German and International Research on Oman 1998

The social world of women's coffee-groups in Bahla
by Mandana E. Limbert [abstract]

This paper examines women's neighborhood coffee-groups in Bahla (Omani interior). It is based on one and a half years of fieldwork (August 1996 - December 1997) in Bahla, Sultanate of Oman, and was supported by an IIE Fulbright fellowship, a Ramsdell-Radcliffe fellowship, a Rackham dissertation fellowship and an Albert Hourani fellowship.

Almost every women in Bahla belongs to a coffee-group with her neighbors or giran. These groups, whose members include approximately 4 - 7 neighbors, form the locus of women's daily interactions. These core groups meet every morning to have coffee, sweets, fruits and dates and to talk about town, national and sometimes international news. These groups also visit other women or groups, creating complex social and economic networks. While these visits have come to represent a "traditional" cultural practice, I illustrate how they are historically contingent and intricately tied to the changing organization of daily life in Bahla.

This paper describes the recent transformations of the coffee-groups with an emphasis on their increased social and economic roles in women's lives. First, I examine the general structure of the groups and how they have changed in recent years. In particular, I focus on the transformation in work time and what repercussions this shift has had on the coffee-groups. With the shift away from agriculture, many women are finding that their daily schedules no longer require long hours in the fields leaving them with more "free time" to visit each other. This is not the case for all women, however, and there is a clear division between the "freer" women and those who can only meet when they return from working as janitors in schools, maids for other Omanis or in make-shift shops. Second, I analyze how these groups function in the social organization of the town. As the center of social life in Bahla, these groups are the main sources of town information as well as provide controlled and protected interaction with other women. Finally, I describe how these groups serve as a locus for economic activity. As most women do not go to the suq, they buy and sell among themselves, especially during birth visits, thus creating a vibrant informal economy centered around coffee-groups. Through these three steps, my goal is to bring to life what has been understood as a timeless practice. Women's coffee-groups continue to transform, and as they do, they carry with them windows onto larger social and economic shifts in Oman.

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Last updated on 18 June 1998.