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Glimpses of Life in Malaysia

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“Beer!?” exclaimed our landlady, shocked that she should even be asked, “this is a Muslim guesthouse!” Mortified at my insensitivity, I slunk back upstairs to the common room. I couldn’t not know – it had been impossible to miss the signs when her younger brother showed us round the guesthouse earlier that day. “This is a Muslim guesthouse, please do not store pork or Chinese food in the fridge.” With my typical Irish sense of priorities, I had immediately asked the question that sprung to mind – what about beer? No problem, he said, they even sold it themselves.

So I wasn’t expecting such a scandalised reaction when I asked for a beer in the hostel café that evening. Pink-faced, I recounted what had happened to Caelen. Looking at the beer bottles on the adjacent table, it was clear we had gone about things the wrong way. The guys on the hostel staff ran a nice little sideline, and while their boss was prepared to look the other way, she certainly didn’t condone it.

Like so many in the west, my perception of women’s position in an Islamic state is based largely on media imagery of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Malaysia doesn’t match up with that set of preconceptions, but nor is it some kind of marketing brochure western-sensibilities-flavour Islamic country. Malaysia is the most prosperous and developed country in South East Asia after Singapore, and it didn’t get that way by preventing half its population playing an active role in society, but many things are still jarring to western eyes.

The school uniform was almost the first thing we noticed, as we sped down the coast from the Thai border. It’s tempting to describe them as little nuns, but nuns today dress in a far more revealing fashion than these Muslim schoolgirls. Waist-length veils, knee-length tunics and ankle-length skirts all of a good heavy fabric cover up even the youngest girls. In Melaka our proprietor chose not to wear a veil, but her 8-year old daughter still went to school with only her hands and mischievous face visible.

In Kuala Lumpur, the cultural contrasts of Malaysia are writ large. Outside Stamford Business School, students hang out on their scooters, the Chinese girls in strappy vests and miniskirts sharing jokes with their Muslim counterparts in jeans, t-shirts and pretty patterned headscarves for veils. In the city, as in the countryside, the more traditional style of dress is popular. With its long skirt, tunic and generous veil, it bears many similarities with the school uniform, but the brightly coloured floral patterns contrast with the schoolgirls’ sober colours. In the night markets of Chinatown, the occasional burqa-clad woman bargains vigorously for the knock-off Louis Vuitton handbags, expressive eyes all that can be seen through the pill-box slit in her head-to-toe black gown.

In the upmarket KLCC Shopping Centre, I was surprised to see a husband holding the hand of his burqa-ed wife. Public displays of affection are frowned on here, and I expected such norms to be flaunted by westernised teenagers and ignorant tourists, not by conservative couples like these. I suppose he had to hold on to her though – if he lost her in the crowd how would he recognise her? As they headed toward the food court I wondered how she ate in a burqa – maybe she wasn’t supposed to eat in public?

Such women are the exception though. My cabin-mate on the train to Kuala Lumpur, a young computer programmer from Kota Bharu, was probably far more reflective of the norm. In her blouse, trousers and veil, returning first-class to KL and her successful career, there was no contradiction between her sincere Islamic beliefs and her professional ambitions. Although she was very pleasant, I had rather hoped that my cabin-mate would be Caelen. I had booked the tickets online, and as second class was full I had been offered first class tickets instead. Evidently, the computer system’s moral code decreed that as we were not the same sex and didn’t have the same surname, we could not share a compartment.

The officials were nowhere to be found, but as we had a poke around our carriage, we found that the cabin next door to mine was empty. Great, surely this could be made available to us. As we hung around in the corridor waiting for a conductor to come back, people started to come through from the next carriage. The compartment had been left empty for a reason – it was the train’s prayer room.

The trickle became a steady flow, and soon the compartment was full and crowds were waiting in the corridor for their chance to pray. Caelen and I hung around the corridor, observing the various people who came along: the self-righteous way that a few men barged to the front of the queue, as though Allah was far more interested in what they had to say than in some girl’s flibbertigibbeting, the remarkably quick-speed praying of some, the unbelievably long are-they-still-in-there what-on-earth-are-they-doing approach of others, the urgency of those in a hurry to say their prayers, rattling down the corridor trying every door in search of an empty cabin. After a quick confab (consisting mainly of smiles and gestures), my cabin-mate and I turned our compartment into the girls’ prayer room. The giggles emanating from my erstwhile compartment suggested that there was more than just praying going on in there.

Throughout Malaysia, we were often surprised. Surprised by just how prosperous it is, how developed and progressive, and yet at times we were also taken aback by just how conservative some elements of society are. We realised that the reality is more complex and many-layered than our preconceptions; that for example just because our landlady chose not to wear a veil didn’t mean her religious views were any less deeply held, and that wearing a veil doesn’t stop Malaysian women from doing what they want to do, whether that’s being a rock climber or being a software engineer.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of a Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpar Malayisa Travelogues
Photograph of city streets in Kuala Lumpar Malayisa Travelogues
A highly decorated Hindu temple in Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur - a very modern city

Picture of a Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpar Malayisa Travelogues
The same highly decorated temple