Freedoms we take for granted


Asia is a diverse place; “the Muslim World” is a diverse place. But despite our ability to sort places under one name as if they painlessly belong together, being in these places cannot help but make this diversity undeniable. A foreigner staying in two places in this case Malaysia and Bangladesh can certainly feel infinitely more at home in one than in the other.

I came to penang to give a paper at Universiti Sains Malaysia’s International Humanities Conference and to see my friends’ first grandchild. My bubbly, outgoing Chinese Malaysian friend is married to her more serene Indian Malaysian counterpart; the two have been my friends for many years, and I know I can stay with them and laugh easily together despite my awkwardly limited language (English), my peculiarly revealing clothing (American) and my horribly clumsy behaviour. This transcendence of race, language, attire and actions is what delights me about Malaysia, and the ease with which I can move among the vibrant colours of Muslim dress, Malaysian fruits and vegetables and the many faces that make up this population draws me back here again and again. This time, however, I was reminded of what we take for granted in Malaysia, a country where I can speak English without feeling misunderstood, where I can wear western-length skirts and even shorts without feeling exposed, where I can explore alone and not feel judged.

That afternoon I donned my shorts, fastened my sneakers and began what I thought would be a simple walk to sort out directions and locations. After one hour, I used my Malaysian cell phone, already set up for me at the market, to tell my friends I was walking in circles and felt lost; they asked me to give them the closest intersection. I looked up and said, “Jalan Burma and Jalan Sehala.” They drove to fetch me, but I sensed they were not pleased with my inability to navigate; never did they mention that what I thought was a road name was actually a “One Way” sign. They didn’t tell me until a day later, and we all had a good laugh about it. What kindness they showed me!

That night we met my friend’s brother and his partner who were visiting from London; the brother, a petite man wearing a ponytail and several necklaces, was raucously funny and kept referring to himself as “she” and “Mrs” while his partner sat rather stiffy in his button-down shirt and tie, looking like a proper Englishman; the two had been together for over 40 years. Now here was a couple that was embraced by the Malaysian culture of acceptance. We all went to the street market and dove into delicious Thai Laksa, chuckling periodically at the “rojak” of Malaysian linguistic interchange, the vast array of dressing options and our various systems of behaviour.

This transcendence of race, language, a ire and actions is what delights me about Malaysia, and the ease with which I can move among the vibrant colours of Muslim dress, Malaysian fruits and vegetables and the many faces that make up this population draws me back here again and again.

The conference expanded my international horizons when I became friends with a scholar from Calcutta, two Iranian scholars who focused on American authors and a lovely Malay woman who had survived breast cancer (it was she who said to me that her mother always told her that dying must not be very bad as she never knew anybody who had returned!) After the three-day conference I was scheduled to fly from Kuala Lumpur to Dhaka, Bangladesh to visit a former student and his family, and for my last breakfast in Penang, my friends took me to Little India.

As we dipped into the curry and ate our chappati my friends chatted in Malay with the couple sitting with us at the table; although I felt a little at sea because I couldn’t understand a thing, after the Malay couple left, my friends explained that they had been bemoaning the loss of social exchange among Malays, Chinese and Indians. They missed that kind of easy socialising, which for some reason seems to have been lost in the politics of the day, but here in Penang’s Little India, the social exchange went off without a hitch. Everyone seemed delighted. 

I flew from Kuala Lumpur to Dhaka, and after I’d landed and picked up a Visa on arrival, three men swooped down on me and practically carried me off to an awaiting car with driver. He spoke no English, so we rode in silence, I chortling at the endlessly cacophonous honking and the trippingly tangled traffc all vying for space and speed on the highway.

We drove for what seemed like hours, weaving, jerking, jumping and swerving along with the honking, all in an effort to keep us moving, and finally the car pulled up to a gate, which opened mysteriously on a long, narrow driveway and a hidden door. I hopped out, thanked him and went inside, where a woman in flowing dress with a scarf gently draped over her head stood at the top of the stairs to welcome me; this was Shamim, my student’s mother, who immediately sat me down for a meal where at least five servants hovered over and around us, pouring, spooning and providing bowls of white rice, spicy vegetables, saucy fish and fresh fruits. Just as I had bitten into a piece of mango, Shamim excused herself, saying, “I must go pray,” and off she went behind closed doors that turned out to be her room, only four steps from the table.

Early the next morning, I was on my own. I ate what I could of the array of spicy vegetables, rice, fish and fruits, and then readied myself to go walk around and explore a little bit. Wearing pants and a short-sleeved shirt, I went out the front door, peered down the long, narrow driveway to the locked front gate and wondered how I was going to get out. I tracked down a brilliantly pumpkin-haired uniformed man who seemed to be on duty as gatekeeper. When I told him that I was going out to explore, he shook his head sternly and signalled that I should wait, as he scurried o to consult with some higher beings, or maybe he was going to pray.

Time seemed to stand still as I waited for his return, but finally he came back with a younger man in tow. After several minutes of exchanges between the two, I began to understand that this man was to come with me or I with him. Thus began my introduction to Dhaka, a conservative city, in which I was merely a woman, one who needed men to escort me, to drive me and to serve me. There would be no solo touring because privileged women in a Muslim country like Bangladesh do not go out alone without a male, and I was the guest of a privileged family.

I had gone to Bangladesh with what I thought was an inquiring mind and an open heart, feeling that my several trips to the much more open Muslim country of Malaysia had prepared me for the culture...

