Thursday, July 10, 2014

That engagement ceremony I went to in Ibri, Oman

Okay, so I promised y'all I'll write about that engagement party/ceremony I attended a few weekends ago. Now here I am finally fulfilling that promise.

BUT! Honestly, there's not much to tell or show since pictures weren't allowed (only an official photographer and some close family members were allowed to take pics). I'll discus the reasons for this below.

I hope I haven't left out anything important, but I'll add it later on if I remember something essential.

Assuring her that the make-up is ok
Our host family came to our dorm to pick us up, and all us girls got prettied up and stuff for the party. We were supposed to leave around 7:30pm as we were promised, but we ended up leaving around 9 instead. I don't wear make-up (I don't believe in it for myself, though it doesn't bother me when others do it if they're  comfortable doing so), but I didn't mind trying on make-up the Omani way. Which basically means being whitened to death, sort of. I didn't look myself at ALL, and they wouldn't stop praising how beautiful I looked. *sniff* It hurted a little deep inside the heart somewhere. But Omanis think Pakistani girls are beautiful, so it wasn't that much of a big deal. Hamdallah for eyes that can recognize beauty when it's there! *heart icon*

Once all dolled up and ready to go, we came downstairs to meet our host father's elderly aunt. She seems to be in her 90s and carries a cane with her wherever she goes, which she generously uses to hit people whenever she feels like it. She can't hear well, so she yells when she's talking and others speak to her in a loud voice as well. The last time we were there, she told our host father she had something important but secret to tell him, and when he arrived home and took her to a room to talk with her, she was yelling so hard while telling him the secret. We didn't get it for the most part, but our host sisters and host mother were chuckling because they were like, "This is how she tells secrets to people." It was so adorable! Here's a photo of her yelling at one of the kids because he drives too fast - she also yelled at us all because we were wearing make up. Bless her heart!

The boys assuring her that they'll drive carefully.
 About the engagement / milkah

A little kid brought us some perfume to apply on ourselves
Generally, I'm told that love between couples before a socially recognized marriage is not common (but it does happen a lot in secret, I'm told by the younger generation - hey, we younguns have our ways, all right?!). Marriages between cousins and other close relatives are common here, so here's a typical scenario I've been given plenty of times in my quest to understand fully how marriages are conducted and how things are before and after the engagement phases.
It's not much different from the way proposals and marriages take place in South Asian cultures, although the conservative nature of each ceremony or marriage varies from family to family. This is why I'd rather avoid saying what one specific culture says or does about a certain thing. It really depends on the community, the geography, the religion, socio-economic class, and other relevant factors. Still, let me give a general example of Ibri, Oman, that many Omanis have given me so far.

Let's say that a certain family likes a certain girl (relative or not but usually, though not always, a relative) for their son or brother. They may have seen the girl at a party, at someone's house, at a school/university, at a shopping center, and so on, but they somehow came to know of her existence and liked her. If she's not a relative, the family will find out who she is and then try to meet her family. Finding out who she is isn't hard in close-knit communities where families know each other. (It's like with us in Swat, Pakistan, or I imagine any non-urban part of Pakistan. Put any two Swati strangers together in a room, and within 5 minutes, they'll figure out how they're related to each other OR how their families know each other or which families/friends their families have in common.) So the boy's family hops over to the girl's side. They take the boy with them along to the girl's house to see the girl (we do not do this in Swat. This is like so haraam for us, lolzuna). The girl's family goes, "All right, let us think about this." When the guy's family is gone, the girl's family takes care of the investigative part of the marriage process. This includes, like, basically a background check on the boy to make sure he's religiously and culturally decent (different families might have different expectations, but generally, someone who respects and follows his religion and culture like a good boy), has a good job, has a house, has a car, doesn't have any physical or mental disabilities (!!), and so on. Some people might also look at the boy's family history to check for things like divorces (is anyone in his family divorced? That can be a deal breaker for some families. It is for many families in Swat, too).

Once the girl's family approves of the boy's family and history and all, if the girl also is willing to marry the guy, the families go ahead with arranging an engagement ceremony. Note that the boy and the girl do not know each other yet. I cannot emphasize how much my teachers and speaking partners have assured me that the time between the engagement and the wedding is for the couple to get to know each other. However, the nikah (Islamic validation of the marriage) takes place during the engagement. Remember a couple of posts ago when I explained how funnily I learned or remembered that the word "nikah" for Arabs today actually means "sexual intercourse"? Yeah, this is what I was trying to understand, since I thought that the couple has a socially recognized right to see each other and touch each other (to a small extent) even though they're not Islamically recognized as a married couple or anything. But it turns out that since the nikah is done, traditional Islam wouldn't have an issue with it.

