Being a woman, traveling in the Middle East requires a certain understanding and acceptance of the norms dictated by the local culture. That is what this post is about, my struggle to reach that understanding and adhere to those norms while still respecting my own beliefs and without offending anybody.
But first just look at all the things that can be done with women’s Islamic fashion! This is a store front display on the streets of Cairo:
While in Egypt I made every effort to respect the local mores by always wearing clothing that covered my shoulders and legs, despite the sweltering heat. I even carried a scarf to be used as a head covering, should I visit a mosque that day. Wanting to be only in shorts and a tank-top this was a bit annoying, but not a huge deal, especially as I wished to avoid any creepy leers or extra hassle. Then I went to Cleopatra’s Bath.
Cleopatra’s Bath is one of the more popular natural springs, that the Siwa Oasis, mentioned in my last post, is famous for. (They have both hot and cold springs.) Here I should mention that Siwa, being an oasis and removed from well . . . everywhere else, has remained quite conservative. The women here wear a full burqa, without even the tiny slits for eyes. Because of the town’s super-traditional nature, the Lonely Planet had advised that when visiting Cleopatra’s Bath, if you were a woman and brave enough to even go in the pool, you should be fully clothed.
My friend (a guy) and myself arrived at Cleopatra’s Bath at about 1 pm, after biking around the oasis in the stifling desert heat the entire morning. Imagine, if you will, being hot, sweaty, tired, fully clothed, and then faced with this temptation of refreshing blue wonderfulness:
I had an extra shirt with me, but no spare pants. Peter (also mentioned in the last post) sees the conundrum written on my face, and asks if I’m not going swimming. I explain the situation, and he ever so kindly offers me an extra pair of shorts to swim in. I protest that shorts will not cover my knees and calves. He chuckles and points out that there is hardly anyone here. It’s true. There are only a few staff, and a small handful of local teenage guys swimming. I stand there squinting in the sun for a few more moments of hesitation, and then grab the shorts and make a mad dash for the changing room. I come out and walk purposefully toward the pool, wanting to get in the safety of the water as quickly as possible so the few locals won’t have time to see my legs. I jump in. I let myself sink all the way down to the bottom of the deep pool, reveling in the refuge from the heat, and come up slowly. When I break the surface and wipe the water from my eyes, I look around.
All of a sudden, in the time it took for me to jump in and come back up, I am now surrounded by approximately 50 people, all staring into Cleopatra’s Bath, where I, the lone woman, am swimming. Of course. I become bashful and cling to the wall of the pool, in vain trying to hide my legs beneath the crystal clear water. As I dangle on the side of the pool, I question myself. How is it that while swimming in a bath whose namesake was arguably one of the most powerful women in history, I am ashamed of exposing my knees and calves simply because I am a girl? I mean, really. I was swimming in basketball shorts and a t-shirt! Meanwhile, my friend and the other guys swimming get to wear regular swimming trunks without thinking twice about it.
Thankfully, the group was only some tourists, and I’m sure no one really cared. Peter and my friend would tease me later for being so embarrassed. It is funny, but it really got me thinking about things. How can I reconcile myself with a religion that makes me ashamed of my body? Is the burqa oppressive?
Chatting about it later in a hostel with a friend, he pointed out a perspective that jarred me. We in the west may find the requirements of dress for Islamic women oppressive, but he suggested that if we ask them, they might point to our obsession with looks, and the pressure that women feel to wear the right fashion and cover our faces in make-up and find that to be oppressive. In a burqa, as the argument goes, a woman is judged solely by the content of her speech and not her body or her looks. I can’t say I agree with this because the same is not applied to Muslim men. But I suppose that if a woman has the freedom to choose her religion and therefore her dress, I can respect that position.
Okay, now we fast-forward to a second incident, this time in Jerusalem, Israel.
After exploring Ein Gedi and floating in the Dead Sea, I take the bus into Jerusalem. From the Central Bus Station, I make my first attempt at navigating the Jerusalem city buses to get to my hostel. I hop on the #3 bus and the driver confirms that this bus does indeed go to the Damascus Gate, where my hostel is. I haul myself, my massively heavy backpack and two small bags onto a seat at the front where there is plenty of room and it will be easier for me to get to the door.
Throughout the route the bus fills up a bit, mostly with Jewish Orthodox people, women with head coverings, men with the black, big brimmed hats, beards and the two curly locks beside their ears. I don’t think much about it because we seem to be going through mostly orthodox neighborhoods and I’m preoccupied taking in the city sights while looking for the Damascus Gate, my stop.
An older lady boards the bus, pays the fare and begins to walk down the aisle. She stops,and begins yelling at me in Hebrew! I stammer, trying to figure out what is going on, and the old man sitting behind me, begins pointing and yelling at me too! Finally a man across from me asks if I speak English. Scared and confused, I say yes, looking to him for explanation.
“Women sit in the back.”
I pause for a moment, bewildered. As I look between my huge pack, the faces of the two people spewing adamant Hebrew at me, and the other passengers, anger sets in. Grumbling loudly, I hoist my bag onto my sunburned shoulders and move from the front (where space was aplenty) to the only open spot in the very back of the bus, where sure enough, all the women sat.
I sat in the back of the bus, discreetly trying to dab at tears that the incident brought on. Perhaps I should be thicker skinned, but I could not help it. I was at first horrified that I had offended, then furious that they had no sympathy for a girl with a heavy bag who did not understand the language or the custom, then outraged at the custom itself. My mind conjured thoughts of Rosa Parks, segregation and the fallacy of “separate but equal” doctrine while I simmered in my seat.
Regretfully, not every travel story ends with a laugh at something lost in translation or promises to keep in touch. This one does not. It should be noted, though, that this was a rare occurrence as most buses don’t have this practice. According to other travelers and locals I spoke with later, it was probably a particularly orthodox route. After cooling off, the scene still replayed itself in my head. I tried to figure it out.
Perhaps in the way that there was a perspective on the Islamic burqa that I had never even considered, there was something like that here too. Maybe I could learn from this, expand my cultural understanding. I do not deny that this may still be the case. Understanding the traditions of different cultures and religions, is one of the reasons we travel in the first place. That said, cultural relativism is a slippery slope. I suppose that finding the line between understanding and acceptance and the place where your own beliefs are transgressed is a matter particular to the individual.
For myself, that line falls halfway down a Jerusalem city bus. And I refuse to be made to cross it again. Next time, I’ll take a taxi.
~Marie DeAeth, Intern Abroad