Posted on 30 July 2015.
By Katrina Marks, Stone Town, Zanzibar
Katrina Marks, of Kent City wrote this account of her time in Zanzibar teaching Muslim children, as a volunteer for America’s Unofficial Ambassadors program. She is a 2012 graduate of West Catholic High School, and a current student at Villanova University.
“It’s not your culture.”
“Oh, girls, you look beautiful!”
“It’s too hot for that, there’s no need.”
“Are you fasting?”
“You’ve become a regular Arab woman!”
“Don’t do that.”
I leave the apartment in the early morning, my computer bag slung over my shoulder, lifting my skirt to avoid the puddles on the pavement. My hijab shifts in the breeze blowing down the alley. I rearrange it clumsily, self conscious of the shopkeepers watching me. It’s the first day I’ve worn the scarf. The canons on the harbor fired three hours earlier, signaling to all of Stone Town that the holy month of Ramadan has officially begun.
Having never visited a Muslim culture before, I am extremely aware of all I do not know—and that’s pretty much everything. Of course, I prepared before I came, researching the rules and recommendations, talking to friends with previous experiences, looking up hijab instructions on Youtube. They all say that wearing the hijab during Ramadan is a gesture of respect for the culture. It’s not something all or even most of the tourists do, but for foreign female residents who are diving into a lifestyle inscribed by Muslim practices, it’s a way of communicating that connection. So I hear.
For more info on America’s Unofficial Ambassador’s program, visit http://unofficialambassadors.com,
But the complexities of Islam and the culture centered on it are not things you can Google. And, as I have discovered, the experiences of one American abroad are rarely if ever consistent with general advice.
In the first few weeks of my stay, before Ramadan, I saw the various tourists wandering through town. Some wear shorts and tank tops, others loose pants and t-shirts. The majority of them make an effort, covering knees and shoulders. Only a few wear veils, and when they do they wear them loosely draped over the back of the head. Passing these few, although I’ve done the reading and understand the purpose, I can’t help but think they look out of place. As far as I can tell, locals are used to the variety. They understand that tourists are largely clueless, new to the place and there for only a short while. They don’t expect veiling of mzungus. And for the life of me I can’t tell what they think of those that do.
As my Youtube tutorials have demonstrated, there is a fashionable component to the hijab. There are thousands of styles to choose from, millions of patterns and shapes and colors of scarves. Like other pieces of clothing, the veil can express the personality of the person. But it is not a fashion statement. You do not put on a headscarf like you put on a headband or a bandana. The choice is complicated, specific to each culture in each place, and it weaves through many facets of life: religion, social structures, gender roles, culture, safety—the list goes on. Too often, I think, travelers see it as exotic, a new trend to try out. That thinking trivializes the gravity of the choice, and comes off as insensitive to those who wear it intentionally.
However, I am not here as only a tourist. I am, at least temporarily, a resident getting to know the local life. And so I am expected to respect the culture of that life. I want to respect the culture of that life. I’m just not sure what the best way is to do that.
I am caught in a place with no clear answer and no neutral ground. If I wear the hijab, people may find me respectful, may tell me that I look beautiful and they are happy I have come to Zanzibar during Ramadan. But they may also find me insensitive, disrespectful of the religious nature of the choice. They may even assume that I have converted to Islam, and take even deeper offence when they learn that is not true. At the same time, if I do not wear the hijab, I resign myself to being seen as a tourist only.
People may accept me for what I am—a clueless foreigner—and act as friendly toward me as always. Or they may recognize me as a resident, and question why I deliberately do not change. Whatever choice I make, I offend half the population.
So, I try to find a balance.
I wear the scarf to work, where my coworkers are all Muslim women. They compliment me, clearly happy with my choice. They say I am beautiful and wish me Ramadan kareem. I feel accepted here, and no longer fear offending these people. But on the walk home I get mixed reactions. Some people look twice, squint their eyes and remain silent. Others greet me with larger smiles than usual. Another woman, a stranger, tells me I look beautiful. In the evening, when I wear it to dinner, I get more odd looks from both locals and foreigners. There are fewer smiles in the places where people expect tourists, where people probably assume I am a tourist.
So I split my day, wearing it in the morning and removing it in the evening. The change itself risks being disrespectful, as people who see me at both times probably find me more insincere than ever. But it is a balance I can keep.
My local friends, most Christians, offer me the most criticism. They explain that people don’t expect it of me, that they know it’s not my religion, not my culture.
I know it’s not my culture. But it’s the culture I’m in.
It’s the culture I want to know better.