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The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black

The cou­ple walked into the restau­rant and sat right behind us. The first thing I noticed was that we had the same shoes, a pair of red rub­ber flip-flop, the kind every­body wear at the beach. Her feet were tan, like mine, and I could see a whiter patch of skin where the san­dals’ strap rested. She had pol­ish on her toe­nail and wore a very nice watch—I left mine in Canada but I love watches. We must have been about the same age.

But while I was wear­ing a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, she had an abaya (a long loose-fitting black tunic) cov­er­ing every­thing but her hands and feet. A full niqāb com­pletely cov­ered her face and only her eyes were vis­i­ble through a tiny slot. For a minute or two, while her hus­band was order­ing the food, I won­dered how she was going to eat any­thing. Would she even eat?

She did, and my ques­tion was answered a few min­utes later when the food was brought. She would take tiny spoon­ful of rice in one hand, quickly lift the bot­tom of the niqāb with the other, and put it back as soon as the food reached her mouth. “No won­der she looks so thin” I cyn­i­cally thought. “I’d be too if I had to eat like that!”

She wasn’t Malaysian—I haven’t seen Mus­lim Malay women wear­ing any­thing else than a sim­ple headscarf—but prob­a­bly from the Gulf States. There were quite a few cou­ples on the beach ear­lier, the men shirt­less and the women in full abaya and niqāb. Talk about a cul­ture shock.

I kept on think­ing about the woman in black. Did she care about what she was wear­ing under the black shape­less tunic? Did she put on body cream to make her skin smooth? Did she have nice clothes under­neath, or just a pair of sweat­pants? Did she care more about the lit­tle skin she was showing—her feet, hands and her eyes—than the rest of her body? Did she want to be thin­ner? Did she obsess over the size of her bum?

I’m not going to pre­tend I under­stand why some Mus­lim women wear this extreme inter­pre­ta­tion of the Islamic dress-code—I don’t. And even in Malaysia, a coun­try where Islam is the offi­cial reli­gion, it looked out-of-place.

Trav­el­ing is not just about soak­ing up the cul­ture of the coun­try you are in—you get to see so much more indi­rectly. In Malaysia, I learned a lit­tle bit about Islam and the cus­toms related to the reli­gion (even though the “woman in black” was quite an extreme exam­ple of it). Again, in both Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia, we walked in Lit­tle India and I indi­rectly, I got a glimpse of the cul­ture. In Thai­land, it was inter­est­ing to see that Rus­sians, Ger­mans and French are as obnox­ious and annoy­ing as the stereo­typ­i­cal Amer­i­can tourist.

Trav­el­ing expose you to the whole world, includ­ing dif­fer­ent cul­tures and men­tal­i­ties, some­times way out­side of your com­fort zone.


  1. And the Irish are prob­a­bly the ones aban­don­ing the empty bot­tles of beer on Ko Phi Phi beach! I know it’s cliché, but it is well known that the first thing Irish do when they go abroad is to look for an Irish pub!

    Joke apart, this is an inter­est­ing post. I’ve never asked myself the same ques­tions, prob­a­bly because I’ve never been in this sit­u­a­tion.
    It can be dif­fi­cult to under­stand. It was really dif­fi­cult for my lit­tle cousin, who, when she was about 7, had to sud­denly start get­ting up in the mid­dle of the night to pray and stop eat­ing pork. Her Mum, born a catholic, con­verted to hin­duism when she met a man from Nepal (the father of my cousin; she never met him) and later con­verted to Islam when she met an islamic. Each time, the con­ver­sion was also accom­pa­nied by a name change. My young cousin didn’t under­stand it all and suf­fered from it.

  2. When I was a kid, there were few Mus­lim women in Malaysia who wore head scarves. Today most of them do. Those who don veils are still in minor­ity, but let’s see in another 10 years.

    Trav­el­ing exposes us to dif­fer­ent cul­tures, but in this regard inde­pen­dent trav­el­ers tend to do bet­ter than those in tour groups. At the very least, the for­m­ers have to nego­ti­ate with trans­port providers.

  3. I empha­sis with you here. Same thoughts have crossed my mind many times. Prob­a­bly this is your first encounter with these women. :-)

    Even though I loathe this kind of arrangement/differentiation among men & women & I can’t imag­ine myself in the sit­u­a­tion, I have a pos­i­tive view on this. Pls don’t get me wrong.

    I have trav­elled to Malaysia 3 times and it being a Mus­lim coun­try, I had expected to see abaya (known as burqa in India) in plenty. Even though the main reli­gion is Islam and other fac­tors (e.g. law & order) are quite ori­ented towards it, lack of abaya sur­prised me.. Come on ! They donned only a head scarf and showed their faces too! It looked as if those women have much more free­dom than Mus­lim woman in other countries !

    Zhu, Mus­lim woman in other coun­tries have to abide by this. In India they have to wear black burqa and under­neath it can not be a ‘mod­ern’ dress like a jeans. Come to Mus­lim dom­i­nated part of India or go to any Mus­lim coun­try e.g. Pak­istan, you’ll say the same. :-)

    It’s dis­heart­en­ing to see women’s state there.

  4. @Yogi — Thank you! I agree, see­ing the world with your own eyes is a pow­er­ful experience.

    @Cynthia — Well, I tend to agree with you. Euro­peans can be a pain in the butt! I met this old French guy on the boat to Ko Lanta (I was read­ing a French book so he knew I spoke French) and he went on and on about a pretty racist rat. Ugh.

    @Linguist-in-Waiting — Inter­est­ing! I would assume that women do care a lot about what they wear, after all, we all do to a cer­tain level.

    @barbara — After trav­el­ing, the world looks totally dif­fer­ent from what you see or hear in the media. It’s fascinating!

    @kyh — I haven’t seen that many in Malaysia but I take your word for it. Islam in Malaysia looks like a com­plex subject!

    @Em — Poor kid, that must have been extremely con­fus­ing! How can you adopt so many beliefs?! I haven’t met any Irish in that trip. No Eng­lish either, I get the eco­nomic cri­sis really hit the country.

    @khengsiong — So Islam really pro­gressed in Malaysia the last few years? I have to read more on that, Malaysia is a fas­ci­nat­ing coun­try for the mosaic of beliefs and people.

    @Nisha — I was sur­prised because there are a lot of Mus­lims in France and in North Amer­ica but I have only seen women in full black cloak a cou­ple of times. Some Mus­lim women wear the head­scarf, other don’t. I know Saudi Ara­bia and the Gulf Coun­tries take a much dras­tic approach. I didn’t know about India though.

  5. It’s nearly as though you had an encounter with a dop­pel­gänger. Don’t you wish you could get the chance to have spo­ken with her? I won­der how hot she gets in that out­fit, too?

    Thanks again for adding this post to the Traveler’s Show & Tell blog car­ni­val over at Men­tal Mosaic: Even Home is a Travel Des­ti­na­tion. Hope to see you there again! :)


    • I wish I had the chance to talk to her, unfor­tu­nately it was pretty bad tim­ing con­sid­er­ing there were a few peo­ple with her. Alone, it would have been less intimidating…

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