I will be presenting ”Private Lives in Public Spaces: Perceptions of Space-Usage in Southern Oman” on Dec. 2 at the MESA annual meeting

‘Private Lives in Public Spaces: Perceptions of Space-Usage in Southern Oman’ – Dr. M. Risse

photos by: Onaiza Shaikh; plans by: Maria Cristina Hidalgo https://www.mariacristinah.com/

Middle East Studies Association annual meeting



This presentation discusses issues related to the cultural perceptions of space and privacy on the Arabian Peninsula. The Merriam-Webster definition of privacy is: the quality or state of being apart from company or observation, and it’s the “apart from observation” aspect that I want to focus on because if someone is in public spaces, they aren’t alone (i.e. can’t be “apart from company”) but they can be unobserved.  Based on fifteen years of experience and research in southern Oman, I will focus on how men and women navigate the same or nearby public spaces at the same time. Using examples from shops, grocery stores, universities, restaurants, cafes, airports and hospitals I will discuss who moves where according to cultural rules about position and proximity. For example, an initiative at one bank to have a “women’s only” teller fizzled out (as did a scheme to give women customers pink bank cards), but customers and clerks continue to follow strict, unwritten rules about who stands where. Another example is universities. In some Gulf countries, there are separate campuses for men and women. Omani institutions of higher learning have only one campus yet there are both physical (having two sets of doors for classrooms) and mental (where students choose to sit) barriers to gender-mixing.

Houseways: Windows/ Sightlines

[this essay is part of a series about the practicalities and pragmatics of one-, two- or three-story houses built within the last twenty years on one or two plots of land in the Dhofar region of Oman; extremely expensive houses often take up three or more plots and have very different architectural styles]

One of the hardest concepts for language students to grasp is to rethink common metaphors. It’s ok to call kids “monkeys/ cheeky monkeys” in North America and the UK, but not in Oman. “Moon faced” is negative in the US, but not in Oman. In the Middle East, the full moon is seen as a time of safety and peace because you can see everything without the heat of the sun, unlike the negative connotations of danger found in North America.

It’s the same way with architectural details. Someone from the UK might argue that windows should be used to look out of, thus a window should be made of clear glass, uncovered during the day, often uncovered at night and, in good weather, left open to let in fresh air. The front door will usually be closed all the time.

None of this obtains in Dhofar. Windows are either made of opaque glass (in bathrooms and the kitchen) or are completely covered with treatments which usually have several layers, such as a heavy or lined, light-blocking fabric with a tulle/ sheer overlay which is sometimes tied back or swept to one side [jabot] with a fringe and/ or beading. There are usually heavy frame elements with a valance or pelmet/ cornice with swags. Sometimes there are three layers, a plain, dark fabric which hangs straight, a sheer overlay and then decorated drapes pulled to one side. This makes it look like one might be able to see out/ in but in fact the window is totally covered. [see examples below]

Drapes seldom have a simple, open style such as tabs and if there is a visible rod, there is almost always a finial. Café curtains are rare – usually the whole window is covered at all times. Ground-floor windows and the window at the first landing of a stairwell are frequently barred. However, depending on the weather and the neighborhood (how close are the other houses and whether the neighbors are ‘known’ and/ or family) the front door might be left open during the day.

Given that windows have reflective treatments which make it difficult/ impossible to see in, sometimes the heaver drapes might be opened during the day, leaving only the sheer covering.  If there are no possible sight lines, i.e. there is a high surrounding wall, the house is far from other houses and the road, etc. the heavier covering might not be closed at nightfall but windows that allow you to see directly  into a house is rare.

Another way to explain the non-use of windows is that before the infrequent, severe rainstorms, Dhofaris often cover the house windows with blue or grey/ opaque tarps, which are sometimes left up for weeks or months after the storm. Some houses are built with no windows on the side that is close to the surrounding wall and facing another property.

As Dhofaris are always fully dressed in their houses (see below), sometimes an upper story window in a public part of the house (for example, a family salle at the top of the stairs) will only be covered with sheet fabric if there are no direct, close sightlines. One can sometimes get a glimpse of an indistinct shape moving, but there is nothing like the large, uncovered, picture windows in the living rooms of most American mid-western towns.

Light indoors is provided by overhead florescent tube-lights and/ or chandeliers; sometimes there are transoms/ fanlights over doors. If someone needs to see something, they go to the front door and look out. During over ten years of visiting, I have never seen an adult pull back a curtain to look outside. Small kids will sometimes do so, then tell an adult in the room what they see, but usually grown-ups don’t show their faces in a window.

To say that a person “looks out of windows” is the only negative comment I have heard from informants and friends about a neighbor. I have heard that expression three different times and always with a sense of exasperation. The issue is not simply the “looking” but the interest in other people’s lives and telling others what was seen: two very unattractive traits. The correct behavior is, of course, to try not to see and, if seen, never discuss any speech or actions done by neighbors. If one has good neighbors, say alhumdulilah and if not, a dismissive wave of the hand is enough.

