x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Young Omanis upset parents by conducting own romances

Marriage between first cousins is met with increase scorn by many youths but parents see the dissent as a sign of disrespect.

MUSCAT // A growing number of young people in Oman are choosing their future spouses after courtships, challenging deep-rooted traditions of marrying close relatives as demanded by tribal elders. Marriage between first cousins is being met with increasing scorn by many youths. But parents see the dissent as a sign of disrespect. They say courtship is a sin and a product of western influence in the country.

Courting youngsters meet at the local franchises of international coffee shops, in the food courts of shopping malls and even in car parks. The discreet find the darkness of a movie house or cruising idly in an automobile the perfect romantic rendezvous. "We blame the internet and the television serials for this disrespect," Mohammed Said al Amri, a tribal elder in Muscat, said. "These two influences are imported to this country and our youths find them irresistible and dare go against the established tradition that worked well for us for centuries."

Suleiman al Hadidi, an old fisherman living in the outskirts of Muscat, said he had spotted young and unmarried people strolling on the beach or sitting close on the sand. He called it an exhibition of defiance and said a breakdown of social values encourages youths to court. "In my day, my father would pick up his stick and thrash these kids and then find their parents to tell them about it," Mr al Hadidi said. "It is different now because you will be reported by parents of these disobedient youngsters and end up in jail".

Such popular television serials as the Arabic version of Wayabka al Hob, a Turkish soap opera, as well as US romantic movies keep many middle-class Omanis captivated. Subscriptions to broadband internet service are on the rise and many parents complain that their teenage children spend too much time chatting online. "I know my son is chatting to some of his female friends online late in the night during weekends," said Lubna Hassan, a banker and the mother of an 18-year-old college student.

"I spy on his computer by checking the web history to know about his activities, but I don't know if he really meets young girls when he goes out. I would certainly discourage it if catch him do it." Sociologists say some parents know their offspring meet secretly in the evenings with youths of the opposite sex but turn a blind eye to it. Social pressures that come with open integration of the opposite sex, especially in the bigger towns of Oman, demand such changes, they say.

"They will not admit it, but they know. Perhaps they want their children to explore before they settle down; perhaps they don't want them to marry cousins, the way they have, and end up in loveless marriages," Waleed al Siyabi, a retired sociologist with the ministry of social development, said. He said that in some instances, "parents do not have a say about it anymore. These social reforms are happening now naturally and our kids are behind them, so it is pointless resisting them."

The rise in the number of local colleges in the country in the past 10 years has encouraged campus romances among young people, academics say. "I know for a fact that more than half of our college kids date each other on campus. These institutions give them the opportunity to meet each other where relations are fostered and some of them end up in marriages. It is a natural development. It would have happened 50 years ago if we had had colleges then," Faisal al Balushi, a lecturer at a Muscat college, said.

The seafront road in one part of the capital has been unofficially named Shara al Hob (The Road of Romance) by Muscat residents because it is frequented by young people "hanging around" to meet their dates. "Marrying one of my cousins is like marrying my own sister." Rashid al Ismaily, 23, a college graduate, said. "I grew up with them and I cannot associate them beyond that. My friends share this opinion. Besides, I hear that close family marriages pass on medical problems to children."

Mr Ismaily is hoping to get married to his college sweetheart. He recently declined an offer to marry his uncle's daughter, a move that has not pleased the families. Cousin-to-cousin marriages will never be put to extinction, Mr Siyabi said, even though they are met with growing opposition from young people. "Some children of rich parents succumb to pressure with the threat of losing their inheritance or in the case of a poor cousin, marry a rich cousin out of money rather than love," Mr Siyabi said.