Beauty comes at a price

I am currently coloring my hair without supervision*. Dave has gone off to get the oil changed to get ready for our trip to Dubai tomorrow. This leaves me home alone with hair dye and without glasses. The apartment is poorly lit. I can only guess and hope that I covered most of my head. At least it’s henna, which is only semi-permanent, right? Besides, my grey roots made it look like I had two heads of hair, one laid on top of the other. Something needed to happen. Getting my hair done professionally wasn’t really an option. There is no place in our town where a woman can get her hair cut. It’s illegal (or haram at least) to have a man cut my hair, and there are no female stylists here. The best place would be Muscat, but that’s 90 minutes away and requires planning to make an appointment. So, self care it is.

I had tried to see what would happen if I just let my hair grow out and go natural, but I lost patience with that idea when I looked at some recent pictures of me. I thought my hair would grey out evenly since the previous color I had – a dark brown — was all gone, leaving me with  what I presumed was my natural color. It’s so hard to tell what my hair actually is now, given that I have been putting different dyes in my hair for over twenty years – ever since graduate school caused my premature greying. Heck, even before that I was getting blonde highlights to stall my darkening towhead (yes, I was a blonde kid!). And then there was the time (almost two years) when I thought magenta was a perfectly fine color for my locks.

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So much grey! at least the mountains are super pretty.

 

I’ve colored my own hair a million times before and now in five different countries with varying degrees of success. I remember one time back in the US when the outcome was mixed at best. I stood in the mirror as I watched the dye saturating my hair turn brighter and brighter orange when the phone rang. My friend Meg was seeing if I wanted to take my dog Brody to the park. He and Lizzie were great friends back then, both now lost to cancer.

“I can’t. I’m dyeing my hair”

“Neat! What color?”

“Not sure. The box said “Fire Red, but, I look like a construction cone. I’m getting nervous….”

“Then rinse it out if you don’t like what’s happening and come to the park with us.”

Duh. Why hadn’t I thought of that? If I don’t like it, get rid of it! Was it a good idea? No matter, the color choice wasn’t a good idea in the first place, so might as well add to the dubious decisions. I hopped in the shower, rinsed my hair and went off to the park – at least that part was a good idea in the minds of Brody and Lizzie. My hair was still wet and I wore a hood to protect myself from the cold and possible humiliation, but despite the head cover, people could tell something was up.

“You colored your hair.” Duke’s mom was making a factual statement and nothing more.

“Yes – about 5 minutes ago.”

“Ah.”

I don’t recall anyone saying it looked nice/good/beautiful that evening. And for good reason. I got home and my hair was indeed bright orange. I was OK with that, even though it wasn’t my favorite. I had a good job, a good relationship, good friends, and good life. Ruined hair wasn’t about to stop me from anything. I had a laugh over my appearance and went to sleep, aware that I would most likely cause a bit of a stir at work. My suspicions were confirmed when the next day a student of mine looked at me and said, “I like the color of your hair. It’s almost within the normal range of hair colors. But not quite.”

That about summed it up.

So now I sit with my hair soaking in the muddy henna (the box called it “Burgundy”): the natural and cultural way to color hair while here in Oman.  I like how it smells sweet and earthy as opposed to the chemical smell of the dyes back home.  I know there is no way I got all the parts of my head, especially the back. I have a thick head of hair and it’s hard to see back there, even when I am wearing my glasses. The henna starts to dry, creating a fine layer of sand all over my bare shoulders and chest. I guess it’s time to rinse off.

I forgot about how weak the water pressure is here. I stood under the shower for a solid fifteen minutes as streaks of orange poured down my body. I worried about staining the drain, the grout, my face, my feet. Slowly, the water began to run clear. I looked in the mirror and learn that my hair is much brighter where it was once grey. And Burgundy my ass – my hair has a bright orange tinge to it. Then I remember the stuff was manufactured for those with black hair – maybe the Burgundy part is relative to darker tresses. I sigh. Nothing I can do about it now, anyway. At least I am not quite a construction cone.

* Note: The above was written in real time. The rest was written the day after.

Dave comes home and we assess the damage. The color job is uneven, and the top of my head is indeed bright, though no longer grey (except for the parts I missed). But, it is what it is – bad hair in Oman. The fact that it hasn’t been cut in almost seven months is even more apparent now. Maybe this is a sign I should start wearing a hijab. Or be a little more forgiving of my hair and myself – until I get to a place where I can find a good stylist.

new hair

My hair in “burgundy”

top

…complete with missed spots and bright orange top. Sigh.

