Friday, February 16, 2007

Undressed by People’s Look in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

As I walked I felt those men undressed me with their looks. I felt exposed, unprotected, observed by their possessive looks.

That night I felt uncomfortable walking down the streets of Kuala Lumpur, an unusual feeling in a city where you don’t have to worry about safety issues.

In occasions, I had felt disgusted walking through the city since the sewages are located on the sidewalks, and when it rains, the smell of wet excrement is unbearable, but I had never felt unsafe before.

Kuala Lumpur is an interesting place because it is the permanent hostess of three different cultures that interact with each other on a daily basis.

According to the Malaysian Constitution, bumiputras, are the real Malays: a bumiputra is a person who “professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay customs and is the child of at least one parent who was born within the Federation of Malaysia before independence on the 31st of August 1957".

Even though the constitution does not specify a dress code, bumiputra women cover their bodies with long, long sleeve colorful dressesd, and they hide their hair with handkerchiefs that match the color of their dresses.

On the other hand, people of Chinese descent, a minority omnipresent in the economic, culinary and commercial sectors, communicate with each other using mandarin, they are usually Buddhists, or practice Taoism, and walk around freely wearing the latest style western clothing and extravagant hair styles with excessive hair mousse.

Hindus are the third group that cohabitates in Malaysia, making up about 10 percent of the total population, adding diversity to the country with words in tamil, hindi and malayalam, and decorating the place with the colorful saris that women wear.

The members of each of these groups conserve their traditions, costumes, language and their dress styles. Although there is little interaction between these groups, they all respect each other and speak English to break cultural barriers and ease the communication between them.

During the summer, between June and August, Muslims from Northern Africa and different Middle Eastern countries move to Malaysia to escape the unbearable heat of their home countries, adding more diversity to Kuala Lumpur.

However, this new component alters the local cultural landscape: wherever you look, you find men with rigid features and torrid beards accompanied by numerous family members and women completely covered with black tunics (abaya) and veils (niqab).

When you first take a look at these covered women, they appear to be identical black shadows, but after taking a careful look, you notice many differences that distinct each one of them from the veil’s anonymity: each one has a different cadence when they walk; decorations on their abayas and the veil’s material also help you identify their status and social class.

When I looked at these women through the TV set, I would ask myself why these women wanted and/or accepted to cover themselves. Yet, after feeling explored by these men’s looks, at some point I must admit I wished I was covered so I could walk in peace.

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