Thursday, September 1, 2011

Culture Changes How Easy it is to be a Religious Muslim

WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world.  As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non.

"Yalla, yalla, what's the holdup?" There's a group of young Kuwaiti teens standing in the doorway to the movie theatre. Final Destination 5 has just started and I'm anxious to get to my seat and enjoy my caramel and salt popcorn. I can't understand why they're just standing there pointing to the screen and flashing their mobiles -- and just before I start pushing my way through the group, my sister-in-law holds my arm and says, "they're waiting for the usher."

The usher?!

We ordered our tickets online this afternoon, thankfully rejecting The Smurfs and unfortunately also saying no to Captain America (I like my superheroes). Once we decided on the movie, we chose our seats -- specifically opting for the mixed "family section" over splitting our group between the two gender segregated "male/female bachelor" sections. Then at the theatre, helpful ushers escorted everyone to their properly assigned seats without stepping on anyone's toes.

As action packed, gore-fests go, it was a pretty entertaining movie. I was a little surprised when a couple of youths cat-called and whistled when the sexy groupie character showed up in hot pants and fishnets, but was more surprised when none of the sexual innuendo or swear words were cut out of the film. To keep a level of public decency, almost every screened film is censored for physical intimacy -- including kissing, but excluding hand holding and "wink-wink-say-no-more" references. So I missed that one scene where the main couple kiss and perhaps even a sex scene or two, but I wouldn't know and it certainly didn't affect my enjoyment of the film. No one else seemed to care either.
Sex or no sex, we all cringed and yelled together with each horrific death scene.

As far as modern, first-world regions go, the constitutional monarchy of Kuwait is just like Canada... only Muslim. But flashier. With taller, more modern buildings. A massive disparity between the very rich and the extremely poor. Mosques and malls on every street corner. High-end fashion malls. Really expensive cars and ridiculously cheap gas. Overwhelmingly Arab and South East Asian. Really hot.
Okay, Kuwait is nothing like Canada.


Since arriving here two weeks ago, I've felt an absolute shift in my identity as a religious Muslim. It's been extremely interesting and enjoyable to just be myself without worrying about religious accommodation or wondering if people are staring at my hijab or at the jam the baby planted on my face. The accommodations are already here -- part in parcel of the language, food and culture.
So for fun, I though I'd give a rundown of just how easy it is to be a religious Muslim in Kuwait:


The mosque culture. When I say there's a mosque on every street corner, I also mean that there's one in every McDonald's, in the arcade, in restaurants, at the amusement park and in every mall. I don't have to pray on top of my car, join an association and lobby for prayer space at the airport, or worry that the Friday prayers at my public high school will be canceled because of fear mongering and Islamophobia. I can pray anywhere, anytime and no one cares, stares or interrupts me to ask if I'm okay as I put my head to the floor.

I'm also reminded and encouraged to pray, as it's impossible to escape the beautiful daily calls to prayer that echo around the city.


Bidets. Yes, bidets. Did you know that some Muslims carry empty water bottles with them so they can wash their private parts after using a public washroom? (It's true! And part of the ritual cleanliness required for prayer.) But not in Kuwait! Every public toilet is equipped with a tiny shower head and hose to spray your "intimates" with warm flowing water. 

I seriously cannot do without my bidet and want to take one home with me!


The food. Pepperoni pizza. Burger King. Chicken bacon. Korean BBQ. Liverwurst. It's all wonderfully, gloriously halal. I don't have to be a vegetarian by force or drive three hours to a city that sells halal shawarmas. There's no restrictions or limit to what you can eat.

Hijab culture. When I first put on hijab, I was one of four identifiable female Muslims on my university campus. In Canada maybe 1-2% of the population wear niqab. They're so rare that even I do a double take when I see one of my niqaabi sisters on the street. But in Kuwait probably 50% or more of the Arab population wear niqab. It's not mandatory and I've also seen plenty of women who don't wear any form of hijab, as well as a couple who have gotten away with tank tops and shorts. It's just really, really nice not to be stared at, or fired for what's on or not on my head.

Another bonus of having a hijab culture is that there's no salon surcharge to get your hair done. Stylists are all women and salons are set up to maximize your privacy. While in Canada, I pay an exorbitant price just to have a curtain drawn around my chair. 

Roller coasters in Kuwait are also equipped to handle the hazardous hijab.

Not answering for Muslims. I'm proud to be Muslim and I patiently answer many questions posed to me by strangers. Yes, I take my hijab off at home. No, Muslims don't worship a black box. Yes, we really love Jesus. No, my religion does not justify the actions of 9/11. No, we're not trying to take over America through an insidious and organised plan to infiltrate and influence the legal system with religious law. Stop it. I'm not a creepy Muslim.


But in a Muslim majority country, I can actually breathe and not worry that the Media, writers and politicians will actively misrepresent Islam -- causing mass hysteria and resulting in my mosque being vandalized, my sister being attacked because she's an identifiable Muslim, or my husband being placed on a no-fly list because of his name.

Now, my experience is not obviously not reflective of all Muslim countries or even of all Muslims and non-Muslims living within Muslim countries -- and I'm obviously glossing over many problematic issues that exist in Kuwait. For many, it's harder to be who you want to be. But I've been lucky to have had two weeks of access to welcoming spaces.

And it's nice to just be a Muslim without question.