Mea Culpa in Muscat

I’m sitting at the head of a conference table, feeling stark white in contrast to the chattering women ethereally gliding about the room in abayas and hijabs. I’m in Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman, located a region known for some of the most repressive gender laws on the planet. As I quietly observe, I realize with stunning clarity that, while excited and fascinated, I’ve just experienced a slight shiver of apprehension…or is it just nerves?…good heavens, possibly a bit of discomfort?…even fear of the unknown?…what the hell?…

Milling about…

For the last 7 years, I’ve been the Senior International Gender Consultant at The World Bank (IFC). My job involves conducting gender research globally.  I’ve been privileged to participate in focus groups with women from The Gambia, Turkey, Indonesia, Lebanon, China and The Philippines. Believe me, this is no tourist gig. I’m neck deep in “real culture”, so much so I usually have to facilitate through a translator. I’m no stranger to cultural differences and nuances and I’ve never felt uncomfortable, nervous, unwelcome or even particularly foreign. There’s a universality amongst women that transcends language and cultural barriers, no matter her address.

Sitting around this table is the usual complement of accomplished entrepreneurs; the first woman civil engineer in Oman sits next to the first woman chartered architect. Three seats down from the internationally-renowned jewellery designer is the first Omani woman to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. All run thriving, successful businesses. All are articulate, smart and opinionated as hell. When the calibre of the success of the women in the room was revealed, one participant, with a twinkle in her eye, looked directly at me and dropped the bomb, “You wouldn’t think it when you look at all of these black robes, would you!?”

Busted. And I didn’t even know I was guilty.

Clearly Oman isn’t quite what I didn’t even know I was expecting. Up to that pivotal moment, every western headline, Hollywood movie, every incendiary Facebook and Twitter post is waging an unconscious battle in my brain with logic, fact, reason and my own experience for Gawd’s sake! I realize that my reaction of “delightful surprise” is pretty solid indicator that something ain’t quite right. Why? Because not once, not ever have I reacted this way. It’s simply a done deal that, no matter what country I’m in, women kick butt. What is different however, is that here most of the women are wearing abayas. I learned more in that moment than I have in 20 years of doing gender work.

12-year old daughter of a participant

Participant’s young daughter

No two abayas are alike…

First of all, the abaya. I now know this garment rivals western women’s suits for distinctive design and fashion, each making a statement about the woman wearing it. More to the point though, the “you wouldn’t know it” comment makes me acutely aware how we “tiptoe” around sensitive issues; east versus west, Muslim versus Christian versus Jew, moderate versus conservative versus terrorist, covered versus uncovered. Here I am,  in a room filled with predominately covered, conservative, Muslim women and every single one of us is completely cracking up. So-called “sensitive” topics become the genesis of the most wickedly funny banter and one-liners I’ve ever heard.  There is no recrimination, chest beating or denigrating. It’s decided. Everyone’s perceptions could benefit from a little “fine tuning”.

Once again, the western anti-Muslim garbage landfill is overflowing. I’m pretty sure there’s a profound nugget in this experience but my daughter Kathleen confirms it. Upon reading this, she says, “Mom. Change the people into animals and get this story into kid’s hands. That’s where it belongs.” Brilliant.

The Gang

The Gang

One Response to “Mea Culpa in Muscat”

  1. Nancy Lawson Says:

    April 26th, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    oh my, I knew your mom from Tai Chi. I have travelled to many eastern countries that are predominantly Muslim, and your story resonated with me. Thank you for sharing.

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