Town Women in Oman Unni Wikan

What is considered to be a modest face covering varies widely in the Middle East. In Sohar, Oman, women first wear the burqa facial mask when they marry (Wikan, 1982) (fieldwork during 1974 and 1976). The burqa, unlike a face veil covering the face from the eyes to below the chin, looks like a sideways H, covering only the upper lip, the center of the nose, and the lower section of the forehead including the eyebrows. A married woman must wear the burqa in any situation in which she could be seen by a marriageable man; women remove the burqa completely only before God and their husbands. As Wikan points out, a striking feature of Sohari women's wearing of the burqa is not that they wear it in situations when they must in order to appear appropriately modest (e.g., before men), but that they wear it in many instances when it is not necessary such as in all-female gatherings. Women often argue that the burqa greatly enhances their beauty—a beauty achieved through a demonstration of modesty. Modesty practices further demand the practice of sex segregation in almost all aspects of daily life; the fact of women's sexual restraint is an absolute requirement to be considered an honorable moral person. However, in cases where it is well known that a woman does not practice sexual restraint, such as a prostitute, Soharis practice tact and avoid insulting or offending her. In short, Soharis' sense of personhood is deeply entwined with their sense of beauty, diplomacy, and graciousness, and demonstrated through tact, wearing of the burqa, and other modesty practices. It is this strongly developed sense of appropriate selves which guides women's actions and practices in daily life.

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