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6 Expat Women Share Their Experiences Living in Muslim Countries

by Jennifer Malia Nov 15, 2016

Rosemary Gillan Griffith-Jones, Write. SaidRose

“I’ve learned to adopt a ‘see local, do local’ attitude when driving in foreign countries, whilst reminding myself to behave when I’m back on home turf in Melbourne. In Malaysia, I quickly learned that the most important rule for a Malaysian driver is that he must always be in front of all other cars on the road. I also learned that I must look as un-female and un-expat as possible, particularly on rural roads. Early afternoons are the worst because the driver has had a long leisurely lunch at his local mamak (Muslim food stall) and then heads back to his kampong (village) for a nice afternoon nap. On a road with an 80 km/hour speed limit, he is presumably satiated with a good nasi lemak (the Malaysian national dish) that he washed down with a teh tarik (hot foamy tea with milk). He travels at a leisurely 60 kms/hour until his sleepy eyes spot the Western female in his rear vision mirror who is patiently waiting for oncoming traffic to clear before she can overtake. At the precise moment she has the all clear to proceed, he guns it. The chequered flag goes down, his accelerator pedal gets hit to the max, and the Malaysianapolis 500 begins.”

Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore, And Then We Moved To

“I’m a Pakistani expat who lives in the United Arab Emirates. Having lived in the Muslim world, I thought I would already know everything about the local culture in Dubai, but as a non-Arab living in the Arab world, I encountered cultural nuances that I wasn’t expecting. As a Muslim, I was used to fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, but I was not prepared for how strictly this was enforced in the UAE, where even non-Muslims get fined for eating and drinking outside. In Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim country, you wouldn’t get fined for eating in public during Ramadan. I also noticed differences in the way women dress in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. A Pakistani woman who chooses to cover up does so to be modest for religious reasons, but Emirati women wear abayas (robe-like dresses) that are inherited more from their Bedouin culture than their Muslim religion. It’s not unusual to see an Emirati woman covered from head to toe in a designer abaya with jewels and embroidery, removing her niqab (face cover) to chew some French fries or to take a sniff from a Shisha (favored tobacco) pipe in a local cafe. Some Emirati women even wear traditional dress in their home country to distinguish themselves as Arabs, but when they travel to other countries, they wear jeans and T-shirts.”

Nicola Beach, Expatorama

“When I lived in Turkey as a British expat, something that utterly baffled me was the women pedestrians. They normally wore a hijab (headscarf), which acted as blinkers severely limiting their peripheral vision and surely muffled the sound of any oncoming traffic. They would step out into the notoriously chaotic traffic without warning and without glancing left or right. The explanation from Turkish friends was that they trusted in Allah to protect them. I was brought up with the UK’s Green Cross Code, which included the mantra, ‘look left, look right, look left again,’ and all the rules about where it is safest to cross a road. Needless to say, I never adopted the pedestrian habits of Turkish women when navigating the streets.”

Lisa Ferland, Knocked Up Abroad

“I celebrated my twenty-third birthday in Brunei Darussalam after living there for only two weeks. I, a tall, young, American, non-Muslim woman, was invited to the Ministry of Health’s conference room where I found a beautiful cake bearing my name in icing and all of my new coworkers singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in Bahasa Malay. I was a foreigner and a newcomer to their department, and yet, they welcomed me with open arms. The selflessness, generosity of spirit, and warmth of this first impression forever imprinted a warm spot in my heart for Bruneians. My light skin tone and height meant that I couldn’t ever blend in physically, as I stood head and shoulders above every Bruneian — male and female. Accepting that I would always be considered an outsider, I learned a few words in Bahasa Malay. I could negotiate prices in the markets, respond to a few simple questions, and acknowledge someone whenever I heard the words, orang putih (‘white person’). Learning a bit of the language put the Bruneians off guard. Their thoughts were easy to read across their faces: ‘How much does she really understand?’”

Jennifer Malia, Munchkin Treks

“Three weeks after I moved to the United Arab Emirates, an Indian businessman showed up at my apartment. I invited him in but left the door open, watching sand blow into the entrance. I had read that it is against Sharia law (the law of Islam) for a woman to be alone with a man in a closed room, or even a car. I wasn’t taking the chance of being deported by closing the door. I confirmed that it was my name on the shipment. He said, ‘Where is your husband?’ I said, ‘My husband isn’t here.’ This was easier than admitting that I was a single, white, non-Muslim, American woman who moved to the United Arab Emirates all on her own. He then asked, ‘When does your husband come back?’ I didn’t consider that he wouldn’t give me the shipment until my imaginary husband showed up. Certainly women were permitted to get shipments of their own, weren’t they? I said, ‘I don’t have a husband.’ He looked puzzled, probably wondering if anything had been lost in translation. ‘Okay, you sign for the shipment.’ Five minutes later three Indians wearing light blue jumpsuits carried ten boxes into my apartment with their bare hands.”

Clara Wiggins, The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide

“When we arrived in Pakistan as a British expat family in the summer of 2008 with a baby and toddler in tow, we always knew there was a very real possibility that we would be sent home. We had been told three major incidents affecting Westerners was all it would take, and there had already been two bombings. We carried on our lives as normally as you possibly can when you live on a compound within a protected diplomatic area. We had to have our car checked for bombs every time we returned from ‘outside.’ Even though I didn’t like to take my children off the compound and was terrified of a bomb every time I had to stop for a security check, my family and I finally started to settle in and make friends. Eventually, our luck ran out when the Marriott bombing happened in October of that year, which was just a few months after we had arrived. The bomb was so loud that we heard it from our house, which was several miles away. Many were killed or injured in that attack, including some of our colleagues. Islamabad went back to being a post for singletons and childless couples. Pakistan will always have a place in my heart. I hope one day to return.”

Some of the expat women featured here also share their memories of parenting abroad in “8 expat moms share their funniest stories of raising kids in a foreign country.”

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