I wrote this in the middle of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that involves 30 days of fasting and religious observance. Here I give my overview and thoughts after a few months in a Muslim country.
When I first applied for a job in Kuwait, I thought to myself “I haven’t a breeze where Kuwait is”; I honestly had to google it to find out.
Looking back, I’m thinking how oblivious I was to some aspects of the world.
I had this assumption in my head that this county was a certain way, even though I hadn’t been there. The media and people who hadn’t even been there either had painted a picture in my head.
From the media and people’s perspectives there was this sense of nervousness around going to such a country. The media seem to portray it as a tribal, nomadic, violent and radical region.
The first things people said to me when I was moving to Kuwait were along the lines of: “Don’t get caught up in some act of terrorism”. I had doubts about my safety and yet I was keen to go. On June 26th, 2 months before I’m due to travel to Kuwait, the headlines read “ISIS bomb mosque in Kuwait!”. The seed had been planted though, I was still going.
I’m only here 10 months and I’ll be honest, the first month was weird. Culture shock at its finest. When I first moved to Kuwait it was hard not to be sceptical.
Certain things that took a while to get used to included the call to prayer five times a day. The prayer at around 3am was a killer, it woke me up for the first while.
The desert heat of 45 °C was intense and also ‘covering up’ was hard to cope with coming from a more open society like Ireland.
In Kuwait more so then the UAE, western women are advised to cover shoulders and knees. This was odd to me, walking around in 40 degrees heat not being able to show parts of my body that where not a big deal to me; knees and shoulders? Really? In this heat surely it’s okay?
It’s an Islamic obligation to be modest. That includes not showing the outline of body and hair.
I’m not Muslim so why should I cover up you might be thinking? Purely out of respect. However some days I would cover up, some days I wouldn’t. You get more attention if you don’t, which I didn’t want.
As a western women, this is something I wanted to look into a bit deeper than just my own view.
Before I talked to Muslim women, this whole idea of covering up really used to irritate me. It still does in some way. However now I have more of an understanding that I would have liked to have had coming over, but I suppose that’s the beauty of travel and growing.
I still feel it’s a man’s world, particularly in the Middle East.
I’m not here to get into politics of the Middle East, slate or praise the religion. This post is purely my view on the Muslim culture and how it’s changed since I moved here. The ideas expressed in this article are strictly my views and reflect my experience in Kuwait.
I spoke to different Muslim women (who want remain anonymous) in relation to the topic of covering up. It might be a surprise but these women where never forced to wear a hijab. One of them told me:
“I was 15 years old when I started to wear a hijab. In the 80s, it was not as popular as it is now. But I wanted to do it, I seen my friends wear them, it was the norm. My mother thought I was too young but I wanted to try it out. She wouldn’t buy me a hijab and told me to wear my friends for a few days first to see if I liked it. I remember going to school and everyone celebrated it. I’ve been wearing one since.”
I asked this woman about her daughter. She wants to wait to see if her daughter wants to wear it herself, she would never force her to but would like her to sooner rather than later. She says the older you get the harder it can be to adjust to wearing a hijab.
I asked another colleague about covering up. She told me: “It felt like the right thing to do, I was doing everything else to be a good Muslim. My family never forced me, but they were very strict. I could not wear t-shirts, it had to be long sleeved. I tried as much as I could to hide my body, it I felt like something was missing. It was my decision to wear a Hijab. I wanted to.”
Women forced to wear it essentially takes away from Allah’s (God’s) directions. This can then be seen as a contradiction, God created women that way so why cover up?
I can’t help but feel like somethings not right; that covering up has to be a religious obligation. When women have to hide their body it just doesn’t sit right with me.
However I asked my colleague what is her favourite aspect of Islam. Again it came back to covering up.
“My favourite aspect of Islam is the obligation of the hijab, it actually protects women. It hides their body from harassment and it’s a way of protecting your body. Islam actually teaches values that protect you as a women,” she said.
Although it’s alien to me, I feel we need to look at where they are coming from instead of bashing the religion. I respect the reason of wearing hijabs to remove attention and get rid of potential harassment.
My Muslim friend Ihab, also makes a good point that:
“Westerners may see the nuns covering up but they don’t think the same way about them. You go to any church around the world and you’ll see pictures of Mary who is also wearing something similar, yet it’s never thought she was forced to wear it. She was wearing it out of piety and devotion to God. But when it comes to Muslim community you’ll find them neglecting the idea of Hijab and talking bad about it”
From my Muslim friends I noticed how they have such strong beliefs and promote positivity and forgiveness.
I’ve gotten used to Kuwait, I feel safer than I have felt walking around some streets in Dublin. My perspective of this large region of the world has totally changed. I’m understanding the real Muslim culture, not the one the media created. I feel safe, adventurous and I got out of my comfort zone. Regions like this can really open your eyes. It’s taught me many things like to not judge a book by its cover.
So why am I writing this?
The reason why I’m writing this is because of the response about being a teacher in the Middle East received on social media.
I was really surprised at some of the comments. People question the fact that I wanted to work here. Here’s an example of some of the feedback to that article:
“No money would pay me to work there”
“Why would anyone even consider a career in the middle east with the way things are?”
“It’s unreal to think people would go to an Islamic country for anything”
These were not the worst of comments. I was shocked at the pure racism of some people. Bear in mind these people more than likely have never even been to the Middle East and just use the media as a way to stereotype people in these types of countries.
It’s difficult to watch the news these days. It’s difficult to watch the Muslim religion stereotyped to the radicalisation of terrorist groups that are far removed from the religion that friends follow.
Look at Ireland, we have had our troubles in terms of religion. Priest being pedophiles to name one. You can’t label the actions of certain priests and then stereotype everyone who follows that religion. Christians were never stereotyped to all be pedophiles, why link the Muslim religion with terrorists? Priests being pedophiles is linked to a minority group. It doesn’t follow the main objectives of the religion.
Although it might have been a small minority of priests. These priests were exploiting the Christian religion in a radical way. Think about how a good priest would have felt about hearing the news on pedophilia. It’s the same feeling for the good Muslims here.
Another thing I noticed in my first month or two was how devastated my Muslim friends, colleagues and students were with everything that is happening in the world right now.
After the Paris incident in November, students at the school I worked for asked me “Miss, do your friends and family think you are over here teaching terrorists?”
How do you even attempt to explain the narrow minded perception people have of Muslims to these kids?
Bear in mind I’m sceptical of every religion but there are many things I respect about the Islamic culture. And of course there are things about every religion that I don’t agree with.
A colleague made a point about Islam:
“Some people represent Islam in a way that is very strict – this is not right, they make it look scary. It’s not like this for me and should not be like this.”
Islam is flexible, there are many ways to follow it. I think this is where problems and differences arise.
Subsequently I’ve learned the importance of separating the cultural habits and the actual religion itself. What’s done in communities is not always what’s in the Quran or the Bible. We need to educate ourselves and understand the real objectives of the religion before jumping to any conclusions.
When I asked these women and my friend Ihab about what they see on the news, how westerners judge their religion. Their advice is:
“Don’t judge if you have not met a Muslim person, talk to someone who is a good practicing Muslim and they will change your point of view.”
“Talk to a trusting Muslim. Not someone who will judge you for not covering up but someone who can educate you and give you a real view of Islam. This will change your opinion.”
Just like mine did.