In the three cases I know of, I was told about the person because of circumstances that warranted me knowing. For example, a Dhofari friend (X) asked me to be sure to wear Dhofari clothing when I visited her because she had a neighbor (Y) who “looks out of windows” and if Y saw a Western person enter X’s house, Y would tell people and insist on knowing who I was and why was I visiting. In the other two cases, when asking Dhofaris if they were free to visit, the friends told me that there was a problem within the family because of a neighbor who misconstrued something seen and told other people.

As the exception that proves the rule, rental houses usually have sitting rooms with sheer curtains as such houses usually have higher than normal surrounding walls and are located outside of congested areas. The understanding is that no one can see in and everyone in the house is related, so window coverings are not necessary. Rental houses sometimes also have bigger windows because there are often small jungle gyms/ playground equipment and/ or pools so adults can easily sit inside and watch the children. [see example below]

The information above is for houses in and close to towns; outside of towns, as there are either no neighbors or the neighboring houses belong to relatives, there is less concern about privacy. The surrounding walls are low (waist-high) and serve primarily to keep livestock away from the home. Houses often have a dekka, an outside seating area accessible from the front door. Sometimes it is covered and furnished, sometimes it is simply clean swept mats to sit on. If the house is built up and there is only a small landing in front of the main door, people will sit on front steps in cool weather. Thus, although windows are similarly covered with fabric, people have far more visual access to their surroundings.

Housing/ Clothing: The point about Dhofaris always being fully dressed at home is very important. As I have explained in my first book: Once outside the bedroom, there is a chance to see any of the other people in the house, the live-in maid and/ or a repair person. Therefore, at all times, a man must wear at least a wazar (sarong) and t-shirt, a woman must be in a dhobe (loose housedress) and losi (light cotton headscarf), kids are dressed in at least shirts and underwear/ diapers.

Housing design and living patterns create this necessity of always being modestly dressed. For example, a man leaving his bedroom might see a brother’s wife who lives across the hallway, the teenage daughter of another brother or an older female relative. As he leaves the house, he might pass the salle [female/ family sitting room] which is open to the main hallway and see/ be seen by his mother’s sisters or female neighbors who are visiting.

I will discuss window design and construction in a following essay.

examples of covered windows

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examples from rental house (larger windows, less covering)

Considering Cartoons/ Graphic Art about Foodways

I started to look at cartoons (sent by Omani friends or posted on Instagram) because I wanted to see how buying, making, eating and sharing food was portrayed in graphic art. The cartoons are fascinating because they give personal insights into many aspects of Arab/ Muslim/ Gulf cultures, not just what food is eaten (when, where and why) but what is said (and the subtext), who is talking,  what clothes are worn (and what do the clothes signal?), body issues (how close do people stand to each other? do they face each other directly? how much can you tell about body size/ shape? can you see hair?), background (how is the place drawn? is it in the home or in public?), even how the words are spelled (are the people speaking formal Arabic?) and grammar choices mark the characters vis a vis status, nationality, sub-culture, etc.

For example in this cartoon – the woman on the left is drawn as less traditional with hair piled up under her sheila, hair showing, shaped eyebrows, prominent eyes (eyeliner? mascara? colored lens?), open-mouth smile (lipstick?), open abayah, colored dress and purse, showing more of her forearm showing (is her lighter skin tone deliberate?) but also because she is carrying a coffee clearly drawn with a green round label like Starbucks. The coffee is grey and in a larger cup; while the other woman is carrying a small cup filled with a light brown liquid that looks like tea with milk. The woman with the less conservative look goes to the expensive and foreign coffee company – the woman with the more conservative appearance drinks tea in the (traditional) smaller cup.

2 women.jpg

Not all of the cartoons below have food but all give important insights into cultural issues.

ramadan love

Vimto/ laban signal Ramadan because they are usually drunk at Iftar but henna is not usually worn during Ramadan so this image points towards Eid, especially with the moon design of the henna, the lights and the creme carmel.

looking at woman

new baby

argue man and woman



share ramadan






Relationship Cartoons – Worthy of Study

shopping with manIt’s not my area of expertise, but I find relationship cartoons posted on social media fascinating. There is so much cultural information to be unpacked for example, many have women with uncovered hair in settings with other women, whereas Dhofari women keep their hair covered even if sitting in the salle with other women. Here are a few I find particularly interesting. I hope someone from or living on the Arabian Peninsula does some kind of systematic study by country, topic, etc.

emmy - brother asking


dano - legal look


emmy - girl guy apart


emmy - hair


emmy - fight

Living Expat – Dressing, Covering, Swimming, and Mutual Respect

In all my twelve years of living here and two years of living in the United Arab Emirates, I have never been harassed, insulted, frightened, much less attacked, by any Omani or Emeriti for being American or a Christian. Devout Muslim friends, neighbors and colleagues wish me “Merry Christmas” and I say, “Thank you.” I wish them “Eid Mubarak” and “Ramdan Kareem” and they say, “Thank you.”

