I have always been fascinated by the Sultanate of Oman, which is situated on the Arab peninsula and borders on Yemen, Saudi-Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Four years ago I visited this magical country for the first time, and many impressions from this country still linger on inside my mind. Therefore I decided to return to Oman in February, just in time for the International Folklore Festival which is being held every year in the capital of Muscat. While I wandered around as one of the few tourists at the festival, it struck me that the local inhabitants of Oman highly value their traditions. They still appreciate old crafts, traditional dances and the typical Omani cuisine. Daily street life expresses this authentic atmosphere as well. A remarkable example can be seen in the clothing worn by local people.
Men often wear a dishdasha, a long garment made of cotton in different colours, together with a colourful turban or a traditional headpiece called a kumma. The Omani women also distinguish themselves from their Arab neighbours through their colourful embellished clothes. But the most eye-catching feature is without a doubt the traditional Omani burqa: a special mask which covers the face of Bedouin girls.
Whenever we hear the word burqa, we immediately think of a scarf worn by women to hide their hair and face. However, the Bedouin families in Oman tell us a different story. From puberty onwards, girls cover their hair with a scarf while their faces are being hidden behind a mask, the Omani burqa. Desert inhabitants initially used these masks as protection against hot sand and dust being carried along by the wind. To this day, Bedouin women wear their mask with great pride. It is not considered as a symbol of oppression, on the contrary: it shows that a girl is coming to maturity. Thus, Bedouin girls are eagerly looking forward to the moment when they will receive their own mask.
Omani women sew their own masks by using a leather-type of paper. The face masks appear in different shapes, but are always based on the same basic form. Traditionally, a part of the forehead is covered and a thin line of fabric runs down the nose. The lower part of the face, from the mouth to the chin, is partly or completely covered by the mask.
Bedouin women are free to design their own mask within the customs of their tribe. They can chose to cover the entire face with the exception of the eyes, for example. The mask is then carved out in such a way that it exactly follows the shape of the eyes. Other girls like to emphasize their jawline or cheekbones. Their masks consist of large incisions which frame the outlines of their faces. Hence the face masks are sometimes also being used in a seductive way.
The style and colour of the Omani burqa depend on the region. In the northern regions of Oman, such as Al Buraymi and Musandam, Bedouin women wear thin, gold coloured face masks. The same colour is to be found in the Ash Sharqiya region and the Wahiba Sands desert, but there the masks are made of thicker material. Also, the burqa is not flat like the northern style, but forms a kind of beak in the middle.
In the southern region of Al Wusta, one encounters black face masks made of thick fabric. In these areas, a girl mostly receives her own mask only after she got married. In this case, wearing the Omani burqa points out the status of a married woman. These masks cover the face almost completely.
Nowadays, the Omani burqa is not only meant just for Bedouin girls but are also worn in the cities on the occasion of an engagement or a wedding. It has also developed into a true fashion-item. The face masks are incorporated into the clothing collections of modern Omani and western designers and regularly appear in fashion shows. The colours and shapes of the masks may differ from the traditional designs, and are often decorated with shimmering crystals or diamonds.
Photos: © Charlotte Coene
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