New Ideas in Penang

I have much more respect for religion when I’m away from home. I suppose I feel permitted to treat English Christianity a little roughly, because it’s part of the culture I was raised in. It’s mine to ignore the customs of if I want to. It’s a kind of cowardly dissent.

But ignoring other religions just seems culturally insensitive.

I don’t mean I take them any more like truth. I don’t.

But I treat them with more care. Tread more lightly. Worry more about offending people.

It’s just part of travelling for me. The same as being open to any other part of a culture that’s foreign to you. You won’t get far if you’re not willing to put aside your own prejudices and beliefs for a little while. Open up to somebody else’s. You can learn, doing this. Even if you pick your own mindset right back up again, there’s a value to looking out through somebody else’s window on the world. A modicum of understanding to be gleaned. Connections to be made.

One day in Georgetown, Penang, we wandered into a street festival. There were stalls giving out free food. Curries and soups and sweets, tiny cups of teh tarik passed from hand to hand. On the street stage a man was raising the frothing of this tea to an artform. The two jugs danced through the air in his hands, tea arcing between them. Now above his head, now behind his back. Families looked on from rows of plastic chairs, most of the women veiled. The stage was set up on the street in front of the town’s large central mosque. And the mosque was busy.

It was our first or second day in Malaysia, and we hadn’t visited a Malay mosque yet. We went in. A little girl showed me the washing space. Talked me through how to get ready to pray. She was sweet. I was lost for words. I couldn’t bring myself to true enthusiasm. I suppose I was more interested in the architecture than anything else. And perhaps the people watching. It was a relaxed building, walkways open to the scant breeze, children skittering across the cool polished stone floors. We weren’t invited into the prayer room. I was glad we’d been invited in this far.

There were leaflets thrust at us. I accepted one, refused many. The man was very polite, but very insistent. The one I took was about the choice to veil. I wanted to know what the women writing in this pamphlet thought. They thought it was their right to cover their heads if they wanted. And it is. But I wonder why they would want to. It’s so very hot here. The local custom of tightly wrapped veils so restrictive.

They talked about wanting to be seen above any distraction their femaleness might provide. I think it’s a sorry reflection of the world that some women feel the way to deal with constant objectification is to hide. This argument strikes me now as on the same spectrum as blaming women who are harassed or attacked because they’re wearing “provocative” clothes. We should not have to hide.

Then I was more open to it, more tolerant. More willing to try on somebody else’s ideas for size.

I suppose I found that mine fit me better, in the end.

But I think I know now what it’s like to wear a different set. It’s a good thing to know.

2 thoughts on “New Ideas in Penang

  1. Interesting and understandable perspective, Kirstie. In my travels, I am frequently amazed at the religious devotion of local peoples, especially in the second and third worlds. Many of the rituals have been passed down for several generations, and are so ingrained in these societies. I suppose the beliefs and traditions are comforting to them.

    1. Yes a lot of the devotions seem so automatic that I wonder if there’s any individual faith behind it. Watching the way people practice Buddhism in most of Asia for example, it doesn’t seem very spiritual. More a duty. I realised recently I sort of like this aspect of religion, the bringing people together, community part. I read an article by one of the cofounders of Sunday Assembly saying he used to say and think that religion was fine, but he didn’t like organised religion. But then he realised it was actually the opposite – the organised bit was the good bit. I read that and thought, exactly!

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