GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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Bu’Atsloom and Abu Suheil: Female, Femininity, Male and Masculinity in the Gibali-speaking Tribes of Southern Oman
Paper Proposal Text :
Gibali (also known as Jebbali and Sheri) is a non-written, Modern South Arabian language spoken by several groups of tribes in the Dhofar region of Southern Oman. While teaching in Salalah for more than ten years, I have been working with several Gibali men researching the culture and life-ways of one particular group of tribes, the Qara.
“Tribe” is often used as a negative term, meaning a group of people who think alike and, moving in lock-step, are united against outsiders. For Gibalis in Southern Oman, being a member of a tribe means a constant series of choices. Their prevailing attitude can be paraphrased: ‘as I wish to make my own choices, I must allow others to make their own choices.’ One repercussion of this attitude is how Gibalis define what is male and female, as well as the relationships between the genders.
Gibalis, both in interviews and from my long-term observations, see their culture as giving both men and women opportunities to craft their own lives and, specifically, to gain a positive reputation for wisdom. While female informants have mentioned that they “carry the tribe on their shoulders,” they also state that they feel they have both more freedom and more respect than other tribal, Arab, Muslim communities. For example, there is no honor killing in Gibali culture and women have the cultural right to ask for divorce. Men give evidence of the value given to Gibali women by the fact that among close friends and relatives, men are called by their mother’s name as well as their son’s name, thus a man can be both Bu’Atsloom and Abu Suheil.
My presentation will explore how the Gibali traits of moral imagination and constant self-monitoring help to maintain an atmosphere in which both men and women are seen as having equal access to positive virtues and reputations. In addition to my own research and interviews, I will use examples from the past, including traditional stories of young women who acted independently, for example giving sanctuary to a man being hunted in revenge, choosing a marriage partner, asking for divorce, and taking a long journey alone.
I will also use examples from the first set of written texts in the Gibali language. In the 1970s Dr. Tom Johnstone began the first systematic documentation of the Gibali and Mehri languages. During his research in southern Oman, he tape-recorded speech samples including many spoken by Ali Musallam Al-Mahri. In 2014, Dr. Aaron Rubin published a book on Gibali grammar based on his own research, data from Gibali speakers living in America, and Johnstone’s notes/ recordings. Rubin’s book includes 70 texts (taped speech transliterated into a written form of Gibali with an accompanying English translation) which cover a variety of genres including fairy tales, autobiography, grammar exercises, and folk tales. The texts are included in the book as sample language texts; they are not presented in any specific order or with commentary.
In all, 39 of the texts make explicit reference to a woman. There are 10 stories in which a woman’s good behavior is the focus of the text; all of these 10 texts are realistic folk tales which take place in Southern Arabia, if not specifically Dhofar.
In four other stories women are acting in a way which might be coded as negative, but they are doing so with a reason. For example, in text 47, a woman argues with her husband, trying to convince him not to ride an untamed camel. He refutes her advice, gets thrown, curses her but then they reconcile.
Thus the general Gibali understanding of seeing women as independent agents is clear from the texts collected in the 1970s, in stark contrast to, for example, the Ba Newas texts included in Rubin’s collection. In one text, Ba Newas uses the body of a dead woman as a prop in one of his tricks (text 18); in another, he causes the death of an older woman (text AM1). The texts which are clearly not Dhofari-based have harmful women who act in selfish and greedy ways while the women in folk tales which have Dhofari/ South Arabian physical and/ or cultural markers have positive behavior, acting in the best interest of their children and husbands, or in an independent manner which does not go against tribal or religious norms.
These older stories will be compared and contrasted to female/ male interactions and representations that I have witnessed and been told about over the last ten years to demonstrate how men and women’s choices and lives have and have not changed over the past 40 years. As I have several Gibali female friends and the people in my research group are Gibali men, I am able to discuss these issues from the perspectives of how Gibali men and women see themselves and how they see the other gender.