The Woman in Black

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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.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. People who don’t travel internationally (and I put myself in that category) really miss out on experiencing other cultures both directly and indirectly. There is some sort of understanding missing when the only contact is via the newspaper or television. Nice post.

  2. Ah, great post. When I was in transit in Doha, Qatar back in 2005, I saw women wearing the black abaya and niqab for the very first time. The interesting thing is that they wear make-up underneath, but one would ask what for, when nobody else would see them. I was heading to the restroom of the Doha Airport, and the entrance for males and females were quite close, that when I was exiting, I saw a woman entering and she took off her abaya as she entered, and she was wearing the most gorgeous dress I’ve ever seen at that time.

    You’re right with the point on traveling and exposure to areas that are outside one’s comfort zone. I see that as part of the fun of travel. And yes, there’s obnoxious tourists everywhere, I think they come in various forms and flavors. When I was in Hungary, the most obnoxious tourists were British (who found the Hungarian word for “cheeseburger” very funny they felt like sharing it to every person on the street), while when I was in Peru, it was the Israelis. I’m pretty sure the Filipinos are obnoxious too, but I haven’t found where yet.

  3. Hi Zhu,

    You have understood the bottom line- we travel to understand how people and places are and if possible, appreciate them more.

    This was an intersting post. You went beyond the surface of how another woman in a different culture lives.
    We are all the same women inside a niquab,a short or a pair of jeans. It is culture and language that make us different.It is always a small victory to bridge the gap.

    Bye for now & Bises.

  4. Well, a growing number of young Muslim Malay ladies are donning the niqab, albeit not the black cloak. Just a face veil that covers the face but the eyes. Talk about Arabization in Malaysia.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. @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.

  9. It’s nearly as though you had an encounter with a doppelganger. 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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