Friday, March 29, 2013


She stood quietly at the check-in counter at Charles de Gaul Airport.  I wasn't shocked or scared when I saw her, just startled a bit:  after all, it was December 2001, only a few months after 9/11.  The Muslim woman wore a black drape from the top of her head down to her toes, and a black veil covered her face with a slit so you could only see her eyes.  Because I had never seen anyone wearing what I now know as an abaya (or burqa) and niqab, I couldn't take my eyes off of her.  Along with my gaze, I asked myself a question -- 
What is the reason for covering up like that?

Since that trip to Paris a long time ago, I have traveled to many Muslim countries, so I am no longer startled when I see women dressed in an abaya and wearing a niqab.  I don't stare or ask any questions.  While I'm happy I can wear jeans and a tee shirt most of the time, I respect our differences and understand that one of the teachings of Islam is modesty for women.  Many Westerners see this manner of dress as indicative of male oppression of women.  However, during my visit to the Persian Gulf, we were told that the dress is grounded in a basic tenet of Arab culture -- that the male, as the head of the family, must assume total responsibility for the welfare of his wife.  Thus, in the more conservative families, shielding the wife's body and face from public view is seen as a measure of protection.   Ironically, the dress of Muslim women is similar to that of Christian nuns, who also cover their bodies and hair.   

I'm still not convinced that women would freely choose to dress this way, but I'm not walking in their shoes.  As role models, Muslim mothers  teach their children to think and behave differently from the way Western mothers do.  Young girls see their mothers covered  and want to be like them when they grow up, just like my granddaughter plays dress up in her mother's clothes and wears her high heel shoes.   Who am I to judge?   What we interpret as oppression may actually be considered comfortable and safe for a Muslim woman, but I don't know for sure because most of my in depth conversations were with men.   The only Muslim women with whom I actually talked were at the market in the small village of Ibra,  and our conversations were constrained because of the setting and the limited amount of time.   The closest I came to gaining any personal information was when I asked the young woman running a stall if she would be paid the same salary as a man when she found her ideal corporate job in human resources.  Her positive answer might have been different if we'd had time to talk over tea and establish trust.   Perhaps, she would have told me what she thinks when she  sees how Western women dress,  and how she feels about her own freedom and ability to choose.   

When traveling last month in the United Arab Emirates and The Sultanate of Oman, I learned more about Islam, and I talked to more Muslims about their religion and customs than I have in other countries.  I noted some similarities between their five pillars of practice that are the foundation of Muslim life and other religions around the world:  A belief that there is only one God; a devotion to pray five times a day; the practice of charitable giving; the promise to fast during the religious holiday called Ramadan, and an obligation to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime.  I also learned that the word jihad does not mean holy war, but means struggle, particularly the inner struggle that one endures in trying to submit one's will to the will of one God,  and that terrorism, unjustified violence and the killing of innocent people are absolutely forbidden in Islam.  Islam promotes peace not violence, but unfortunately this is not the impression we get from the media.   All of the Muslims we talked to about this subject condemned terrorism and said that Al Qaeda and other militant groups use religion as a tool to further their own political agenda.  

After 9/11 any woman wearing a head scarf or a man who looks Middle Eastern are suspect.  Even my cousin, who is not a Muslim, had epithets flung at her when she wore a headscarf to protect her hair on a windy day.  Unfortunately, racial profiling, especially against Arab Americans, still exists, even though acts of terrorism by white Americans in our country are abundant.  Peacefulness and respect are definitely elements I felt and experienced in Oman and several other Muslim countries I've visited.  And I loved listening to the beautiful Call to Prayer five times a day, even at 5:30 in the morning.

What surprised me most is not the style of Muslim dress, but some of the negative reactions I received from American friends when they found out I traveled to the Middle East.  Some of the comments are too rude to mention.  I chalk these statements up to ignorance and narrow mindedness, but it still bothers me.  The other day a man I know whispered in my ear about the Muslims who live in his upmarket neighborhood in Silicon Valley, whispering as if his neighbors were sitting next to us and he didn't want them to hear.  He wanted me to know their different nationalities, their unusual dress, and his surprise that his Pakastani neighbor jogged at the high school track wearing a head scarf.  He ended his comments by telling me how nice they all are.  Another woman curled her lip like a ferocious dog and said she didn't care how nice they were, she wouldn't trust them.   Her negative reaction was similar to those Americans who were vociferously opposed to a Muslim community center opening near Ground Zero, and those Americans who still believe that President Obama is a Muslim.   How I wish I could transport these people to Oman and take them to the Muttrah Souk to rub shoulders with lovely people selling silver jewelry and exotic spices, to see how hard they work to make a living just like us.   I wish they could have stood in the crowd with me at the animal market in Nizwa to see the power and influence Muslim women have when they toss pebbles at the animal  they want their husbands to buy.  Perhaps they would see what I saw -- men and women, boys and girls, who are like us.  People with the same feelings, the same passion, and the same hopes and dreams.  Perhaps those friends who spoke out against Muslims might change their minds

Several English-speaking Omanis I met also shared their views about Americans, specifically their impression that we hate all Muslims,  their sorrow that we do not understand their religion and culture, and disappointment that they do not feel welcome in our country.  Some of these people even spent a few years  studying in the United States.   Since it was impossible to ignore their heartfelt comments,  I always apologized and said that if more Americans visited Muslin countries and saw how respectful and peaceful the people are, they would probably change their minds.    I told them that I planned to share my positive experiences with people in my community through conversations and writing on my blog.     I don't know if I can change any minds.   I can only share my experience  of the culture and tell them about the friendly people I met.   Maybe some fears might be dispelled.   Maybe my positive comments about travel in Muslim countries will help to remove the misunderstandings and prejudices some people have about Muslims.  Maybe what I have to say will pique their interest and curiosity.   Maybe a few will even consider visiting a Muslim country some day.

A video of the animal market in Nizwa

At the Muttrah Souk in Musat

Buying and Selling in the Souk

The Grand Mosque in Muscat

Lining up for Kahwa in Muscat

One of the many gorgeous views in Muscat

Tami showing a little girl her photo

One of many beautiful oases

The mosque in Jalan Bani Bu Hassan

Sunrise at the Nomadic Desert Camp at Wahiba Sands

A khanjar for sale at the Muttrah Souk

Our taxi drivers in Muscat

Hanging out is a favorite pastime

Rain?  In the desert?

Good fishing in the Oman Sea


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