A few weeks ago, JG and I were invited to Iftar. It is what they call in Muslim tradition getting together to eat at sunset as they end their day of fasting during Ramadan season. I have been looking forward to being invited to one ever since Ramadan began here in Libya, curious to be part and experience a different kind of culture.
The funny thing was I didn’t know I was already invited to one until we got there. One of JG’s staff often invites us to dinner at his house, which JG and I love coming to because Ali’s wife is an excellent cook. Unfortunately for JG, he didn’t marry the Martha Stewart type so even though he doesn’t complain, I know he is a bit frustrated that I am not skilled in the culinary field (I make a mean Kilawin [a Filipino dish of raw fish/meat marinated in vinegar and spices] but JG is not a big fan of uncooked food). This is precisely why we love coming over at Ali’s house for dinner since we get to eat good cooking once in a while. Anyway, I forgot that Ali mentioned one time that a group of Filipino Muslims take turns in hosting a weekly Iftar during Ramadan and his turn was coming up. So I thought that we were coming over to another regular dinners with a handful of people and friends.
When we got there, a bunch of people were outside his driveway and inside the garage was a long table full of food. My first thought was I wasn’t dressed properly for this. One of the things I keep in mind while here in Libya is the way I dress. Despite the fact that Libyans are not as strict with enforcing Islam appropriate dress codes compared to other Muslim countries; I still try to dress less conspicuously. Back home I’m more of a walking shorts/skirt, regular shirt and flipflops kind of girl, but as a sign of respect to their culture (and to JG’s position as well, I guess) I try to be more mindful with the way I dress. When in Rome…
Had I known it was going to be a sort of religious gathering I wouldn’t have decided to dress casually in a simple blouse and khaki shorts. Nervously I sat beside one of the guests that I had met a number of times and asked what the occasion was, and that was when she explained that it was Ali’s turn to host Iftar. I felt a little embarrassed with my outfit, paranoid that they might think of me as disrespectful. If they did, I will never know as everybody was probably too polite to mention it.
The evening was like any normal get-togethers with good food and some mingling except for some things that were new to me. For example the carpets placed in one corner, the eastern part of the house where they can pray/meditate; and of course the absence of pork and alcohol.
But my favorite part was when all the women were asked to go upstairs while they wait for sundown so we can eat. I think the last time I experienced being segregated from the boys was when I was in school whenever we line up during flag ceremony. As I sat in the room filled with these veiled women, I thought of how Muslim women have always fascinated me. Before I thought it must be hard for them to be bound to their beliefs. I am no stranger to religious do’s and don’ts, still I thought that it must be hard to be restricted even to something as basic as what to wear. Attending a couple of Muslim weddings the bride is hidden somewhere while a male family member is the one who faces the groom in the altar. Someone once told me that only their husbands can see what their burkas cover. And then of course there is the widely known fact that Muslim men are allowed to marry as many women as they can support. I found those things a bit degrading and unfair for a woman.
But when we came here I was finally able to get a closer and more personal insight of Muslim women. I realized that the things I thought restricts them are the really what sets them apart and gives them the edge amongst today’s women. They are no different from me and most women; mothers, wives, sisters, daughters-in-laws, career oriented, and great cooks. But what makes them special are their beliefs, as it is a big part of who they are as a woman. Their husbands revere them as any couple would, some even more than most non-Muslim couples I know. Here in Libya, they say you ought to be extra respectful to women, because you can get a lot of trouble if you don’t. They are given extra care in traffic, lines, and any interaction. And as for their burkas, if anything it makes them mysteriously beautiful. Today, a lot of women give too much away with how they dress or what they reveal and the carelessness of their actions, but with Muslim women you would have to really get to know them in order to really meet the woman and the person beneath the veil.
I look forward to more cultural lessons and experiences while we are here. Ramadan Kareem!