Friday, June 12, 2015

Tolerating intolerance?

This post title maybe sounds slightly offensive (for the politically correct American in me) but it was the best I could come up with because the topic of tolerance has been on my mind. Tolerance is a word that has been floating around the world lately, as we try to figure out how to maintain our identities, beliefs, convictions whatever, while still allowing and respecting others who to hold different beliefs and lifestyles than us. It's tricky really, particularly for me as I roam the world. On the one hand I deeply want to integrate and get to know a culture without offending someone. But on the other hand I feel that it's really important to share who I am and my culture and not lose my unique identity in the new place I live. It's a very difficult balance to strike. I like to blend in. Perhaps it's why I don't like being in small places where without warning people who know me might see me and I might be forced to say hello (sorry haha). I want to see people when I want to see them and be invisible all the other times. ;) So maybe this coupled with my desire to meet locals, learn and appreciate as much as I can about a place, and not offend people is what drives me to do my best to learn and adapt when I move somewhere new. Mostly, I think this is a good thing. But already a week into living in Somaliland I have felt conflicted in my desire to adapt.

In all the places I've lived (outside of the western world) I have made an effort to modify my dress to fit a bit more with the local customs. This meant in Korea I didn't show my shoulders often and I had indoor shoes. In rural Africa this mean wearing long skirts and dresses. None of these changes were difficult and I didn't feel like I lost my style or who I am. When I came here and first came in contact with another American girl who has done a fabulous job of integrating into Somali culture and dress, I discovered that at least I would need to cover my head if I wanted to go out. Overall I've taken this in stride. It's only 4 months and I would much rather be able to go out without being judged and feel like I'm respecting the culture than do what I want. However, there is a part of this adaptation that irks me. Not the fact that wearing a hijab is a bit uncomfortable in the warm climate here. I am not an expert on Islam although I did take a course on the Quran but I do know Muslim women who keep their heads uncovered. I also know that Muslim women in any major US or European city can keep their heads covered if they so wish. Even though wearing a hijab is not part of the local religion or culture. I have also learned that wearing a hijab is not part of the original traditional dress here.  I realize that even the west has a long ways to go when it comes to tolerance and there is certainly still far, far too much discrimination against Muslims in my own country (which I do NOT tolerate). But part of the reason for the hijab is to set Muslims apart (as far as I understand). The problem with this is that I am not Muslim. While I fully respect those who chose to wear the hijab as a sign of their faith or as a way to be close to God, or whatever other reason, I do not have these beliefs; therefore in a way I find it intolerant to expect everyone regardless of religion to dress a certain way.

Anyway, I still will be wearing my hijab but I am still asking myself the question of how we can use travel to begin to foster MUTUAL respect between cultures. Both the host countries and the visitors. I'm not quite sure how to go about this but I do hope that as more foreigners come here maybe people can begin to understand the effort we are making to respect the local customs and understand that we will be different and that's okay.

This post has gotten far too long so I will leave you with some pictures of our field visit yesterday. A kind old man bought me tea, a woman gave me a spicy rice dish drizzled with camel milk and little children shyly attempted to practice their English with me. All while selling lanterns to communities who are completely off the grid. I am thoroughly enjoying the experience of working with a start up that is working in a literally brand new market. Over the last week it hit me how this opportunity has literally tied together almost everything I have done since graduating high school. EWB, Uganda, Cameroon, my studies, research, everything. It's exciting to finally be doing work that is meaningful. I will blog more about the energy situation here later. It's a fascinating case study.

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