Currently I am living in Makassar, Sulawesi, Indonesia, a conservation Islamic city. There are only a handful of restaurants in town that will serve you alcohol and if you want to buy beer you’ve basically got to know the right guy to ask at the right grocery store and then go into a back room watched by everyone around you.
Before here I was living in Zanzibar, Tanzania, an Islamic Island off the East coast of Africa. Again, society was shaped by the dominant culture, expecting bacon at breakfast, even at a Western inspired resort, was 100% out of the question.
Living in these places (and others previously) has completely pushed out any ideas I ever had about what to expect in an Islamic society and here are 5 of the best lessons I’ve taken from my experience.
You can’t judge a book by its cover.
I have had more moments of laughing until I cry with some of my, both female and male, Muslim friends in the past months than in the past few years in Canada. Being a visible and practicing Muslim does not always mean a person is conservative. Dirty jokes are still funny, duck face in selfies is still the thing to do, and having fun is priority over taking oneself seriously. Inherently we are all looking to have a good time.
Ramadan is for everyone.
Ramadan may be a practice of depriving oneself, but its deprivation for all the right reasons. It is a real mental and physical test with the glorious reward of being able to prioritize and evaluate ones life and practices; a time of renewal and reflection. It also allows you to slow things down and take a break from the hustle and bustle we so often lose ourselves in. It creates and strengthens bonds both with ones community and also ones family and friends. Having cities stop at dusk for large communal dinner gatherings reminds us that life is not always about getting here or there, being continually ‘on’ and available, and most definitely it does not center around business. Life is about love and togetherness; about connecting to other people, sharing things, and growing.
The hijab can be a fashion accessory to be envious of.
The hijab is often viewed as an obvious and outward symbol of the oppression of Muslim women. Its purpose however is one of modesty and is adorned by women to show devotion to the prophet and live as he professed. It originates from his guidance, for a moral life for both men and women, instructing men to interact with women behind a veil; a sign of respect in many ways to the sanctity of women. These veils don’t all have to hide women; many embrace them in wonderful ways that allow them to maintain their faith while also showing their personality. I have many a times felt underdressed by the women around me. Whether we are just hanging out on the weekend or attending a special event, the potential to turn an ordinary outfit into a knock-out can be greatly enhanced by the hijab. Coordinating colours, adding jeweled pins and accessories, or creatively wrapping a hijab can take your outfit from a 5 to a 10, easily. A classmate of mine in my post-graduate studies wears a hijab and one day she shared with us why she does. Her family didn’t force it on her and she didn’t feel pressure from her community. She chose to start wearing it as a young girl because she found it beautiful and as she grew she learnt to understand it’s meaning in a very personal and beneficial way that makes her proud today.
Chivalry is a word that is often more applicable than oppression.
Often cast in a dim light, many people from the ‘West’ assume that Islamic cultures are extremely oppressive to women. This is not the case where I have had the luxury to travel (though I do not naively say this is not the case everywhere). I have seen men give up bus seats, allow women to cut lines to avoid busy crowds and offer walks home. In some places if a Muslim woman asks a man to do something he absolutely cannot say no. If a woman asks for help the man in obligated to help. Admittedly women of course have certain limitations in Islamic societies in comparison to their Christian counterparts, however, men do as well and really no matter what belief we attach ourselves to, they all come with restrictions.
You can’t paint everyone of the same culture or religion with the same brush.
We often associate Islam with feelings of fear and misinterpretations of words like jihad. However, Muslims make up 23% of the worlds population, it is the second largest religion in the world. There are 49 Muslim-majority countries in the world and the majority of these are peaceful nations. To say that Muslims act one way, or that Islamic societies are ‘like this’ is as misguided as casting all Christians in the same light. Those more familiar with Christianity will recognize the numerous sects of Christianity and the vast differences in belief and practices associated with them. Islam is a religion of love and peace, not all who practice are extremists; painting all Muslims with the same brush overlooks the individuality that is human nature.
Stereotypes are not limited to religion, nor are they always negative. Think in general of the way you think of others. Consider what exactly makes you feel separate from ‘others.’ And then remember… everyone is an individual. There are good people and there are bad people everywhere you go. Some would even argue there are no ‘bad’ people.
Lets take a step forward together, lets look for the beauty in others and seek to learn instead of shut ourselves off in our own boxes of experience.