Monday, August 23, 2010

Yankee Girl in Muslim SE Asia

On Friday, I crossed the Malay-Thai border overland, ending two months of travel in predominantly Muslim Southeast Asia (Indonesia and Malaysia).

While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grind on, America is having a crisis of conscience and Constitution over the proposed mosque at Ground Zero. Muslim culture couldn't be more alien, frightening, or distasteful to a large percentage of Americans.

I said I would consider writing again if I had something interesting or meaningful to say. In this rather lengthy post, I'd like to share some of my thoughts and experiences as a Westerner in a Muslim culture. There is no substitute for getting on an airplane to live it yourself, but if you can't, the next best thing is hearing about it from someone who did.

From Ramadan McDonald's to my first copy of the Quran, this is a Yankee girl's experience of Islam in Southeast Asian.

Islam Everywhere, Everyday Islam

From the moment I disembarked the airplane in Jakarta into a crowd of veiled women, I was always conscious that I was in a Muslim country.

Christianity pervades much of American culture, and we barely notice it (unless you're a religious minority). When we see a cross hanging from a rear-view mirror or a the church in every community, it doesn't seem strange to us.

Islam pervades Indonesia and Malaysia in the same way, perhaps to a greater degree. I heard the azan (call to prayer) five times a day, saw plenty of men and women in traditional, modest Islamic dress, and ate no pork (yeah, I'm vegetarian, but even if I wanted to eat it, it is never offered in restaurants). My couchsurfing host stopped whatever he was doing to perform wudu (ritual cleaning) and to pray; that was a given, unremarkable and unnotable for him, just like I brush my teeth twice a day.

In Kuala Lumpur, one of the train lines dedicates a car on every train for women who wish to avoid contact with unrelated men. No one looks twice; it's just part of everyday life. And you know those crosses hanging from rear-view mirrors? I saw a tag with the Arabic word for Allah or Muhammed (I still can't tell them apart) hanging from the rear view mirror of a rather pimped-out sports car.

And after two months, being surrounded by a religious culture that was previously unknown doesn't feel like a big deal to me anymore.

That Touchy Issue: Islam, Women, & What to Wear

Before landing in Jakarta, I was a little nervous about the appropriate dress for a Western woman. In terms of dress, I found Jakarta to be the most conservative of the places I visited. I'd say that 90% of women covered their head and stayed covered to their wrists and ankles. Furthermore, Muslim men tend to dress more conservatively than their Western counterparts, which Westerners don't usually realize because the contrast between Muslim man (trousers, shirt) and Western man (jeans, tee-shirt) is less than the contrast between Muslim woman (covered head, long sleeves, long skirt) and Western woman (uncovered head, tank top, short-shorts).

On Java, I wore pants or a long skirt, to cover my legs to my feet, and a tee-shirt that covered my shoulders and my chest completely. That is where I felt comfortable personally, and I think I was treated fairly and didn't attract any special attention (except for the color of my skin, but that's another story). I saw other Western women walking around in shorts and camisoles; I can't speak to their experiences, but I will say that my Western eyes automatically found them in a crowd.

The dress in peninsular Malaysia seemed even more conservative than in Jakarta for Muslim women; many women wear long, loose tunics over long, loose skirts to conceal completely the curves of their bodies. Unexpectedly, I felt comfortable wearing a knee-length skirt some days because of the significant presence of Chinese and Indian women in Malaysia, many (most?) of whom have adopted Western dress.

Just because Muslim clothing is conservative doesn't mean that Muslim women can't be fashionable. I saw tons of teenage girls, patterned scarves covering their hair, wearing really cute tops and jeans with funky shoes while yakking away on their rhinestone-studded "handphones" (sheesh, teenagers really are the same everywhere). They wouldn't look out of place in a mall in New Jersey. There were many times on the street that I'd pass a woman, totally coordinated from her headscarf to her shoes, maybe just a hint of makeup around her eyes, very tasteful yet clearly fashionable, and I'd wish that I had her fashion sense!

I won't go too deeply into the subject of women and Islam—there is already plenty of scholarly and less-than-scholarly writing on that subject. In brief, the Muslim point-of-view as explained to me is that Islam instructs society how to value and respect women. At a time when Christianity allowed women fewer rights than cattle, women's rights in Islam include the right to initiate divorce, turn down a marriage proposal, own a business, have an inheritance, retain exclusive posession of her assets, and to have her sexual needs met by her husband (!). Having said that, I think the question of whether Islam has kept pace with the advancement of women's rights since 1500 A.D. is valid. I did see plenty of evidence that patriarchy is alive and well in Indonesia and Malaysia. Interestingly, 100% of the random strangers who initiated conversations with us were men.

Holy Hospitality!

In nearly two months, never once did I feel threatened or unsafe as a woman or as a human being, not even in major cities, not even in poor neighborhoods or on "the wrong side of the tracks." Yes, there are pickpockets, and yes, I could find myself in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I got the feeling that the type of petty thuggery that is so common in the United States simply isn't tolerated. As we were reminded upon entering both countries, the penalty for drug trafficking is death.

I was happily surprised by the culture of hospitality, kindness, and approachability I found in Indonesia and Malaysia. As someone told us, "We like travelers; Mohammed (pbuh)* himself was a traveler." There was my amazing cross-cultural experience couchsurfing with a devout Muslim family in Jakarta... the time that a veiled woman interrupted Dave's conversation on the bus to encourage him to hide his exposed camera deeper in his bag... the night the guys working at our guesthouse invited us to eat from their bag of tropical fruit and chat about food, politics, and religion... and the dozens of times restaurant workers served me with a smile, even though they hadn't eaten in 12 hours.

