We’ve made our way to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A bustling metropolis filled with a myriad of people, sounds, smells, and sights. It’s so crazy because the city is totally modern in some ways: with huge malls, subway systems, and amazing high rises; and in other ways, it is totally a third world country with its overflowing local buses, dirt cheap restaurants and sprawling open air markets. The most interesting thing is that the population is made up of so many different cultures and religious backgrounds. There are local Malaysians, Chinese, Indian, Arabic, Buddhist, Hindu, and a large group of western people who work here in the financial district. The largest group by far is the Muslim population, marked most obviously by the clothing that the women of this very rigid religion wear.
The general custom is that women have to cover their heads/hair with a head wrap called a Hijab. The idea is that women are not supposed to show their hair in public because it is sensual, and they have to hide this so that they will appear less beautiful or attractive to men. In it’s most mellow form, the Hijabs cover the hair but can be colorful and bejeweled and women can still rock a bit of style by mixing colors and wearing them with modern clothing, like jeans or dresses.
On the flip side, you’ll find the really devout women who are covered head to toe with what are called Burqas. They are completely geared out in veils, and full robes, usually all in black, with small slits for their eyes. Apparently underneath their burqas, they wear full nylon body stockings so that absolutely none of their skin shows to the public. And it is ridiculously hot here, so I couldn’t comprehend how they could handle the heat. Its not like their robes were a light cotton, they were heavily draped in a fucking thick black fabric. Heavy. I’ve seen this in magazines and on television, and read about why they do this, but I have never experienced being among them in real life, and I was really blown away by the reaction I had to this.
My own cultural background is Armenian, and since we are a Christian based religion, I have never had to deal with covering myself up. But my background is Middle Eastern so in a way, I’ve always felt a little connected to the culture in general. I’ve had mixed feelings about the fact that these women have to cover themselves up, but it was always a concept or an idea, as I was never caught right in the middle of it; that is until I walked the streets of KL. I want to be clear that I am not standing in judgement toward their choices, because everyone has the right to do what they want, but I will comment on my reaction to what I saw.
I saw these women walking all around me, always on the arm of their husbands and almost always walking with their heads bowed down. And I have been surprised by my very emotional reaction to their appearance and their general vibe. I found myself being sad, and angry and wanting to just walk up to them and tear their veils off. Of course, I couldn’t do this because I would literally be shot or something…but it pained me so much to see them. Literally cloaked from head to toe and clearly repressed as fuck. My husband, who was born in Syria grew up around this, so I’ve been obsessively drilling him for information. I wanted to know all of the details of this very specific and strict way of being.
As they walked passed me on the street I could not keep my eyes away, like I was trying to connect with them, to get a glimpse of what was going on inside, but not one woman would look me in the eye. If I did catch their eye, it was for a split second and then they quickly turned away. I literally found myself wanting to cry, but from a place that was completely removed from logic, a place very deep place inside, a place that I didn’t understand. It’s like I wanted to “help”, but I felt totally helpless.
The irony of course, is that you can see their eyes. Their beautiful and sad eyes, and from my perspective, the eyes were the most alluring and beautiful thing about them. Some had their eyes painted with striking makeup, while others left their eyes bare, either way they were so sexy! It’s like I was more attracted to them because of that, and I was more intrigued to know what they looked like because of their crazy eyes. (I did a little research on the Burqa, and some of them have a thin mesh layer covering the eyes as well, but I saw none of that here in Malaysia. I would say that’s a more Middle Eastern thing probably found in hard core militant country’s like Iran.)
And it was interesting, because I am darker and clearly have some Middle Eastern blood in me, and I’m walking around in my tank top, bearing my shoulders, wearing my hair freely, and man.. the looks I would get from both the men and some of the women (if they risked glancing my way.) Looking at me so disapprovingly, like I was some kind of a whore or something. Luckily, I was always walking with my husband, but damn… it was as if I was the one who was crazy to be wearing what I was.
It’s hard because they so deeply believe in their ways; was it fair for me to say that they are brainwashed? I don’t know. Why do I even care? But I found myself caring and feeling deeply disturbed. But such is life, I guess. You step out into the big wide world hoping to open your eyes a bit, but sometimes what you find is very intense, and extremely challenging. I will say that I feel grateful to have been given the opportunity in my life to make a choice. To choose how I wanted to think and what I wanted to believe and how I was going to live my life. You begin to appreciate small things like that, especially when you are in a place where the parameters of “choice” are very shallow and narrow. Having the right to choose is a precious gift, use it well.