Men, women and an Omani classroom

Cultural Insights — By on January 23, 2008 at 7:25 am

Baxter Jackson went to Oman to each English and ended up learning a thing or two about the relations between males and females in that Muslim society. He wrote about his teaching experiences for Lonely Planet.

I sneak a peek at (the men) in their starched-white dishdashas (wrist-to-ankle shirt-dresses) and embroidered caps as they wait patiently for me near their classroom entrance – the girls have their own. This will be the first time these young men and women have been in the same room since hitting puberty.

I catch up to the ladies in the hall and watch them walk in, sit down and prepare for class. With no boys around, the Omani girls fiddle and rewrap their hejabs (veils) just as Western girls fuss over their hair and make-up. After stealing a glimpse, I round the bend and take the ‘male’ door into class…My entrance is the boy’s cue. As I unload my bag, they file in and respectfully shake my hand. They sit at the front of the classroom and as far away from the girls as possible…

Even though the students don’t look at each other, talk to each other or directly acknowledge each other’s presence in class, I find out later that their diffidence towards the opposite sex is not grounded in repugnance (there’s a population explosion going on, after all) nor in a sense of hierarchy (women and men share work separately in all sections of society) but in a collective reluctance to avoid bringing criticism to the one thing that matters most in Omani society – family.

So the outward symbols that I initially perceived as oppressive – the women in black, the men in white, the signs for men here and women there – were nothing more than signposts for separate but equal realities.

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1 Comment

  1. The phrase “separate but equal” has in all circumstances throughout human history turned out to be simply a way to hand wave away class/race/sex/religious discrimination. The Islamic world still has a long way to go before they reach the 21st century. 🙁

    To steal and slightly modernize the greatest sentence ever written.

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    “Separate but equal” always violates this principle for some people in a society.

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