For the past 24 years living in Indonesia (before leaving for study), I have enjoyed the luxury of being the part of Muslim majority. Everything about Islam is well-known; Islamic days or events are celebrated festively; Masjids (mosque) are everywhere, halal foods are available easily.
It never crossed my mind to think how does it feel to be minority until I experienced it myself in Germany and The Philippines.
Something that I always regard as so obvious (with no further explanation) suddenly change into some unknown and foreign things. I was taken aback by the statements, questions and comments people gave me. Many times I felt insulted and forgot that I’m currently somewhere else. Then I realized that I should be more understanding of people who has no idea about Islam or Muslims. I could be the first Muslim they see or have as a friend, so giving the right image is important. But sometimes it’s just unavoidable, really.
Just like about a month ago, when my friends and I had just finished a class in the university. We took a taxi home and I got in in the front seat. The driver welcomed us warmly, started a conversation and a few minutes later he asked me,
“You are Muslim, right?”
“Are you a good Muslim or bad Muslim?”
“Yeah, because you know, Muslims here killed many people.” He referred to the conflict between Muslim armed opposition groups and the Philippine military forces in Southern Philippines which resulting in numerous deaths.
“Is it like that in your country too?”
This is what I hate from what so-called conflict among religious groups. The root of this kind of conflict were usually personal issues between individuals or groups but then it got blew out in a wrong way. Just because it’s the easiest way to differentiate the conflicting groups, suddenly some conflict is between all Muslims and Christians. It’s the false propaganda. Islam, Christian, as well as any other religion teaches kindness, tolerance and morals. If Muslims or Christians make mistakes, please blame it on the individual, not the religion.
“And man can marry as much women he wants, right?” He grinned. “All Muslims are like that?”
I felt really insulted.
“Men can marry more than one woman, yes. But that’s not the case everywhere or even in my country. Don’t generalize thing just because it’s how it is happened here.”
My anger had been triggered. Good thing that the ride quickly ended.
I always caught off guard every time something like this happened. I really want to be as patient as possible when facing curious people like that but the media has already planted a deep false image to their mind. I feel sad that my religion has been misunderstood by numerous people in the world because of some irresponsible acts from many irresponsible people.
But anyway, now it become clearer to me that not all people has ever seen Muslim (probably only from TV), befriending them (my friend from El Salvador even says that it was her first time in her 26 years of life),
or even knowing how we pray.
One day, my class had this excursion to East Germany and every two students has to stay in one room. The following day, my Colombian friend came to me and confessed that he experienced an embarrassing thing.
He was staying in the same room with a Muslim friend from Egypt. They had a nice talk even from the different part of the room. However, the Egyptian friend suddenly turned quiet. My Colombian friend was confused. He checked on him and found the guy bending over beside a bed.
“Hey, man! What are you looking for?” and he followed him bending over and searched under the bed.
The Egyptian friend remained quiet and continued his movement. Then my Colombian friend realized the truth.
“How am I supposed to know that he was praying????!!! I’ve never seen a Muslim prays before!!” He explained in panic to me while I was laughing uncontrollably.
“Oh My God, I’m so embarrassed!!”
Finding halal food is another different thing. It is really difficult.
There are a lot of halal meat shops in Germany but they were located quite far from my dorm. Sometimes it’s such a hassle to go there in the middle of busy weeks. Most of the times, I just buy Doner Kebab from Turkish shops (I miss it!). That’s the easiest way to get halal food in Germany.
In the Philippines, so far I haven’t yet found halal foods so I just buy any chicken meat or sausage. My father asked me what do I usually eat everyday and I answered “any chicken” and he got concerned,
“… but it’s not halal.”
“Then what should I eat????”
If only the seafood available in the Philippines’ supermarket is like in Germany (and our allowance is as much as what we received in Germany, too), I will be buying it for my everyday-meals. However, there are not much options here and the seafood I saw in supermarket will most probably give me an allergic reaction. I discussed this with my fellow Muslims friend and he said,
“…in this condition, let’s just buy whatever we feel safe enough to eat and say Basmalah before eating, otherwise we can’t eat anything. May Allah forgives our mistakes.”
However, even though I have been really careful about my food, sometimes things just happened.
It was on last August when my friend threw a barbecue party in his place for our graduation. As usual, everybody brought some things: chips, drinks, salad and all kinds of meat. We used 2 different grills for pork and chicken meat.
“Here, chicken sausages.”
A friend in charge of grilling offered us some newly-grilled meat. Each of us took a piece without hesitation, another Muslim friend even took the second piece. Then, a friend came and asked,
“Is there any chicken sausages left?”
“These are chicken. Take it.”
“No, it’s pork.”
“Noooo, he said these are chicken.”
“That’s pork.” said another friend of mine with an amused expression in his face. None of us believe him.
“Nooo, really, these are chicken. Let’s just ask the grilling-man to be sure. Hey! these are chicken, right?”
