Notes from the Southwest Corner – 010: Masirah, Oman: A Different Place

Most of this post is included in my book, Steel Decks and Glass Ceilings. i still find it amazing that women are subjected to such bizarre thinking that prevents them from making decisions for themselves.

SAN DIEGO –J.B. Leftwich’s column in The Democrat two Fridays ago provoked some memories of a land far away.

His column addressed change from his student days at Cumberland and today. He also discussed inequality towards women (more tactfully than I would) in the Muslim world and the recent news sensation of the polygamist offshoot of the Latter Day Saints.

I complimented J.B. on his column, and added I soon would tell him about women on the island of Masirah, Oman.

J.B., always with a sharp eye and ear for the news, suggested the topic was good fodder for a column. So here goes:

Masirah in 1983

Much of my last Navy deployment was spent anchored off the coast of Masirah. The USS Yosemite was sent there in 1983. What was to be a five-day repair mission for Battle Group Alpha, the USS Ranger (CV 61) and her escorts, turned into forty-five days and then another thirty days on station.

The ships moored alongside the anchored Yosemite. The repair and maintenance sessions lasted four days. Working port and starboard shifts (six hours on and six hours off), we accomplished what normally took more than two weeks.

We also played a role in the Ranger’s recovery from the fire in November. Six crewmen were killed. The carrier lost half of her power and maneuverability. Yosemite provided repair assistance and her asbestos removal team, making further repair of the damage possible.

Each Tuesday, we would halt most repair work and replenish. A C-130 would fly supplies from Diego Garcia to the former Royal Air Force base, which had evolved into an Omani base manned mostly by former RAF personnel. CH 46 helicopters from one of the battle group’s ships would ferry out the supplies. The small flight deck created for a short-lived drone helicopter program was too small for landing. Consequently, the ten- hour operation was conducted with loads being lowered to the deck by the helicopters.

I was the ship’s coordinator for the operations, which kept me from going ashore. However, several officers and senior enlisted were allowed to go ashore. The helicopters would fly them to the island after the first load and return them after the last.

A Different Place in Time

The stories brought back were astounding. The air base, located on the northern end of the island, was not too unusual except the British were very excited to have Americans visit, and their hospitality was unlimited.

The local culture, however, was a major shock to all who visited.

In 1904, the British ship, Baron Innerdale, went aground off of the Khuriya Muriya islands at the south end of Oman. The largest boat on board embarked 17 people and ended up on Masirah. The specifics are unknown, but a fight resulted in all of the boat occupants, except a boy passenger, being massacred.

Sultan Faisal of Oman learned of the incident, investigated, and executed a number of locals at the site of the massacre. Local legend says the sultan razed the village of Hilf and decreed no one on the island could have permanent housing for 100 years.

While the lack of permanent housing may be myth, it appeared to be the order of the local culture in 1983. Local village buildings were constructed of plywood sheets and cardboard. The Yosemite visitors noted it was like going back a 1000 years in time.

Most of us have seen the burqas worn by women in Afghanistan. The culture of Masirah in the early 1980’s was even more draconian concerning women. They were required to be covered, but instead of a veil, they had to wear soft leather contraptions down the middle of their faces. The idea was the leather would flop to one side or the other, allowing the woman to look at anyone only with one eye.

When women passed child-bearing age, they no longer were allowed to live inside the houses, such as they were. A husband could declare and effect a divorce by raising his hands above his head and clap while he turned around three times.

I was amazed at the juxtaposition. While the Yosemite was at the leading edge of women becoming an integral part of our military forces, we were next to a culture which had not advanced in hundreds of years.

I wondered then and I continue to wonder what those Omani men in the Masirah village thought as our young female officers in Navy uniforms mixed freely with the male officers.

3/3 027- 04/21/08

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