The couple takes about a month or two, sometimes more depending on their situation or the families, to get to know each other, and although Islamically, they have a right to live with each other and start a family if they'd like and all, they culturally do not have that right until after the wedding has taken place. And, yes, it is possible that they'll break the nikah (i.e., get a divorce) during the time they're taking to get to know one another. I hear divorce rates are pretty low here because 1) it's hard to get a divorce, and 2) if a girl divorces, she's close to unlikely to get remarried because few people are willing to marry a divorced woman. Our host family had a neighbor visitor recently who said she doesn't support the idea of conducting the nikah during the engagement because it makes divorce less possible and it isn't fair to the couple, and I agree with her: once the nikah is done, there's more pressure on the couple to go through with the whole thing even if they're not happy with it.

The Tent / Wedding Hall

This was after everyone had left.
Mind you, the whole party takes place in a tent. But it's the kind of tent you're probably imagining. It's a huuuuge tent, quite like a wedding hall you might have seen elsewhere, set up and decorated specifically for the party. Pictures below.

Below, I refer to the fiancee and fiance as bride and groom.


Omani society takes gender segregation seriously, so the tents are segregated by gender. This way, women are more comfortable wearing whatever they'd like since no men to gawk at them and also just because their dresses might not be socially or religious modest enough for a mixed-gender environment. Then again, the evil eye is a big deal here, so some might cover up despite wearing a stunning dress underneath their abayas just to avoid the evil eye from haters lurking around. 

Since it was only women in the tent I was in, there was a lot of belly dancing and other kinds of cool dancing at the party. Plenty of women wore party dresses, called fustaan in Arabic, some of which were tight and revealing, but that's considered religiously acceptable. It's socially acceptable only in these parties; outside of the parties, it is generally taboo for women to even show their hair in front of other women. So mothers and daughters and sisters all cover their heads inside the house, which is similar to what Pukhtuns do but different from how other Arabs understand modesty.

Where the bride and groom sit

Man, those stairs, though ...

When Men Do Enter / The Photos

We were a little late for the party, so we weren't there to receive the bride into the hall, but the bride was sitting alone on the stage for at least an hour until the groom joined her. People would go up to her to greet and congratulate her, and some would take photos of/with her if they were close family, but otherwise, she was pretty much by herself. Once the girls had enjoyed plenty of dancing and partying, someone announced that the groom was coming in. It was to let the women and girls know to cover up. They all had come in their abayas to be worn over their dresses when they're leaving their own homes and when men enter the hall (I have not seen any women in Ibri without long black abayas that reach far beyond their toes, dragging from their feet, and I worry they'll fall, which is what happens to me when I wear my long abaya--or which is why I don't wear it, actually--but I imagine it takes getting used to and stuff. You can see women in abayas in some of the pictures below). 

Once the girls are all covered back up, the groom enters. The bride doesn't cover her head or shoulders or arms or anything else. Her dress may or may not reveal any of her skin, according to her preference. In this case, her shoulders and arms were showing, as did her hair. When the groom enters, after a little while, he puts on a ring on her and she puts on a ring on him, and then he puts on a necklace set on her as well, and everyone ooos. Cute stuff.

I blurred the photo somewhat, so you can't tell what the bride looks like exactly.

People and the photographer take pictures, and then after some time, another announcement is made that the bride's dad and brothers and maybe uncles are about to come in. The groom then puts a white veil on her that looks like what you see in the above photo. (Reminds me of the KKK costume, y'know ...) This is because the woman's hair and skin are not supposed to be seen by the men who are entering, who might include non-immediate family members. Her father and brothers, of course, can see her hair, at least per traditional Islamic ruling. I think Omani rules on modesty are different, so. But, you know, it's a rather uncomfortably symbolic gesture on the groom's part to cover her up so that the men don't see her skin and hair, yes? Yes.

Lo, the men are here. I was told it's okay to take pics of the men, so. Not yet on stage.

The men shake hands and do the nose-to-nose greeting called khashm and say salaam to the bride.
The groom putting a veil on the bride. I forget what for...
WHAAAAT! I couldn't take pics of anything or anyone so this was the best I could do, mayyyynn.

Then the groom puts this black veil on her as more men enter the room (or was this when he's taking her out of the tent? Yeah, one of these).

Once everyone had gone and we were waiting for our ride.

Around 11:30 or so, by which time almost all of the guests were gone, the groom and the bride decided to leave as well.

I believe that's all.

It was a fascinating ceremony. I particularly enjoyed the moment when they were exchanging rings and when the groom was putting the necklace on her. And he kissed her forehead and nose. It was precious! May God bless them with a happy, healthy, and successful marriage, aameen.

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