Tag Archives: Islam

Munnar

One of the most beautiful and relaxing parts of our time in Kerala was heading up the mountains to the tea plantations and spending a night in the hill station of Munnar.  The cool mountain air was a lovely relief after so many sticky days.  We were pleasantly surprised that the state-run hotel was quite nice, and a few of us got to eat french fries!  Most importantly, since we arrived before sunset, everyone had some free time to themselves.  This all came at the point in the trip where people usually need a break–from the hectic pace of travel, from the parade of foreign buffets, from the formula of a group trip, and from the inside of our (admittedly swag) bus.

I went for a walk with Gaia and Meruschka, eventually coming across about half of our group at one time or another.  I enjoyed moving at our own speed and in such small numbers.  It always relaxes me to be able to shoot without a group either waiting for me or constantly suspicious that I could possibly find a shot they didn’t.  The results aren’t exactly stellar, but shooting always helps to clear out the cobwebs, which is exactly what I needed after a long day on the bus.

Like everywhere else in Kerala, multiple major religions were present at every turn.  As we moved farther north, the increasing influence of Arabs and Islam was comforting.  I love hearing the call to prayer, especially at sunset, and I found the influenced version of Kerala food to be fantastic.  I think we all found ourselves wishing we could stay in Munnar longer, but perhaps the reality is that we were just starved for some sunshine and free time off the bus.

Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post.  I am in Kerala, India on a trip sponsored by Kerala Tourism.  The views contained are completely my own.  I accept advertisers as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For advertising inquiries, please e-mail harrington.delia@gmail.com

Veil Vocabulary

I know it can be overwhelming as an outsider to understand all that is going on with Muslim women’s clothing, so here’s a little glossary to get you started.  If anybody has additional terms or corrections, let me know!

Hijab:

(1)this is the most basic piece, and is a scarf worn around the head.  Accompanying this can be skull caps, pre-style pieces etc., sometimes in ornate styles or coordinatng colors.  The face is fully visible, but the hair and neck are not (if it’s styled correctly).

(2) Hijab is also the concept of overall modesty.  Often you will heasr women refer to their overall modest mode of vestments as “my hijab.”  For men, hijab is the belly button to the knee.  For women, it’s open for debate but is generally considered to the ankles and wrists, with covered hair.

Niqab:

This is the “hood” that covers the whole face and leaves eye-slits.  It often comes down to the middle of the upper arm, and is worn with an abaya.  Another version just covers the front of the face, and can be tied on before a hijab

Chador (sometimes called chador namaz):

This is a one-piece that covers the hair down to the ankles, but leaves the face exposed.

Mantau chalvar:

With mantau coming from the French manteau, this is basically a knee-length coat worn over loose pants and accompanied by a hijab

Abaya:

This is the basic dress-like garment that is warn over clothing.  Depending on the crowd you’re with, many women will take off their various outer garments when alone with each other.

Burqa:

The oft-discussed garment is a head-to-toe covering, often accompanied by elbow-length gloves.  It has a full-face veil built in, often with mesh over the eyes for viewing/protecting purposes.

Accessories:

Many women, regardless of whcih level of modesty and ornamentation they prefer, add other bits as well.  These can include gloves, additional neck/collar bone covering, the skull cap to insure that if a hijab comes loose nothing will show, and little coverings (perhaps tights?) for feet, so that ballet flats may be worn without exposing skin.

In Egypt, I saw many garments that combined a few of these together.  There are also great variations–in some countries or neighborhoods (the Gulf, anywhere that tends to be more conservative and more poor) will feature more covering, and darker garments with little to know ornamentation.  In Egypt on the other hand, there were hijab-friendly bathing suits, sparkles on everything, and skin-tight long-sleeved shirts with revealing shirts over them.  There are also numerous fashion lines and shows for hijab-friendly customers.

Why do They Hate Us?

On long days when the state of the world seems dismal, and my ability to help it negligible, I find my self turning to the West Wing.  One of the most brilliant episodes is entitled Isaac and Ishmael, and is the September 11th episode.  It has no impact on the rest of the timeline, but is something Aaron Sorkin, one of my favorite writers of stage and screen, felt compelled to create. 

In the episode, one of the main questions  a young tour group poses to the staff is “Why do they hate us?”  I was reading an article that brought up a similar theme, and as someone who studies the Middle East I am often confronted with both thoughtful and hurtful responses to this question. 

So here’s mine:

Who is they?

Leif has been linking often to Jeff Jarvis, who suggests that every criticism should be seen as a reflection of the person giving the critique.  This is reinforced constantly by Miss Conduct, who advises readers to tread lightly, as often seemingly random criticisms stem from the speaker’s own insecurities or personal life situations.  But for us, in an America that has almost forgotten while simulataneously can never forget September 11, 2001, sometimes we need to turn a light on ourselves. 