 

 

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Perspectives of Sexualization

This post will be brief for it will serve two purposes. One is just to share what it’s like here in Oman (that’s what I have been doing of course), but the primary reason is to provide some information and insight to my students in my  online Women’s Reproductive Health (WRH) course based out of Portland State University (hello there, and welcome!).

This week, our WRH topic is “Growing Up Female,” where we cover issues such as puberty, and access to reproductive health services when one is under 18. Yes, it’s a lot to cover, but what else can you do in a survey course? Note: I would LOVE to teach a whole course on adolescent sexuality some day. Not likely given my current career choices, but you never know…

The question that kicks off our online discussion is: “How does the phenomenon of early sexualization of girls in the US impact healthy pubertal development, and ultimately a woman’s reproductive health?” This question is inspired by a 2007 report on the Sexualization of Girls from the American Psychological Association; the report found “the proliferation of sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising, merchandising, and media is harmful to girls’ self-image and healthy development.”

It’s easy to find examples of this early sexualization in girls throughout the US. Thong underwear being marketed to children, popular song lyrics that graphically reference oral sex, and dolls that look like this are all easily a part of a girl’s upbringing in the United States.

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Bratz dolls. These gals can NOT sit down without causing a stir. Image courtesy of fanpop.com.

So, what’s it like here, in a country where sexual conservatism runs high?

I attended a college event on consumer protection. The following items were featured in a display showing things that were considered inappropriate for young-adult women because of their overly sexual nature. I’ll have more to say about them later, I’m sure. But for now, just check them out and consider how different it is here. Better? Worse? You decide.

haram magazine images

Magazines in general are notably absent here in Oman. Probably because of their focus on sex.

haram gangnam

Gangnam style! These sexual poses are not OK, despite these depictions of women being pretty well-covered.

Here comes the bride. Only the bride.

It was just like any other wedding reception. The venue was a large room that resembled a hotel convention center. It was filled with round tables; white tablecloths and pink lilies on top. The chairs were rounded with harsh gold trim (you know what I’m talking about) and covered with ugly red fabric meant to hide stains and be anonymous.

When the bride made her entrance, everyone stopped chatting and clapped, oooed, and ahhhhed. Her white dress was full, and as she made her way down the center of the room, she had to stop every three steps or so to have her gown rearranged, lest she trip over it. Her bouquet was simple – six full red roses. A photographer stayed close, snapping pictures every second.

The food was served buffet style, and the guests stood in line and piled up way too much food then ate it all. It didn’t matter. It was a time of celebration. After we ate, there was dancing. All 200 guests feeling full and merry.

All 200 female guests. There were no men in sight.

And that made the event unlike any other wedding reception I’ve ever been to. In Oman, the wedding celebrations are gender segregated – the groom didn’t even make an appearance at this reception until well past midnight, after his own celebration, and that was simply to take his new bride home and then off to the honeymoon.

So the dancing, singing, laughing – all of it – was all with other women. Which to me was pretty weird. While I appreciate that not all weddings need to be all-gender events (interestingly enough, on this very day, I was invited to a US wedding that celebrated the marriage of dear friends of mine, both of whom are women), the stereotypical wedding, and the mold that I have become most accustomed to, is pretty darn heterocentric; where the underlying narrative is about who is still single, and who is going to hook up with whom after enough of the free bar has been consumed….

Oh yeah, of course there was no alcohol at this event either. Another pretty big difference.

So no men and no booze – what’s left, you may ask? What remained were bright colored dresses and a lot of women letting their hair down. I mean this literally; for the first time since I have been here, I saw several women without head coverings – beautiful rich dark long wavy hair, cascading down past bare shoulders; abayas were removed and placed on chairs. Dresses were still long, but many were tight and low-cut. Because of this shedding of modesty, no pictures were allowed.

wedding abayas

No abayas were worn until it was time to go home.

Weddings are one of the few times (if not the only time) that women are seen in public without their traditional coverings. Nevertheless, everyone seemed to be extremely comfortable, moving their bodies in freeing and sexualized ways to the beats of Omani drums and Egyptian belly-dancing music. Head coverings were tied around women’s rears to highlight their moves while they swayed and shook their hips. I’m trying hard not to be biased, but I concede to my upbringing; these women were so happy, and while I had a great time dancing in a group of women, I was also a little sad that they couldn’t do this more often. That they couldn’t have such an event where men were present and they could still dress more freely.

But then again, if there were men around, it wouldn’t be a real wedding celebration. At least not in Oman.