“Yeah, of course!”, the grilling-friend answered in certain, and he gave us a i-can’t-believe-you-guys-doubt-me-look.
“Of cooooooouursee!!” He was getting impatient.
The other friend who said that it was pork meat approached him and said,
“I was the one who bought these meats and these are pork.”
He went to the trash bag and rummaging the garbage.
“Look, this is the packaging. See, ‘Schwein‘ (pork).” He laughed.
“Oh my! … Sorry guys! It was not chicken. Sorry!”
And to think that we’ve let him handle our food.
Aaanyway, it’s a mistake so we let it slide. May Allah forgives us.
Wearing hijab is another really really challenging thing. Not just physically but also mentally.
Last summer in Germany, when it got really really hot and all other students were wearing less and less, many eyes looked at me strangely as if they were saying,
“What is wrong with this girl?? Is she not feeling hot at all?”
I ignored those looks and headed to the library for the group meeting. Turned out, they didn’t turn on the AC inside so it was as hot as outside.
My friend put the strange look I received (since summer started) in words,
“Hey Mia! Why are you still wearing that?”, pointing to my long sleeves shirt, thick jeans and hijab,
“This is summer! You should wear something like this!” while indicating to his short sleeves shirt and shorts, giving me an I-can’t-believe-it-look.
and I was like, “What?!!”
Again, I felt insulted. And out of patience, I answered,
“It’s not like I wear this depending on the season!!”
And he got quiet.
After that, another friend approached me and asked,
“You have to wear this anytime?”
“Don’t you feel hot?”
“Of course, but it’s not like I have other option.”
The options are to wear it or not (see my post from 4 years ago here and a touching article from the mother of a Muslim girl here) and I had decided to wear it, so no backing off. I may be lacking in many other things, but this is the least I can do, to keep this hijab on. It may be difficult and unbearable sometimes, especially at the hottest time of the day, but it’s not like if I take it off I won’t feel hot. It’s the same anyway, so I’d prefer my way.
However, with great decision comes great responsibility.
Some friends are always inviting me to go somewhere, to have a talk or dinner in a nice place, but then it turns out that they want to go to a bar or restaurant-bar. Though I just ordered an ice tea or cola and had a really nice time discussing with them, deep inside I felt uncomfortable and worried about how people will view Muslims in hijab after seeing me in this place and that makes me want to leave the place asap.
Last month, my friend invited me to celebrate his birthday in a fancy place. I checked the place online beforehand because it’s always a ‘drinking’ party with him. And I got worried. What I found were mostly pictures of people having fun clubbing, which was not my thing. There was the restaurant part, but for sure our celebration would continue to the club part.
Actually he was the one who wanted to celebrate his birthday in a fancy way, but since our birthdays were close to each other and the dinner will be on my birth day, automatically it became my celebration also and I had to go.
I didn’t RSVP his invitation because I had been thinking carefully about how should I decide. The place was located quite far from our apartment, in Makati, while I live in Quezon City. It will be late at night and I should travel back by taxi alone since I won’t join them further. But I was not brave enough to ride a taxi alone in a new city so I came to a decision that I will not join them, I will just buy a gift for my birthday friend.
But then my local Muslim friend join us and gladly, we decided to go back together right away after the dinner because he won’t join them clubbing anyway. His family was waiting at home.
The dinner was nice, and we had a fun time. But then, they shifted to the club part and my Muslim friend and I had no option rather than joining them before leaving since the birthday friend asked him to check some things. I remained there for a short time which felt like forever, in the middle of energetic club music (which I enjoy alone but not in public) and numerous bottles of alcohol. For sure, I received many surprised looks from the people there, especially from several Western men and sexy local ladies.
When I arrived at home, I cried a lot. Turns out that place was full of escorts. I was ashamed to my hijab. I regret that I brought it to such a place. I was disappointed of myself for acting irresponsibly.
Such a huge responsibility.
But sometimes, it’s such an advantage too.
An old man from Turkish shop once gave me a free doner kebab since he was so happy to see a Muslim girl in hijab from Indonesia. And I had been receiving many compliments from a German lady and that Turkish old man when they saw me wearing an easy-to-wear hijab.
“Sehr schön! (so pretty)”, they said.
That just made my day.
Being a Muslim abroad also makes you realize the true sincere meaning of Salam or Islamic greeting (In Indonesia, the sincerity gets spoiled since some nosy men use it to tease Muslim girls). I feel happy and amazed every time a random people greets me,
It take me a second to remind myself that this is not in Indonesia and it’s not a teasing, then quickly I answered joyfully,
So, in conclusion, being a Muslim abroad is a challenge. It’s a test to choose good friends, to inform people about Islam, to show our true self and prove whether we will act the same way in any condition, supportive environment (majority) or un-supportive one (minority). Many Muslims stay true to the right way, many lost to the new environment and became unguarded.
Whichever you are, let’s not stop finding the true path.