Many accounts of travels in “the East” were written by Europeans throughout the nineteenth century. Created both to educate and to entertain, these accounts were criticised, by contemporaries and subsequently, for spreading false generalisations about the local peoples. A number of such accounts are available on the QDL, but alongside them are also records that counter these generalisations.
The European gaze
Emilie Ruete (née Salmah bint Sa‘īd Āl Bū Sa‘īd) was the daughter of Sayyid Sa‘īd bin Sultān, Sultan of Muscat and Zanzibar. After living in Germany for many years, she published her memoirs in 1888. In them, she criticises the European perspective of the East as a ‘land of fairy-tales’, and the presentation of information to European audiences only via stories told by transitory visitors (Ruete, p. 146). Of all the ‘ridiculous falsehoods’, Ruete in particular bemoans the ‘fabrications about the inferiority of Eastern women’ (Ruete, p. 159). These conceptions about the positions of Arab women in their respective societies have persisted for over a hundred years.
Counterpoints from the archive
Challenges to such enduring assumptions can be found within the IOR/F/4 Series of the India Office The department of the British Government to which the Government of India reported between 1858 and 1947. The successor to the Court of Directors. Records, which contains several references to women in Oman taking on interim leadership roles and acting as military commanders when required. These include both Muzah bint Ahmad Al Bu Sa‘id, and her unnamed relative, the mother of Muhammad bin Salim Al Bu Sa‘id. In contrast to stories told by travellers, these IOR accounts were provided by East India Company agents, who were based in Muscat and drew upon a network of local informants to provide them with detailed information.
In the same vein, Samuel Hennell, Assistant Resident in the Persian Gulf The historical term used to describe the body of water between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. , wrote a report in 1829, highlighting the case of Hilal bin Muhammad Al Bu Sa‘id, Shaikh of As Suwayq. The Shaikh was invited to Muscat by the Imam, who promptly imprisoned him before sailing to East Africa. According to Hennell, Shaikh Hilal’s sister immediately gathered local leaders loyal to her brother, and secured their support in a campaign to liberate him. Taking control of the fort at As Suwayq, she ‘began to foray and harass the Imam’s territories’ (IOR/F/4/1399/55442, f. 151v). This action inspired other disgruntled relatives to begin their own power grabs and within a month, ‘nearly the whole of the productive and populous coast of Batinah was lost to the Imam.’ Shaikh Hilal was eventually freed and returned to As Suwayq.
Beyond the elites
The women mentioned above were all members of the ruling family in Oman, and therefore enjoyed the associated privileges. This clearly influenced Ruete’s perspective, as she excludes the treatment of enslaved women from her arguments on the position of ‘women in the East’ (Ruete, pp. 148-149). Yet, preliminary research undertaken by Olga Andriyanova in 2011 into biographical dictionaries, chronicles by Omani historians, and legal documents from private collections, suggests that the general involvement of Omani women in the political and economic lives of their communities has been broadly underestimated.
This point is corroborated by an account from James Raymond Wellsted. Contrary to the image of a typical European traveller as depicted by Ruete, Wellsted spent several months touring Oman in 1835-36. He was hosted and assisted by the Imam of Muscat and had access to first-hand accounts from local inhabitants. Without distinguishing between different social strata, Wellsted comments that ‘during civil commotions, [Omani women] often take part in public affairs [and] have displayed the utmost heroism’ (Wellsted, p. 354).
Oman underwent enormous transformations during the long reign of Sultan Qaboos (r. 1970-2020), with some improvements made in gender equality. However, scholars including Andriyanova, Zeinab Hussein, and Leon Goldsmith still describe academic research into the position of women in Oman, today and historically, as underdeveloped. Linda Pappas Funsch further argues that the ‘fictional’ portrayal of women in the Middle East remains largely unchallenged.
There is a range of sources on the QDL relevant to researchers interested in this topic. As well as narratives by European travellers, researchers can consult nineteenth-century Omani sources such as Ibn Ruzayq and Sirhan bin Saʿid bin Sirhan, in addition to the above-mentioned reports obtained by British officials from informants based in Muscat.
None of these accounts was written by the women themselves. Their voices, and often their names, are missing from their own stories. But at least their deeds have been preserved to some extent; waiting to be found, and ready to offer evidence of women’s social and political activities in nineteenth-century Oman.
Note by the author:
The author is a non-Arabic-speaking British woman. Translation colleagues have kindly conducted basic research to confirm that little has been written in Arabic about the women mentioned in the above IOR/F/4 records. However, it remains that this article’s scope has been limited by the author’s inability to consult literature in Arabic on historical gender studies in Oman. Scholars interested in this subject are encouraged to contact the author.