with your feet in the sand and watch circles of old men play cards while younger kids play soccer. Drive through the mountains and take a peek at the little farms while their owners are out herding the animals. Drive around aimlessly. Go fishing. Take a dip in the ocean at sunrise. Talk to locals. Walk through coconut and banana plantations while sipping chilled coconut water. Savour the town that so many of us cherish and never want to leave. Salalah as we know it is about to change.