Malaysia, Headscarves, and My Cultural Education

I’ve just spent about three weeks in Malaysia, visiting beaches, seaside towns, highlands, and the cities.  But what intrigued me most was the people.  Malaysia is a diverse mix of mostly Malay, Chinese and Indian, and the majority of the population is Muslim.  Malay is the official language, but English is widely used.

Malaysia is the first country I have visited that’s predominately Muslim, and it was a fascinating lesson in cultural differences.  To a more worldly person, some of my observances may seem basic like “Canadians don’t actually live in igloos”, but I was captivated by the people, especially the woman.

The first thing to strike me was the general appearance of the women in Langkawi. In Northern Thailand, most women are pale, slender, petite, with long straight black hair. In Malaysia most women are short, with round faces, and plump silhouettes. (Mom says “So you feel more at home in Malaysia?” I do! But here, no one mistakens me for a local. I’m sure it’s my lack of modest attire.

Kota Baru Market

Most women here wear headscarves.  When I think a headscarf, I imagine Malala Yousafzai’s loose hajib.  However, the style in Malaysia is more conservative. It covers the hair, ears, and neck and drapes long over the chest and back and has a small stiff peak above the eyes. The fabrics are bright and colorful, and the scarves are often adorned with a jeweled pendant or rhinestone pin. Young girls wear them too, usually with a long sleeve shirt and pants.

Unlike in Thailand where we hardly see any Thai tourists, we met quite a few Malaysian tourists during our trip.  In fact, our snorkel tour was mostly Malaysian tourists.  The Chinese tourists I meet on snorkel trips either don’t get into the water, or swim fully clothed in jean shorts and a t-shirt.  The Malaysian women were covered head to ankle, and I wondered if they’d go swimming.

Of course they’d go swimming!  That’s why they were on the trip!  They were not shy about jumping into the water with their snorkel masks.  In fact, they were wearing “burkinis“.  A ridiculous name for a swimsuit that covers the whole body except face, hands and feet. I complain about the name because a burqa covers the entire body with a grille over the eyes, so the swimsuit should be called a hijabini or hijabsuit. Everyone was having a grand time at the beach and I can’t believe I live in a world where a government would ban such a benign garment (ahem, France).

While shopping, I would occasionally see a woman in a niqab (a black outfit that covers everything except the eyes), who was probably visiting from Saudi Arabia. One young woman was shopping at the market with her husband. He said something funny, she laughed and rested her head on his shoulder. I don’t know why, but I expected her to be robotic and silent. What does that say about me?

Newlyweds in MalaysiaI saw women in head scarves holding hands with men, driving scooters, and getting a massage on the beach (by a man)! But best of all, I saw little girls in scarves playing, laughing, and just living life.

Meanwhile, the men in Malaysia were very friendly with my tall Caucasian friend.  Particularly the Indian-looking men.  Most often, there would be three or four men hanging out on the street. One would call out a smile-less hello, and then just watch her walk by. I’m not sure what they were after, but they usually didn’t pursue it. Sometimes they’d ask where she was from, and when she replied the United States, they’d ask for a picture, to which she’d decline.

In Kuala Lumpur, we visited the Malaysian National Museum. We learned that Malaysia is made up of mostly Malays, Chinese, and Indian people. To be considered Malay, one must be Muslim. This confused me because the image on the poster was of a smiling woman with long brown hair – no scarf. It turns out that wearing a hijab is a relatively new trend (Wikipedia says it’s as of the 1970’s). A local explained that this is from the influence of Middle Eastern visitors, who are pushing for a more conservative approach to Islam.

After learning this, I became obsessed with the women on posters and in ads.  What image would be used for a generic Malaysian woman?  So on my bus trip to the Cameron Highlands, I snapped some pics of the highway billboards.

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