I didn’t know exactly how living in a Muslim country would change me.
I thought it would change how I see the world. It would impact how I understood people, I guessed. I hoped it would give me greater understanding for others, their perspectives.
What I didn’t know, or even imagine, is that living in a Muslim country (well, majority-Muslim) would affect how I look at men and myself, literally and metaphorically.
In many Muslim cultures, there is a larger separation between the genders than in typical Western societies. This means men and women generally do not interact as freely or casually.
Some men and women do not even shake hands with the opposite gender. This means that what is seen as socially acceptable, socially respectable, tends to be quite different from what I’m used to. I hail from Texas, a friendly country where everyone smiles and greets each other and hardly anyone is a stranger. Handshakes were a given and hugs were commonplace.
I didn’t know how challenging it would be to welcome people into my home, cook food for them, talk about life and faith, and then send them off with a nod of the head. No handshake, no light punch on the shoulder.
And I certainly didn’t know that it would change how I interact with American men as well. We all want to conduct our interactions in culturally-appropriate ways, so we drop the side-hug and simply wave hello. It feels strange to me.
I didn’t know living in a muslim country would affect how I look at men. literally.
In our Western cultures, eye contact is usually a way we show respect and interest in someone or in what that person is saying. We make eye contact to greet people, eye contact to talk about life, eye contact to show that we see them.
Eye contact is not used so freely and casually in my current context. When I am out walking around, I do not make eye contact with men on the street. In fact, I usually wear big sunglasses to avoid it.
Even if I stop to buy vegetables from a man I don’t know, I will barely look at him and focus my attention, very business-like, on the vegetables. I don’t look down at my feet, but I don’t look in his eyes.
If my husband knows the man and the man knows us all as a family, I might be a little more relaxed in looking at him when we talk, but I will still use a very businesslike tone.
See, respectable women do not chat it up with men on the streets.
Same goes for taxi or uber drivers. They should not be asking my name (more on that later) or asking personal questions. There is no need to carry on a conversation beyond directions to the exact location, if needed.
Back to eye contact. I didn’t realize how I would internalize the rules. How I would struggle when back in Texas to make eye contact with men again.
The Spin Class Story
I can distinctly remember a time when we were back in Texas and I decided to take a spinning class (an indoor bicycle fitness class). Since it was my first time, the instructor, who was a man about 10 years my senior, helped to adjust my bike while I stood nearby.
As he made polite and very reasonable conversation, I found myself looking down at the bike and giving very short answers. I wouldn’t look at him. I was feeling uncomfortable. Then it dawned on me: No one in that room was going to think I was disrespecting my husband by talking with the instructor in this situation.
This interaction was very normal in this setting and even if I had become chatty about all things bicycles, I still would have appeared normal. I had to make myself relax.
I noticed these same tendencies many more times during that stay in Texas. Over the years since that time I have been able to adjust a little better. This often takes a little bit of conscious effort to recognize where I am and to let myself be a little bit Texan.
How Living in a Muslim Country Affects How I Feel about…Myself
I didn’t know how living in a Muslim country–in a culture that is very conservative–would impact how I felt in my own skin.
I tend to stand out among the crowd on the street. My looks aren’t Middle Eastern. I look like a foreign woman and foreign women have a reputation for having loose morals.
This means that I’m often working against the question of “Is she like what we see in movies? Is she a desperate housewife, too?”
Even as the clothing styles are changing here–going back to knee-length skirts in some areas, sport leggings, sleeveless tops–I’m careful about how and where I participate in fashion trends. I already stand out and I don’t desire more attention.
I didn’t know how observant I would become about what other women wear…and about how the West looks from here.
I’m very uncomfortable when I see tourist women wearing clothing that is not conservative. I am uncomfortable for them, recognizing they don’t know the message they are sending.
Watching American movies and TV shows, I think, “Yeah, I wouldn’t want my daughter to grow up in the West if this is really a completely accurate picture.”
I see the casual sex, the friends with benefits, the revealing clothing, and I know that for people who don’t know America, they don’t know that some of that is just Hollywood. Not all college students are crazy drunks who party and sleep around. Not all housewives are looking for a fling on the side.
It’s worth noting here that just as not all Americans hold loose morals, not all Arabs are terrorists and not all Arabs are Muslim and not all people living in the Middle East are Arabs. Let us not fall into the trap of stereotyping, either.
What’s in a Name
I didn’t know that I would sometimes struggle with my own name. In this culture, a woman does not give out her first name.
I have a Middle Eastern friend who has lived in the same building all her life and the doorman there does not know her first name. He simply calls her “Engineer” now that she is an engineer. The produce man calls me by my husband’s name. Yes, that’s correct, he calls me by a man’s first name.
It’s a little awkward at first.
Taxi drivers should not ask for my name, shopkeepers should not ask for my name. But they do sometimes, because they try to push the boundaries of propriety and respect with me because I’m foreign and might be ok with it. I always reply, “My husband’s name is…”.
And then there’s Starbucks (or any other chain coffeeshop) and I get confused at what name I should have on my cup. My name? My husband’s name? When did this become the difficult part about ordering?!
(In actuality, it’s fine for me to use my first name at these venues that are very Western. It has been interesting, however, to see how I stop for a moment and wonder what to say for my name.)
LIVING IN A MUSLIM COUNTRY: Why Following Their Cultural Rules Matters to Me
I didn’t know about these aspects of change and adjustment that I would experience living in a Muslim country. As I live this life out, as I live my life in a way that loves my neighbors and loves the God who loves them enough to send His own Son as a sacrifice, I am willing to adjust and adapt, to be mindful and to change.
Sometimes those adjustments are difficult. They cause me to look inside at how I see myself and how I see others.
All of these cause me to look to God and ask Him to show me what is good and right, what is important and valuable. And being reminded to lean on His ways? That’s always a good thing.
About the author: Sarah has served overseas for nine years.
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