Traveling During Ramadan

No eating? I was in Malaysia for the first 10 days of Ramadan. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset in order to keep a constant awareness on the need to avoid sinful behavior, to increase their good deeds, and to strengthen their bond to Allah.

Our travel plans weren't affected by Ramadan, as far as I know. I always felt a little weird eating in public, knowing that others were going hungry. Every time I expressed this to a fasting Malaysian, they emphatically said that fasting was their choice, one they were happy to make, and they were not bothered by non-Muslims eating during the day. I don't know how much of a choice it is, though; restaurants will not serve Muslims during Ramadan, so there must be quite a bit of pressure to participate.

Every night (depending on where we were), stalls would pop up in the street starting around 5:00 p.m. selling iftar, or snacks to break the fast, things like dates, sweet rice balls, and tiny grilled fish. After breaking the fast and the fourth prayer of the day, Muslim families have their main meal of the day together (buka puasa), and the street would be quieter. Sometimes, restaurants would be closed from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. for the family owning/ operating the restaurant to break the fast together. In the evening, street life picked up again. It was a nice rhythm to observe.

The Mosque

There is a mosque, at least one, in every community, and everyone goes to pray on Friday afternoon. Dave and I spent time at two: the Istiqlal Mosque and the Negara Mosque, the national mosques of Indonesia and Malaysia, respectively. I'd never visited a mosque before, and I didn't know what to expect, so I was a little nervous I would inadvertently say or do the wrong thing, or I wouldn't be welcome, or I'd offend with my uncovered head and arms. In both situations, I was provided a robe that would cover me to my wrists and my feet (only at the Malaysian mosque was I asked to cover my head with the hood of my robe).

At the Istiqlal Mosque, a tour guide accompanied us to explain the functions and symbolism of various parts of the building. At the Negara Mosque, we were allowed to roam unaccompanied, but we ended up talking with two "outreach volunteers" for quite some time. In both cases, the mosque representatives were friendly, knowledgeable, quite proud of their religion and their mosque, and very willing to engage our questions. In fact, at the Negara Mosque, we talked to the volunteer for so long that he invited us to break his daily Ramadan fast with him (iftar)! He put his name and email address on the title page of his English-language translation of the Quran and made us take it. I felt very welcomed, and I would feel quite comfortable visiting a mosque or Muslim community in the future.

Being American

Finally, there is the issue of relations between the Muslim world and America. In general, being American in Indonesia or Malaysia is no big deal. On telling someone my nationality, I have gotten the following reactions:

"Obama!!!" accompanied by a "thumbs up" sign. This was especially common in Jakarta, as Obama spent part of his childhood in the city. Republicans, say what you will about Obama, but I can assure you that people in this part of the world hate our government less now that he, and not Dubya, is POTUS.

"Oh, yes, New York City!" accompanied by a self-satisfied smile of understanding on the thought of being familiar with a foreign place. Of course, everyone knows New York City; no one knows New York State.

"Huh!" accompanied by a slight startled or surprised expression. This seemed to happen when someone was startled to learn that the extroverted, trim couple they had pegged as Europeans were Americans. Once, someone (I forget who) actually said, "But you're not fat." Without hearing us speak, most misjudge us as Italians or Spaniards (and once as Chilean).

"Mmm" accompanied by a tight-lipped smile and a change of subject. I've asked a few people about their feelings about America. Everyone I've asked has said that they like the American people, or at least have no hard feelings toward us; a few honest souls have gone on to say that they dislike the American government. More than once, I heard that the American government wants to control the oil in Arab countries, that the American government does not like Muslims because Muslims control the oil in the world, and that the American government condones dislike and distrust of Islam in American society.

"And what about the Cordoba House at Ground Zero?!" accompanied by a questioning or frustrated expression. Especially during my last week or two in Malaysia, this current event became a common topic of conversation. The general public opinion here on the 9/11 terror attacks seems to be that a few people who happened to be Muslim commited an act of terrorism for political and economic, not religious, purposes. The Cordoba House would be a symbol of American religious tolerance. Instead, the American government and the American people have been and are now punishing all Muslims for the sins of a very few who happened to be Muslim (one person did note that he liked that Obama supported the mosque). The word "hypocritical" was brought up once or twice. My interpretive analogy: Timothy McVeigh of the Oklahoma City bombings was Christian, but the American people certainly haven't had a problem building more churches in Oklahoma City.

Concluding Thoughts

Before visiting Indonesia and Malaysia, I think I tried to be open minded, non-judgemental, and informed about Islam. Still, I've never had a Muslim friend, never visited a Mosque or heard Arabic spoken out loud. I would make a point not to stare if I was in the vicinity of a woman wearing a head covering, but I'd have to avoid it intentionally: it was still foreign and alien to me.

After visiting Indonesia and Malaysia, I actually no longer notice head coverings or the moon and star symbol, no more than I notice baseball caps or crosses. Exposure leads to familiarity, that's for sure.

Unfortunately, those who are the most extreme in their prejudices against Muslims would benefit most from actual exposure to Islamic culture, yet I think they are least likely to seek it out. But if you've read this far, let me assure you again: Muslims aren't terrorists. Really. I promise.

Random Notes

*(pbuh) is a catchy abbreviation for "Peace be upon him," and is used for all prophets, including Jesus.

The phrase, "Islamic culture," is a really broad phrase. Muslims in Somalia (Africa), France (Europe), Saudi Arabia (Middle East), and Malaysia (Southeast Asia) technically all contribute to "Islamic culture." I've only experienced Islam in Southeast Asia, so that's what I'm writing about. I'm quite certain that my experiences with Asians would be different from experiences with Arabs, and I don't mean to imply universality or uniformity between cultures.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Nicole. Nice to read your words again. When can we skype? Love you