A traditional (?) family gathering

My first Eid celebration was a blend of tradition and modernization – the Middle East and the inevitable American influence that creeps its way into every crevice around the world. Upon arrival, I took off my shoes and was immediately whisked away to the women’s side of the gathering, in a separate room from Dave and those with whom I feel I have more in common; in general, I prefer the company of men in superficial settings like this. Not this time, nor any time when I am with Omanis. So I sat on the floor, a firm pillow supporting my back rather well, in a room full of women and children. Grandma was on my left. It took her about three minutes to communicate her shock and disapproval over the fact that I don’t have children. The other twenty women simply looked confused and a few who spoke English said “later you will.” I didn’t feel the need to explain that I’m in my mid-40s and on birth control; being childless is part of my life choice. It’s just not something that’s understood in this culture at all. In the background, a television showed a Batman cartoon dubbed into Arabic. Some of the kids paid attention, but most ran around an semi-tormented each other like brothers, sisters, and cousins do.

When the women found out I was from America, they became excited and brought over a young woman who shared the news that she was going to university in Lincoln, Nebraska to study civil engineering. I told her she must be very smart and her family proud. Many questions about Nebraska – its climate, food, and people – were all shouted at me in both English and Arabic – this young adult had never left the country before and was due to depart in January. I did my best to make it sound like the best place on earth and one in which she would thrive. I had my doubts, but only because it gets damn cold there, and I know very little about the state; what I do know doesn’t draw me in, but then again I don’t think I could be any more different than the young adult across from me. Her blue dress and matching head covering bolder in color than most of the other guests’ attire, but not something you would typically see in the Midwest, or at an American university. Though what do I know, it may be more commonplace than I realize; I have no idea what the Muslim population of University of Nebraska, Lincoln is. But I do know all about the proportion of women in Engineering. She will be a unique person there for sure if not for her religion, than for her gender. I felt a strong urge to help her in some way, offer support, a contact, some encouraging words, but I had very little to give (anyone out there know someone willing to be a friendly face out there?).

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Sitting on the floor with one of the many women there (the only one willing to be photographed).

Conversations buzzed over my head as more women poured in. The soon-to-be college student introduced them to me: not by name, but in relation to her. “My cousin, my other cousin, another cousin, my brother’s sister, my cousin’s wife.” I lost track after I counted 25 women all in different colored and patterned outfits; only one was wearing the more conservative black abaya, though all wore long sleeves and skirts/dresses and not an adult head of hair was in sight. The children wore the same clothing I would see my friends’ kids wearing.

I felt comfortable sitting there, both physically and mentally. Even though I didn’t understand most of what was being said (occasionally someone would try to chat with me about what I was doing here, or what they did), the dynamic was pretty much like any other large family gathering. Hugs, laughter, children running around, and a million simultaneous conversations. I sat quietly and just took it in.

Then it was time to eat. A large sheet of plastic was rolled out onto the floor, and six platters of seasoned rice were placed on top all down the long room. Then came the meat (shua). All I knew about it (from reading and asking some Omani teachers at work) was that it had been killed three days before, and cooked in the ground until that morning – it was smoky and fell off the bone. Huge chunks of it were thrown onto the rice, and two bowls of sauces – one red, one yellow – were also presented. Tomatoes and onions completed the spread. I turned to the woman next to me and asked what type of meat it was (I assumed it was goat); she replied, “Cow. Or maybe camel. I’m not sure.” I wasn’t sure if her lack of confidence was due to language or culinary ignorance. I ate anyway (I still think it was goat).

I was the only one presented with a plate and spoon. The rest of the family dug in with their hands. They would rip at the meat, which basically fell off the bone, and shovel it into their mouths. They would pour sauce on the rice, massage it in their right hand (never the left!) until it formed a ball and popped that in as well. Then they would go for more. It looked primitive, unsanitary, and totally normal all at the same time. I still stuck to my plate, but enjoyed watching the smoothness of the dining process of the rest of the group. Like any grandmother would, the family matriarch kept piling pieces of meat onto my plate and telling me to eat more. I tried to signal to her that I was very full and would sneak her servings back onto the platter. She did, however, succeed in making me drink my Pepsi to wash the meal down. It was funny to me to have such a traditional meal bastardized by an American (global) staple that can hardly be categorized as sustenance.

Cleanup consisted of taking away the food that was left on the platters and crumpling up the plastic sheet – no dirty dishes except my own. Apparently one woman did all the cooking for the fifty of us (including kids) in our room and the twenty men in the other.

Sweet cardamom tea and cardamom coffee were served in tiny handleless cups, along with dates – these are traditionally served to counter the bitterness of the coffee. I love dates and have been eating them daily since I got here. I told grandmother this and, after a translation, she smiled widely and toothlessly and gave me a thumbs-up. I thought the meal was complete. Nope.