Likewise, I have never been made to feel different or foreign or wrong because I was wearing clothes which were normal in my culture. Because I choose to live and work here, I do make the small adjustment of wearing clothes that cover my knees and shoulders when teaching, but I wear the same clothes I wear when I’m in the States: JJill, Fresh Produce, LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, and April Cornell.

When I visit Omani friends at home, I wear what they are wearing out of respect. It is a simple adaptation like taking off my shoes before I walk into a friend’s house, learning to eat with my hands, shooing my cats out of the living room if a friend who is allergic comes to visit or not eating ice cream sundaes in front of a friend who is dieting.

In Omani houses, I wear an abayah (the long loose black cloak that women wear on the Arabian Peninsula) with a black headscarf or a dhobe (the long, loose, patterned cotton dress local women wear) with a lossi (a matching, light cotton headscarf). At first it was a little difficult to maneuver surrounded by almost 4 yards of fabric, but I learned how to gather up some of the extra while walking up stairs and to arrange my lossi to stay neatly in place, something akin to learning to French-braid my hair in middle school.

During Ramadan, I also wore a headscarf during the day out of respect for the culture and I was interested to see how it would feel psychologically to cover. In Oman, unlike some Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, abayahs and headscarves are not required by law for daily life. Most women wear them because of personal beliefs and/ or traditions.

Some abayahs are very loose and plain black, some are black with colored decorations, some are colored (often navy blue or beige) and some are worn like an open cloak showing the jeans or skirts worn underneath. Some women wear tightly wrapped, plain black scarves, others wear colored scarves or have the scarf resting on their shoulders. Some women have suggested non-Muslim women should wear headscarves as a show of solidarity. I don’t agree with that, as not all Muslim women believe it is necessary to cover their hair.

The first time walking into the mall with a colored headscarf was tough – I felt self-conscious and hypocritical. I am in the mall usually once a week, reading at my café or shopping, and to walk in with a headscarf made me feel like I was playing a game.

When the Omani men in my research group saw me wearing a headscarf for the first time, they would smile, nod, make a quick comment and then ignore the issue; no one ever pressed me to wear a black sheila (headscarf) or abayah. It probably took me six or seven times wearing the headscarf in public until I became comfortable with it; then the only issues were finding scarves which co-ordinated with my clothes and were the right fabric weight, not too heavy or stiff.

My big insight about wearing a headscarf is that it gives you something to do. Standing in the grocery store trying to decide which spaghetti sauce to buy, I reach up, tighten, adjust, and smooth it down. Fussing with the scarf became a habit, a micro-control fidget, like men straightening their tie or shooting their cuffs. It’s a little uncomfortable when it’s hot and humid outside, but very helpful when I’m in a room with the AC on full blast. It’s another 2 minutes of getting ready time as I pull out my tiered hanger with 15 scarves and try to figure out which one looks best with my outfit.

When Ramadan ended, I went back to uncovered hair during the day but I still wear scarves when I see my Omani female friends at home. The result was I put a piece of fabric on my head and it was sometimes a little hot but that’s about it. I did not feel more religious, or less religious, or any particular change. I am a Methodist by baptism and by my own choice when I was in my 20s. Neither my religious devotion nor personal beliefs are diminished or altered by having a piece of fabric on my head. I didn’t feel closer to God – I didn’t feel farther away from God. I don’t believe God enjoins me to judge other people by what they have on their head or their body.

Most Sunday and Tuesday nights I go swimming with 60 or so Arab, Muslim women wearing burqinis. I first learned to swim in a public pool with a Red Cross instructor and over my 50 years I have swum in the Wilde Lake village center pool in Columbia MD, the Old Red Gym at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of North Dakota pool when it was negative 10 outside, Canadian lakes, MIT, the Atlantic Ocean at Ocean City, and Tacoma, WA.

The women who swim at my pool now are just like the women I have swum with at all those other places, only they are wearing a bit more clothing. They are in swimming pants or leggings with short or long-sleeved tops as is consistent with the conservative culture, but no one has ever told me that I have to wear what they wear. I am a life-long feminist but I don’t believe my feminism allows me to dictate someone else’s feminism. The women at the pool and my Omani women friends (college-educated, multi-lingual, who work and have traveled/ lived abroad) don’t feel comfortable exposing their body to other women, much less men. Who am I to argue that with them?

When I go swimming, I get lots of smiles, waves, friendly glances and “hellos” from women I don’t know. In almost a year of twice weekly visits to the pool I have never received a harsh word, much less a lecture, on my bright blue Land’s End swimsuit. We all exercise mutual respect for different customs and religions while we exercise our bodies. And then we will go home happy.