Monday, March 9, 2009

Conservative Islam in the region

I'm sorry it's been so long since my last post. Life has settled into a routine and sometimes it seems like anything I write would end up being mundane and boring; however, I often forget how completely non-normal life here really is. After ten weeks(!!) in Kuwait, most things feel routine. I've learned how to grocery shop (although I have settled into a terrible habit of only getting food's actually cheaper than cooking my own food!). I am fairly adept at taking a taxi, although I realized the other day that it's not the safest thing in the world- more on that in a bit. I usually don't even notice the call to prayer that echoes from a thousand mosques at 5am and noon and 5pm and 9pm and midnight. The exact time changes every day but the only time I really notice it is on Friday mornings when I'm waiting for my cab to church and the long 30 minutes "sermon" comes over the loudspeakers. It's still a bit eerie when the music shuts off in the middle of H&M or Nine West so that the call to prayer can resound throughout the mall...but even that is getting a bit more normal. I'm learning my job and feeling more confident at work. I finally have my own cell phone and internet connection and feel connected to the world around me.

Yet in the midst of all this, I often forget how truly different this culture is. There are profound differences that go so much deeper than the paradoxes of fashion between the west and the muslim world. Fashion itself (I am using the word fashion notably to describe the common style of dress in both areas of the world- western clothing vs the hijab and abaya) is simply the most obvious marker of deeply ingrained differences that vacillate between almost invisible subtlety and glaring neon signposts. In a country with no alcohol (and thus no legal nightlife as we would define it in the US), Thursday and Friday nights turn the ritzy areas of Kuwait City into a veritable parade of teenagery adults trolling the mall's boulevard like so many newly minted teen drivers cruising down by the local movie theater. To navigate through this mosh pit of bmws and mercedes, one must contend with the loud wails of traditional arab music competing with the equally obnoxious thumps of postmodern hip hop. Here, bluetooth dating is the trend. What is bluetooth dating you might ask? It's a specialized form of "meet and greet" that involves a car with guys driving beside a car with girls (usually fully covered in the hijab). They wave and flirt with each other through cracked windows, and eventually exchange information over the bluetooth. That's the "meet" part of the equation. I haven't yet figured out the "greet" part...but I'll leave that research for another time. It is in these crowded streets that the clash of culture seems most apparent- conservative islam battling against the overly-permissive strands of western culture that have quietly woven themselves into the fabric of this nation. These are a few of the things that I observe from the passenger seat of my friend's truck, as I stare straight ahead and try to be noticed as little as possible by the passing revelers. My own reactions, on a much more personal note, stem from individual encounters and stories told within the confines of the western women's social groups. This week, an email went out from the US embassy warning western women of increased incidents of harassment and violence aimed against western women. I have personally been followed in a car (both when I was in a car as well, and when I was on foot), propositioned more times than I can count, ogled and have even had a man offer to buy me! I have had taxi drivers that phone-stalk me, and enough uncomfortable interactions to last me a lifetime. All of this in a country where even interacting with a single woman should be considered shameful within the religion. It is these personal stories that heavily impress on me the reality of a deep schism (I like to call it hypocrisy) between the outwardly conservative facade of words and the more hidden disdain for human dignity (and specifically the value and worth of women). Just like in my own culture there is disturbing hypocrisy sometimes evidenced between the teachings of the Christian church and the actual lives lived out by it's goes Islam. But at least I can safely say that in America, I never experienced harassment on the level I have learned to live with here. I'm getting used to it, and I still fight it wherever there is room to fight. But as hard as it is, honestly, it's an incredible experience. It gives me a small window into the lives of so many women around the world. I wouldn't trade this experience for anything, although I can say that there are days when I just want to scream. There are wonderful things about this culture, and there are dark and disgusting elements of this culture (just like in any culture around the world). In my opinion, it is when the dark elements remain hidden that they fester and grow out of control. So perhaps my role here is to observe and see and learn...and to bring these things into the light. I don't yet know what my purpose here will be. But until that purpose becomes evident, I will observe and I will try to bring my observations out into the light and maybe one day it will make a small difference!

For anyone interested in conservative islam, here is an interesting (and highly upsetting) article about Saudi Arabia and a recent court decision to punish an elderly woman (with lashes and prison time).

Thanks for reading...until next time!


Anonymous said...

hi amy, you really DO need to think about writing a book! you are an amazing writer and in the perfect situation to have stuff to write about. I was moved by what you shared.
love, mom

j.renee said...

I love your writing. The end.