I know everyone grows weary of the “just blame America” Camp, which I think is only so strong because of the equally tiring “Amurica is perfect” camp, but this isn’t about that.  This is about who we think our enemies are, and who they very much are not

We need a greater understanding of basic definitions, like Muslim and the Muslim world, Arab, the ever-tossed-around “Islamic”, Persian, the Middle East and even the infamous terrorist.  We also need to understand that sometimes, the “they” who hate us are homegrown.  Sometimes they’re white or educated or wealthy.  Sometimes the patriots who stop them are immigrants who barely speak English, but are compassionate people who care about America. 

This, to me, is one of my biggest personal causes:

finding They, understanding Them and showing everyone who They are NOT.

The Infamous Minaret Ban Campaign

The psuedo-feminist slant on the Swiss campaign to ban the contruction of minarets represents the worst of so many things, including western portrayal of hijab. 

The commonly-used campaign art shows a truly frightening woman cloaked in harsh black.  She is wearing the naquib, meaning that with the exception of her eyes,  her entire face is covered. 

This is exactly the sort of propaganda that makes western people afraid of and fascinated by the hijab.  So many Muslim women observe hijab without looking dark and scary.  There are also those who are Muslim without observing hijab, or at least not observing it in such a way that we would recognize.  

The poster is misleading in so many ways.  What, precisely, does a woman in hijab have to do with the construction of minarets?  And really, Switzerland, the 5% of your population that is Muslim is really going to inundate your country with minarets?  That’s impresive since last time I checked there were only four minarets in the entire country. 

I am disgusted that feminist ideals were co-opted in order to frighten women into thinking that minarets are giant phallic symbols of Muslim men’s power over (currently) Muslim and (coming soon!) Christian women.  I am also disgusted that people fell for it, and in droves.  There is no logical reason to have a woman in a rather offensive portrayal of hijab on this poster other than to frighten non-Muslims. 

Many articles reacting to the vote have taken an apologetic tone, noting that it’s simply unfortunate that Muslims claim the role of “unknown” for the Swiss to fear.  Switzerland’s voting population is extraordinarily well educated, and I find it disingenuous to excuse their behavior out of ignorance.  Let’s cut the crap, western media.  Europe has shown that it still has a racist side, and that side has a penchant for hating on Arabs and Muslims.  This wasn’t a silly little mistake whereby the Swiss population was confused by glossy photos, this is a demonstration of just how very peachy the Swiss find discrimination. 

Another disturbing aspect of the discourse on the referendum is this idea that minarets will somehow change Switzerland.  This is, at its core, another attempt to frame Muslims as other, regardless of their citizenship.  As one woman is quoted as saying in the Times,

Before you know it, we’ll have sharia law and women being stoned to death in our streets. We won’t be Swiss any more.”

This of course strongly implies that being Swiss and being Muslim are mutually exclusive, and that being a practicing Muslim necessarily includes sharia law and stoning women.  The attempts to tie the religion to an unknown (but thoroughly frightening) political agenda (which allegedly Jews and Christians don’t have?  Since when?) are tenuous at best, and yet still wildly successful at their worst. 

The UNA’s simulation this past weekend of the Council of the EU (which discussed the ascension of Turkey) witnessed similarly disgusting  ideas, with many delegates citing the “cultural” differences between Europe and Turkey as reason alone to slam the door.  Apparently, they forgot the segments of their own population who have genes from outside of Europe, or that the Ottoman Empire was considered a major European player.  While the delegates were all (sadly) rather on-policy, I’m not at all convinced it was because they did their research. 

Rather, I think many of those students, like many Americans, like to think that Italians are Italian, and that there are no black or Asian people in Britain.  It never ceases to amaze me how very many Americans will remark with surprise when they meet a black Brit.  We do not have the market cornered on diversity, and we certainly don’t have it cornered on making the diverse among us feel marginalized, either. 

Thanks for reminding us, Switzerland. 

For a more all-encompassing, scholarly/political take on the Swiss ban, I direct you, of course, to Khalid, the eponymous Moor Next Door.

Iskandria

I am writing this from the beach on the Med Sea, a few feet from my hotel room in what used to be a palace.  Yeah.  It’s amazing, and I could also not possibly get more out of touch with real Egyptian society.  The Arab Women’s Organization (AWO) is paying for it, which means the first ladies of the Arab League are paying for it.  All expenses are paid, although the food is not always great.  Tonight an entire fish watched me as I tried to eat it.  I should’ve told them I’m vegetarian.

We’re here to dialogue with students from around the Arab world about women’s issues.  We are in groups based on topic, mine being Social issues, and within that we break the topic down even more, working with Arab counterparts as well as our entire group on the topic of Social as a whole.

There is definietly an interesting exchage of ideas.  I had to bite my tongue while it was explained to me that “according to science,” a woman has enough hormones in one strand of hair to attract a man (it’s beyond his control).  Therefore, to go with hair uncovered would be immodest and an invitation for sexual attention.  Any woman who got any of that attention would deserve whatever she got.  Yeah.

