Today's guest post comes from Liz Kramer. Liz recently spent the summer in the Middle-East, and is currently in China for three weeks. A Pennsylvania native, Liz graduated from George Washington University with a degree in International Affairs, and spent a year working as a Language and Culture Assistant in Andalucia, Spain. Liz certainly is well-traveled, but this guest post shows that even the best-traveled can still learn from new places and cultures.
Lessons Learned from a Beach in the Middle East
Have you ever been to the beach and realized that every woman around you was fully clothed? All of sudden you noticed that not one is wearing a bathing suit, and everyone is hiding from the sun under an umbrella, not lying out in the sun to get their summer tan?
This experience was a moment of real culture shock when I thought to myself, “Now I’m definitely in the Middle East. “
This summer, I traveled to the Middle East to visit Morocco, Turkey, Jordan, Israel/West Bank, and Egypt. For me, it was a chance to spend a significant time in the region in order to obtain a better understanding of what life is like there.
That critical moment on the beach in Alexandria, Egypt, launched a new thought process in my mind. Though I felt too uncomfortable to go into the water myself, simply observing the other women entering the sea in full niqab (full face-covering veil) or in clothes from head to toe made me start thinking about what life is like in their shoes.
What resulted in the end was new insight from two perspectives: the feelings of a Western woman adjusting to traveling in the Middle East, but also how a woman from the Middle East might feel confronting Western culture.
Each of the countries I visited have significant Muslim populations, and it became obvious to me that I would have to change the way I dressed in order to be appropriate and fit within the cultural context. This is not an easy thing to just do. As a Western woman, it is in our nature to dress a certain way, act a certain way, and be independent, self-sufficient strong women. Coming from a culture where we pave the way for the trends of the rest of the world (or at least we believe we do), it can be difficult to adapt ourselves to somewhere else.
However, I learned that whether we like it or not, this is one of the most important guidelines to follow when traveling in the Middle East (or anywhere else). Cultural sensitivity is automatically a strong sign of respect to the people of the country you are in. By making the simple choice to wear jeans instead of shorts, I was demonstrating that I understood the local culture and could follow its rules and expectations. This was even more true at the beach, where I had to wear shorts and a shirt over my bathing suit. Even this was not enough, though.
In all honesty, when it is over 100 degrees every day, the difference between jeans and shorts is enormous — being culturally sensitive is not always easy! I found myself resisting to dress conservatively almost every day. Wearing a t-shirt that covers your shoulders as well as a scarf can make life pretty hot and uncomfortable. Yet, I could tell the difference of how people reacted to me on the street immediately between days where I covered myself more and days where I did not, from both men and women. The amount of people that stared, honked from their cars, and talked to me was much less as I walked around town. This was true in every city, whether it was Cairo, Amman, or Marrakech.
I found that dressing this way not only brought me respect, but that I was unconsciously protecting myself as well. The less people noticed me as a traveler, the better I blended in. As a woman, safety is always a top priority while traveling, especially in the Middle East, and the way you present yourself may be your silent shield.
After thinking so carefully about how I dressed and acted for seven weeks, this cautious mindset surprisingly followed me home. It was not until I went to the beach just a few days after my flight from Cairo that I thought to myself, why is everyone half-naked?! Don’t they realize how much skin they are showing? It was without thinking that I kept dressing in the same way at home, and it still felt a bit inappropriate wearing shorts or a tank top without a scarf to cover myself. I quickly realized that it was as if I was seeing American life “through the veil,” and the mindset of the Middle East had affected me more than I thought. It crossed my mind that perhaps these are the kinds of thoughts that Muslim women have about Western women when we are in their country and dress according to Western norms.
This was the first time I have returned from a trip and brought so much of the local culture back with me. It has really helped to further my understanding of the Middle East and my passion for being in it! Traveling through this area of the world is an adventure like none other, and I highly recommend it to everyone.
To learn more about Liz and her travels, visit her blog: Liz Kramer Travels