Cental KL and Masjid Jamek

Trip Start Nov 08, 2006
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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Once again, I'm writing this several months after our trip, so it will be short on details.  We stayed in China Town, so we were able to walk to quite a few sights and get to the subway quite easily.  We went to a mosque called Masjid Jamek, which is great because I like writing a lower case j next to a lower case i.  The two floating dots in a row just look exotic.  Plus, Lindsey had to wear a headscarf, which was an immediate reminder of the fact that this would be our first experience in an Islamic country.  I'll preface this diatribe with the reminder that I criticize all world religions because they all have their failings.  As they say, "When in Rome, make fun of the Catholics."  I've done that, but this is about Malaysia, an officially Muslim country.  So I'll have to talk about my impressions of the faith and its effect on life.  I will openly admit it's not what I expected.  We live in a part of Bangkok with a large Muslim population, so we see women with full facial coverings, wearing lots of black, walking several steps behind their male counterparts.  The inherent sexism of the religion is probably what stands out to me the most.  It's probably that it's so overt that's disconcerting.  In the West we like to keep our sexism below the surface by simply pinching a waitress' ass, refusing women equal pay for equal work, or covertly calling them whores when they exhibit even a modicum of sexual assertiveness - smooth stuff like that.  I'm sure some people will criticize my assessment that Islam is sexist and tell me that there's much more to it than that and perhaps many of the practices are even a consequence of respecting women more than Westerners do.  I disagree, but more importantly, what I'm discussing is simply the fact that men and women are regarded as markedly different creatures and are afforded distinct social statuses, which manifests itself partly as an easily viewed difference in apparel.  Yes, men and women all over the world dress differently in varying degrees, but it is most often malleable.  It's the rigidity of Islamic custom that strikes me.  However, Malaysia immediately proved that it's not as rigid as one might think.  In Bangkok, there are some women who cover their faces entirely, others have only their eyes exposed, still others just their ears and necks.  I'm sure some dress in such a way that their religion isn't even apparent.  So there's variation right there.  But in Malaysia it was the dramatic colors that immediately struck me.  The austere black outfits we often associate with Muslim women have been replaced with brilliantly colored dresses and scarves.  They're gorgeous outfits, and they turn large crowds into a whirlpool of vivid acrylics swimming through the streets and cascading down stairways. 

Still, it was clear that women were undoubtedly supposed to have their heads covered.  This was nicely illustrated by a shampoo commercial that at no point showed the actress' hair.  The beautiful woman was modestly dressed and smiling brightly, and the shampoo's efficacy had to be illustrated not with the traditional hair swing, but by an animated rendering of conditioners working their magic.  I thought it was fascinating that a shampoo commercial could manage to not depict hair. 

So the reason I started this was because we visited a beautiful mosque near our hotel.  We then went to Merdeka Square, which is a nicely manicured park.  We mostly just wandered around and enjoyed the unique architecture.  The Islamic influence is obviously something we hadn't seen in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam or Cambodia - all Buddhist countries.

So I said this was going to be a diatribe, which it wasn't, and I have to wonder why.  Is it because I'm naturally fearful of discussing Islam?  I am frustrated that I am intimidated to participate in the open dialogue I demand for any other subject simply because of the violence that is so often levied upon the religion's detractors.  I think everything should be subject to intellectual discourse, and a largely practiced faith that has such profound implications for our world and its people should not be an exception.  So I may have more to say later.  Please don't send hate mail.
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