Indecent Exposure: Crossing the Atlantic
No matter how much I travel there are always surprises and lessons that start almost as soon as I set foot on a plane. This year’s journey from Washington DC to Mumbai was no different, except the first surprise actually happened as I waited patiently in line to board the actual plane. An attendant came running up to me and stopped me from boarding, asking me to cover my legs because someone had felt offended by the exposure of my supple calves. (Maybe they’re more slender than supple.) I was offered some pajama pants to borrow for the flight but declined them in favor of the jeans I had in my carry on bag.
Like I was, you’re probably wondering why this flight had a dress code banning shorts. My flights were via Saudia airlines, a Muslim carrier with a few different rules. No shorts for starters. Or beverages of an alcoholic nature for that matter. A prayer area in the rear of the plane with ornate rugs. All movies edited for content. All cleavage and thigh above the knee became indistinguishable olive colored blurs. Crosses on movie set walls received the same treatment. Most in flight announcements ended with the phrase, ‘May Allah accept our good deeds.’ Little minor shocks that had little impact on the comfort or efficiency of the flight yet reminded me I was out of my normal cultural element.
I must admit that I am quite ignorant of many aspects of many religions. I couldn’t help but make eye contact with women passing by my aisle seat on the way to the bathroom. Not because my libido was acting up but because their eyes were the only visible features among a sea of cloth.
And this made me think of the marginalization of women that is often tied to religion. I don’t know enough about Islam to know the basis or reason for women covering their faces. (I’ve heard that it is an act of obedience towards God and a step towards people being judged by their character rather than appearance. There is also a dress code or hijab for men as well but requires far less modesty in comparison.) And before you think ‘Yeah Islam really does repress women’, look at some of the other religions out there as well.
I did my high school dissertation about the gnostic gospels and Christianity. In the Old Testament there is the creation story that God created the world in 6 days, created man and woman in the form of Adam and Eve, and rested on the seventh day, right? In actuality the story of Adam and Eve was written hundreds of years later by scholars as an allegory to the Jewish King to focus on his leadership duties rather than his many concubines. As a result Eve was made out to be a villain and many people point to this story as their basis that men are superior to women. Because if it’s written in the Bible then it must be the gospel truth!
My issue is not with organized religion in general, but with womens’ often subservient roles within those constructs. Are our beliefs promoting peace and equal rights to all people? Why am I more qualified to become a priest than half of the world? Because I can grow a beard? Why am I free to express myself and wear almost whatever I want while others must conform to wearing the same outfit as everyone else?
I relate more to Bob Marley’s view of ‘Love is my religion’. As long as you love yourself and others what does your gender matter? Or the way you dress?
The amazing thing about traveling is that it helps me to recognize my own ignorance and weaken prejudice. We are all prejudiced to a degree. We make assumptions about people based on their background and appearance. Sometimes assuming the best, sometimes assuming the worst. But when we spend time with different groups of people we begin to replace our ignorance with understanding.
I am still ignorant about many things, like the severity of smoking in a Saudi Arabian airport. (Two friends I made during my 10 hour layover in Jeddah learned that lighting up a cigarette on the tarmac will quickly result in your boarding pass being revoked, and you better be convincingly remorseful if you want to get it back.) I hope that my upcoming travels will help to shed light on some of my ignorance and help me become more informed about life outside my usual borders.
It has already brought forth some thought provoking questions like those mentioned above. And it has already made me extremely grateful for the lack of censorship and restrictions in my life. I am free to enjoy a little beer, see a little cleavage, and wear my favorite shorts. Just not on certain flights.