Dating was another interesting topic.  Apparently, women shouldn’t be with more than one man because if their husband doesn’t measure up, they will actually want to be satisfied and might cheat or divorce him.  We then discussed this great plague of the United States: single mothers.  The Arab youth at this conference were foaming at the mouth to talk about it, so I can only assume they recieved some sort of lecture or all read the same article.  They were baffled and saddened by this horror, and couldnt not comprehend what a woman in the US with a child (but no husband) does.  In their culture, if your husband dies or there’s a divorce, there’s a clear chain of command for guardianship, with the male guardian dealing with the woman’s fiscal responsibilities.  The idea that the woman simply works, raises her child and relies on friends and family to help when they can (they referred to this as charity) was thoroughly foreign.

At this point in my annoyed rant, I must explain something.  These people were not chosen by accident.  By and large, they are all very wealthy and have a personal connection to the government that sent them here.  Googling their last names is outrageous.  The level of honesty is not great, but they also live different lives than many of their countrymen.  That being said, we were able to have interesting discussion on many controversial issues.  This was simply my first real encounter with people who so thoroughly disagree with things that I consider a given.

Tomorrow we continue the conference with the stating of opinions and what we’ve learned, followed by q&a.  That means we will either moderate ourselves or face the firing squad, which is why I’m procrastinating about my paper right now.

Our hotel is essentially a compound.  There is an on-site mosque, a giant beach, a pier or two, a swimming pool, several discotheques, a restaurant or two, a bank, a barbershop, a jewelry store and enough room for a wedding.  We take the bus everywhere, even if it’s only a few km away.  We are scheduled every day from 9am to 10pm, with dialogues, tours and food food food!  It’s delicious, and we’re all gaining back the weight we lost in Cairo.  Unfortunately, though, I don’t feel that I’m getting to know Alex.  Sadly, most of our group has fallen in love with the place, the least Egyptian (and most European) city we’ve visited thus far.  Alexander the great (hence the name) made it into a Greek heliopolis, and in the early- to mid-1900s a mass of ex-pats ensured that the architecture, art and culture of the city was thoroughly European.  While the regume change may have caused a mass exodus, the influence remains (as far as I can see.)  I hope to get out and explore the place a bit, especially since we keep driving past amazing murals, sculptures and installation art.

I don’t understand the purpose of bringing us to this city and this hotel if we can’t fully experience either.  Even within the conference, the aims of the AWO seem scattered.  The AWO seeks to…further women?  without obligation, of course, as it is a subsidiary of the Arab League.  It’s too bad the dialogue isn’t honest and personal relationships aren’t encouraged, or else some real cultural exchange might take place.

Reverse Discrimination

An Egyptian friend of ours, Moustafa, was hanging out wiht us as he often does.  We all decided to go back to our hotel to relax before bed.  Unfortunately, not all of us made it.  It is illegal for an Egyptian to be in a hotel where he is not staying.  This was shocking because he had been allowed in before, during the day.  We were told that under no circumstances could he come in with us at night, the expectation being that he was there to harm us, in one way or another, and that would be bad for business. 

We’ve been warned that in a dicey situation, our American passports will save us, but not our friends.  We can speak and dress freely, because we are seen as silly Americans who don’t know any better, but are a cash cow.  This means that at western-style clubs our EGyptian friends are turned away, and at the Arab Women’s Organization conference our Arab friends have a whole separate set of rules.  They cannot swim if we swim, they have a curfew of 12:30, they may not drink and they may not be affectionate with us in any way.  Some of these rules seem silly or arbitrary, but they do bother us.  They may not hang out with us because we spend our time in our hotel rooms, and they may not go into the room of the opposite gender, especially an American. 

We have no such rules. 

I asked, indignant, why no one told us about the rules. 

“You are Americans,” he said.  “There are things in your culture that we cannot do.  Just be yourselves, and we will be responsible to step away”

Things that are Strange Because They’re not

Here’s a list of things that are so normal here I’ve already forgotten that they’re noteworthy.  It’s funny that sometimes the biggest differences fade away because no one else sees them as remarkable, which is perhaps why almost no one mentioned any of this to me before I came.

  • Cats are everywhere.  Consequently, there are no mice or rats
  • Men link arms or hold hands.  this is normal behaviour for straight guys who are friends
  • You can almost always see at least one minaret
  • Everyone rounds when dealing with money
  • There are bidets in every bathroom, even if it’s just a little tube inside the regular toilet that inaccurately shoots water
  • Men with guns are everywhere.  Egypt is I think the most chillax police state in existence.  Mostly, they just want to employ more people so there are soldiers and antiquities/tourism police everywhere
  • People just chilling on the street.  Everybody stands and chats in the street, people sleep on the sidewalks or sit on them for some tea
  • Cars here are nuts.  Triple parking is common, and everything is always bumper to bumper.  Not like our exagerated expression, but legitimately jammed up against each other
  • The smell.  Food is made of different stuff here, so the trash smells different.  Also, their sanitation system is quite different from ours.  The first day or two my nose was in pain from the smell.  I realized the other day that I don’t smell anything.  I don’t Cairo got cleaner.  Also, I bet New York or Boston smells would assail the nose of any Cairene
  • Women are dressed in various interpretations of the hijab.  The range goes from tight, revealing clothing to naquib (face covering), head scarf and long, black, loose-fitting robe.

Basically, things are as different from home as they possibly could be, while still maintaining enough similarities to make my head spin.