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Dad came by to visit the ladies. He loved the fact I was drinking coffee for some reason.

Then came the halwa, a dessert made with dates, egg, milk, and a ton of sugar – it can be flavored with rose or other herbs and spices as well. It has the consistency and appearance of opaque jello. The mother made little scoops of it and again family members of all ages dove in with their hands to pick out a piece or two. I was given a spoon and encouraged to eat two globs. It’s good stuff, but super rich. I’m guessing Eid is pretty much like Thanksgiving when it comes to lack of portion moderation. Then the dad came in to check on me and pretty much force-fed me a third spoonful. Surely now we were done…

Then came the plates of fruit. Women gathered around them and started to cut up apples, plums, bananas, and pineapples. There were pomegranates too, and as I helped scoop out the seeds, I shared with them that these are often served during our Christmas season. They at least seemed to like the idea, smiling politely and nodding. I earned extra bonus points when I was the only one there who really knew how to cut and serve a mangosteen (thanks Vietnam!) using only an extremely dull knife. Thankfully, I got away with eating a few pomegranate seeds and a couple of hard-earned sections of the mangosteen. And finally, the meal was over.

Most of the guests left soon after. A few hung around, but soon all that remained were our hosts. I was able to join Dave, his student, and the father in the men’s room. The student played the guitar and I was convinced to sing along to Hotel California as the young brothers and sisters came in to hear the white gal sing. I did OK for the first verse but then my laughter got the better of me. Why is that song so universal? I have heard it in every country I have ever been in from Brazil to South Korea. Its popularity baffles me, but it was only fitting that it was the only American song he knew. I expect that if we are to join them again I will be joining him in a fine rendition of either Stairway to Heaven or Freebird.

They were trying to plan for us to see a movie in the city (over an hour away) – there was talk of a Bollywood film and those aren’t known for their brevity. While I sort of liked the idea, I was beat. Dave managed to thank his student’s family for the amazing meal, but we had to go. Omani hospitality is amazing, but I think they will continue to give until you tell them it’s OK to stop. They sent us on our way with leftover shua, rice, a bag full of fruit (grapes, oranges, apples, a pomegranate, and a mangosteen!), and a two-liter bottle of Pepsi.

 

Building Bridges

Before classes began, there were placement exams to determine the young adults’ English proficiency levels. New students dutifully filed into their designated rooms and went to one of two sides; on my right sat the young men in their white dishdashas and headwear (either a small embroidered cap (kuma) or a scarf), while on my left, the women in their black abayas took their seats. All looked miserable – it was exam time, after all. While the seating distinction was marked – especially given the contrasting attire – I didn’t think too much of it. After all, I was surprised to learn that I was even teaching coed classes; yet here they were, in the same room together.

This shared space, I soon learned, was about as close to coed as it gets here. I had no appreciation for what was to come.

Classes have now started. I’ve been assigned two to start my first semester, but really I have four. The separation of the sexes continues and has even intensified. This situation is almost comical as in both my classes the women outnumber the men by about 4:1. On my right is a crowded room full of women in black, vying for the seats in the back until there are no more and they are forced to choose: sit close to me or on the other side of the room. They sit close. To my left the few men (three in one class, six in the other) spread out and sit in the front, confident. I notice that the women, for the most part, sit with paper and pen ready, while the desks in front of the men lay bare.

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The school, before students arrived

Not only do the young men and women not sit together, but they don’t interact with each other at all. Despite the orders of the Sultan which are encouraged by the Dean, no conversations bridge the aisle. This dynamic appears to be driven by the females’ request, even though their actions are dictated by the presence of even one male. The males don’t seem to mind.  This means that when I go around the room to monitor student group work, I need to address the two sides of the room as if there was a wall between the two. The men in white are simply not allowed to lean over the chasm to listen in on what I say and wait their turn. Going over to talk to the men means that I begin to lose the attention of some of the women. I go back and forth as quickly as possible.

Although the questions to begin the term have been few, one woman did ask if, during presentation time at the end of the semester, the women had to give their final project talks in front of the men. I answered, “Yes, per the Dean’s orders.” The room erupted in whispered chatter; the right-hand side of the room looked concerned.

I have yet to decide how much I am going to push the issue of co-mingling. If I do encourage it, I will be upholding the declarations of the Dean and even the Sultan himself. On the other hand, I will be going against the wishes of the students, their families, and tribes. Who will win out in these classes will be revealed in Week 14 when I take attendance before presentations. It’s been said that the students make their gender interaction preferences known by simply not showing up when the other side of the room presents.