For the next 10 days I was chauffeured, accompanied and treated as though I were precious cargo. To say that I felt trapped would put a negative spin on the luxury of being pillowed in the loving bosom of a generous family, but I am a liberated White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) woman, unencumbered by husband, free from obligations and independent of baggage. Here I had become enveloped in both a culture and expectations that made me feel as uneasy as I’d felt growing up in a nuanced WASP household where nothing was stated directly, and again I was expected to read and follow the non-verbal signals about behaviour and responses.

I satisfied my curiosity and photographed as much as I could of the Louis Kahn parliament, and we returned to the house, where Shamim very kindly offered me several shalwar kamiz. Feeling chastised for having arrived in a skirt, I chose one of the out ts to wear, but I wasn’t quite sure how to read Shamim’s offer: was it kindness or a telling-off?

Covered like a good Muslim woman, off with my drivers to Old Dhaka where we squeezed in and out of smaller and smaller alleys into what seemed like the very pit of the city. Men shouted and jockeyed for position, and I didn’t see a woman in sight. When we wandered around the Labagh Fort’s mosque, a disagreeable man came tearing out of the mosque and spoke harshly to my driver, who told me that he’d been told to get me out of there if he knew what was good for HIM. We hightailed it but not before chatting and shaking hands with the kids playing cricket in the lot next to the mosque. There is nothing like being a woman on the lam in Dhaka!

After breakfast the next morning, I tried to slip out to walk down Mirpur Road, but the guard with the red beard stopped me, speaking in tongues and gesturing for me to wait while he spoke to the other servants who then seemed to suggest he speak to Saad. I kept telling him that it was okay; I was just going a little way, but soon Saad came out and said I should come with him to the car, where we met Hussein who was assigned to accompany me on a walk. Sigh. Being kept in the bars of privilege was beginning to thwart my western heart and spirit, and I wondered about other western visitors who came here, wearing western skirts, smiling western smiles and saying “thank you.” Ah, humanity!

One night we met Saad’s friend, and we all went with her driver to a sprawling, fancy Korean restaurant, where we waited for Saad’s cousin and ordered some sushi; the cousin didn’t arrive until after 9pm, at which point he chastised Saad for not having ordered for him. The two young men smoked cigarettes and ordered pork, eel and soju, which we all drank, as they talked about being a Muslim in Dhaka.

It was during my Dhaka trip when I got an email from my sister in New York who gleefully announced that the state had passed the gay marriage law; in my delight I told Shamim. Her face said it all; she paused thoughtfully and then said to me in the most serious tone, “Do you think those people can really love?” I, perhaps mistakenly, told her about the couple I’d just met in Malaysia, their partnership of over 40 years, a friend in Philadelphia who had just experienced the death of his long-term partner, and the couple I knew that had married in Vermont. Did I think they could “really love”? You bet I did.

Before I left for my planned, but solo, trip to Srimangal, Saad and I got driven back to the New Market so that we could go to the bookstores. After we bought bags of books, we were thirsty and stopped for some juice; Shamim’s advice “not to eat or drink anything from street vendors” rang in my ears, but the iced pineapple juice looked so refreshing that I went ahead and guzzled a glass of it. I worried just a little as I watched the man dip my glass into a random bowl of water before filling it with juice, sugar, ice and more water, but I thought tough western thoughts and assured myself I’d be just fine.

I don’t know whether my sickness was from the street pineapple juice, the man on the train or just an errant germ, but I was sick for the duration of my trip, spending much of my time in Srimangal asleep in my “eco-lodge.” I left Bangladesh shortly after, escorted as always by my driver door to door at 6am. The plane was delayed, but the delay allowed me to meet an Indian Malaysian woman who told me things were changing in Malaysia. She was positive about the political changes, and when we got to Kuala Lumpur, her husband, a Member of Parliament, gave me a ride to the YMCA where I was staying for one night before I took the bus back to Penang.

I had gone to Bangladesh with what I thought was an inquiring mind and an open heart, feeling that my several trips to the much more open Muslim country of Malaysia had prepared me for the culture; however, it was not the Muslim culture for which I was unprepared, but my own western limitations. Who was I to believe I had the right to move around in a culture that prohibits other women from doing so? I first experienced Bangladesh with that edginess of a liberated westerner, but I left Bangladesh with a full heart, remembering the kindness and the friendship I had found there; and my return to Malaysia was like coming home. My friends met me with hugs and hoots, and off we drove so that I could rip off my long pants and throw on a pair of shorts and sneakers. We tumbled back into the car and went o to the hawkers for a safe, hot, welcoming bowl of laksa, for which I grinned and thanked profusely in English and Malay the woman who made it. I had never felt so free!


Faith Watson first came to Malaysia as a Fulbright scholar in 2004 and has regularly returned for friends, food and photos. She is an assistant professor of English at the Community College of Philadelphia, a cellist and a runner wherever she goes.

Related Articles

Oct 2015

A right time for novel fashion, retail and architecture

Gurney Paragon Mall is home to retail and F&B, as well as culture and heritage.

Dec 2013

Penang's secret hash society

Hashers take running to a whole different level of fun.

Aug 2011

A vertical road to George Town

The minds behind the new Akram Khan Company production “Vertical Road” chat with PEM about their creative process.

Mar 2012

Visualising the Poverty Line

Photographer Stefen Chow examines what it truly means to be poor.