When I lived in Manila, Philippines (on and off from 2004-2007) and in Jakarta, Indonesia (‘95-‘96), and in Taipei, Taiwan (‘91), my heart always jumped when I saw the international presence of Avon, the corporation, established in 1886, that gave opportunities for American women to sell cosmetics door to door.  My grandmother was an “Avon Lady” and as a little girl I accompanied her in rural northern Iowa as we made calls to various farms and small town businesses and homes to sell and deliver Avon products. Mary Hansine Hansen Rasmussen immigrated to the United States from Denmark when she was just six years old and the family established a farm in a largely Scandinavian and northern European community in Franklin County Iowa. My grandma’s business brought the family needed extra income and gave her some independence as a female farm-wife-mother-daughter-grandmother and Willy Loman of rural, Danish America.  So when I saw the Avon booth at the Muscat Festival, “womaned” by lovely Omani ladies offering me perfume and lipstick, and presenting a catalogue that advertises both products and opportunities for women, I thought, “I know what this is all about.”
The Avon Booth at the Muscat Festival
Much has been proclaimed about women’s development in Oman. “Women’s progress” is one of the chapter headings in the book of Omani nationalism, written only beginning in the post-1970 era when Sultan Qaboos took power from his father and brought the country from the dark ages into the modern world. I had seen evidence of the Omani Women’s Association in Mucat but I discovered just recently that this organization of women is integral to the Muscat Festival. This NGO, with some 53 chapters throughout the country, was charged to find and organize the traditional arts in their respective regions and bring them to Muscat.
Shams al-Harthy, one of the judges from the Muscat Municipality who evaluates each region’s presentation of tradition, based on 12 criteria explained to me how the OWA is involved.
Compared to other agendas of the Omani Women’s Association, for example political involvement or women’s rights, she said, the local chapters “do this very well.” Everything presented at the festival is under the supervision of the OWA. One of their goals, Shams al- Harthy, told me, is to be guardians of the bridge between the new and the old. In fact any region presented at the festival will get “more points” from the judges when children are involved and are seen learning, presenting, carrying on the old world and bringing it into the new.
So, as I metaphorically fumble my way through this festival, blindfolded, feeling the various parts of the elephant, I discover that it is actually Omani women who are in charge of curating and refining the traditional performing arts, fine arts, folk crafts and trades, of their region and who prepare and oversee its practitioners for the Muscat Festival.
Within a patriarchal model, familiar to women world-wide, our power is often harnessed to support, teach, maintain, procreate, and re-produce a male-oriented status quo. In Indonesia this has been named Ibuisation; the title “ibu” connotes, Mrs. wife, mother, and as Ibu Anne, a wife and mother of two boys I am able to identify with the ways in which we are responsible for the enculturation of our kids into the institutions and values of the society. I also identify with Monie Love as she raps in Queen Latifah’s empowering hip hop hit of 1989, “Ladies First”:
“We are the ones that give birth to the new generation of prophets because it’s Ladies First.” 
Women in the Mix
What else have I learned about women here in Oman? Well I have met many of them but I work primarily in a man’s world so, even as a female researcher my access to women has been somewhat limited. But here are several brief vignettes that reveal what some women have shown me about themselves. Of course I will use no names.
Last November I sat next to a young women in the ladies section of the stadium at the Sultan’s Tattoo, one of a number of extravagant pageants prepared for the celebration of National Day and the 40th anniversary of the new era of His Majesty, Sultan Qaboos. Over the course of four hours we chit-chatted and she told me about her marriage. Her bride price was 4,000 Omani Rials, about $10,000 and that doesn’t include the cost of the wedding. I have read several articles in the paper discouraging outrageous bride prices, discussing the hardships for couples to raise or repay the cost of weddings, and even proposing group marriages and wedding parties. Nevertheless, I read that 4,000 is about average. Their union was not arranged but it was “an appropriate match.” She confided that she was so thankful when her husband, who worked for two weeks at a time “in the oil field,” was away because then she had time to concentrate on herself and be with her friends. For this young woman, who works in journalism, the expectations that come with being a couple were a trying and a difficult adjustment. She and her husband would both like to pursue the Ph.D. in the United States and although generally satisfied with life in Oman she shared a wish with me that just once, she could “fall in love.”
Young Women of Mohamed's Family
My host from the Diwan, Mohamad al-Shidhani invited me to lunch at his family’s house near al-Mudaybi, about two hours from Muscat. I stopped there on the way back from Sur and enjoyed a delicious meal and a delightful afternoon. After our lunch Mohamed announced “I am going to play volley ball; you will go with the women.” So I went visiting with Mohamed’s wife, who is a chemistry teacher, and their children to Mohamad’s mother’s place just two houses away. I walked into the ladies’ sitting room and was immediately given a brand new baby – just one day old – to hold. Although handing a brand new baby over to a complete stranger would be unusual practice in my culture, I learned that in Oman this is considered good luck. That Mohamed’s sister-in-law had just given birth the day before gave me an opportunity to ask all sorts of questions about childbirth and pregnancy, and how issues of women’s health fit into women’s marriages and professional lives. Two of the young women of the family were on hand to answer my nosy questions. Both of them had just graduated from college, one in nursing and one in chemistry, both were looking for jobs, both were planning to wait to have children. They also told me about the cross-cousin marriages in their family and the instance in their family of two sisters marrying two brothers.
Poster at one of the booths for social and environmental services and organizations at the Muscat Festival.
We discussed the threat of hereditary diseases common in cultures that marry within extended families and they were well aware both of the social problem and the campaigns for awareness initiated by the government. Thanks be to God (Al hamdulillah) all of the children in their extended family were healthy and the marriages, happy ones. To complement our girl talk, my hosts, including Mohamad’s mother initiated me into the world of women’s social rituals including anointing me with various perfumes and balms and smelling up my clothes with the smoke from Frankincense or bakhor, one of the precious gifts of the wise men of biblical times, for which the region has been known for centuries.
A basket of perfumes, herbs, balms, and oils presented by the women of Mohmad's family.
Cross cousin marriage is not always a good thing, one of my hosts lamented. He had been married for three decades, had only one deceased child, and no progeny. He regaled me with the good qualities of his wife, a very traditional woman who did not sit with us when I visited and allowed me to take pictures only of the food she prepared. At the age of fifty, he was looking for a second wife to have children with; perhaps a foreigner, that would ensure good offspring, he thought.
One expectant mother that I met in Muscat proclaimed that she would only hold certain visiting hours once her child was born and would not just let people come and go at all hours of the day – as was the tradition here. Furthermore, she would hold her baby visiting hours at her mother’s house!
On inheritance I hear alternating stories. Some couples proclaim that shari‘a law, upon which inheritance is based, protects women should their husband die by naming the brother the steward of a dead man’s estate and by allotting a portion of inheritance to the widow. Other couples, especially, those with no male children, worry about a woman’s limited rights of individual inheritance. Special provision may be made through a will but I sense that among some people inheritance laws are a concern.
Women are ministers here, and professors, and newscasters and police-women, and teachers and doctors. And they are musicians. In spite of professional integration, however, social worlds appear to be segregated, with separate lines for women in some places of commerce and separate seating areas at public events. At a fairly informal evening that two musicians invited me to I ambled back into the kitchen and into the women’s sitting room where all of the kids were playing. An apparently elite family (which one can mistakenly equate with Western or global practices), I asked the women, “why don’t you join us for dinner” (thinking to myself, then I won’t have to be the only woman at the table with all men). They smiled and said simply “because we are shy.”
Gender segregation is a social norm here and I am not sure that the primary reason for maintaining the practice is purely religious. The state-of-the-art Sultan Qaboos University has separate staircases and separate cafeterias for men and women. And a strict dress code was enforced just a few years ago. Now Omani female professors and students all have to wear headscarves whereas just a few years ago, I was told, it was a matter of choice. Male professors also are required to dress with the dishdasha, the kuma, kind of like a soft fez, but white and with thick embroidery, and then tightly wrapped turban on top of the kuma. But dress, SQU colleagues have told me, is much more a marker of patriotic nationalism than of religious morality. 
Wealth and Segregation
“Completely different!” Proclaimed a Yemeni woman who has worked in Oman for many years when I asked her about the differences between women in these neighboring nations of Southern Arabia. “Wealth permits segregation” she asserted. “Here, women are protected by their men. In Yemen, women really work, and they go out in groups, and they go out alone. Many Yemeni men work away from the home; women are in charge, they are independent,” she said matter-of-factly, and when Yemeni women party, she described, they wear fun dresses and risqué fashion. In Oman, she noted with incredulity, women sit politely all night and never even remove their headscarf! I took her word for it until I was invited to a lively party among family (except me) for a bride’s upcoming marriage. Everyone was singing, dancing, and playing music and the party was a veritable fashion show with everything from jeans to party dresses.
Not too much should be made of these vignettes. Each of them, just a moment, or a conversation, or an observation, should not be taken as more than that and certainly not as a normative barometer or proscription for women or family life in Oman.
But it is not irrelevant to think about women for several reasons. As a woman I am interested in what I call the global sisterhood – where might we connect and where might we not. Second, women’s rights, education, and health are always measured in the international evaluation of a country’s march toward modernity. Third, bragging about women in Oman is a theme in the national narrative. But perhaps most interesting to me is that women, like music, are companion targets of prohibition in many cultures of the world and particularly in the Islamicate world, and by that I mean communities that are informed by Muslim histories and practices. As I look at the ways music is being used as a marker of modernity and as a teacher and guide for the nation, I believe it is also important to keep an eye on the role and the potential in this musical, nationalizing project.
A woman working at the festival enthused that Oman has a national narrative that people “can believe in.” It is a civilized place. And as a woman “I’ve got the right to choose and to love and to say no!” It is also important to see where and when women are saying yes.
Ding dong, Avon calling.
 See the company’s website and their history of “125 years of Avon empowering women.” http://www.avoncompany.com/aboutavon/history/index.html
Check the following link to learn about the 100 countries, including Oman, where over 6 million women work with the company.
 Willy Loman is the tragic hero and traveling salesman in Arthur Miller’s celebrated play Death of a Salesman (1949).
 Ladies First: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wI9OkO-rMns
 Type Omani Women’s Association OMA into your browser for an idea of its initiatives.
 Sultan Qaboos University: http://www.squ.edu.om/