Volunteering Across Faiths

Andrea Moroni Follow / CC BY 2.0

Written by  May 1, 2015

One volunteer shares tips for interacting with Muslim women while volunteering in Tanzania.

Maybe I'm biased, but I always find myself particularly drawn to the women from other cultures throughout my travels. I am continuously in awe of the work ethic of these women. I find that most women in developing countries work harder and longer than most of the men—and certainly harder and longer than I do. All that work is done on top of child rearing (the young infants strapped to their backs as they work are a stark reminder of all that these rockstar women juggle). Who runs the world?! Girls!

That's why I was not surprised to find myself drawn towards the women of the Muslim faith, with an insatiable curiosity to know more about them and their lives in eastern Africa. The further inland you travel, the fewer Muslims you will find. However, volunteers based in Dar Es Salaam, Zanzibar, Morogoro, Arusha and even Iringa will have ample opportunities for interactions with Muslim women. 

Coming from a predominantly Anglo background in cornfield-filled Indiana, I didn’t have many opportunities to interact with Muslim women before I volunteered in Tanzania. Because of this, much like any other cross-cultural situation, I was uncertain of how I should interact with East African Muslim women. 

Here are some ways that for crossing the cultural and religious divide that I've found helpful:

1. Always make eye contact and greet her.

To whatever degree the woman is showing of her face and body, don't avoid making eye contact. Look at her. She is a human, after all, and likes to smile just as much as you do. You don't need to launch into a full on conversation (or you can, if your Swahili rocks), but even those small interactions make a difference. 

2. Notice the bling.

Muslim women will deck themselves out with layers of jewellery on their hands and ankles, colourful sandals, intricate henna, maybe even a flash of bright maroon under the folds of her dress. Yowza! Keep your eyes peeled for these stylin' mamas. Lookin' good, sista!

3. Challenge your existing viewpoints.

It's hard, we know, especially since you may be coming from a background where you have the freedom to choose your clothes. But before you start running your mouth calling and deciding that it's "oppression," just consider, for a few moments, a different perspective on the Islamic dress code.

Consider that these women believe they are saving the beauty of their bodies and their skin, for inside their homes—it is for their husbands and their friends eyes' only. Consider that they are proud to uphold a longstanding tradition, and that progress is actually being made in their efforts toward equality.

Avoid automatically feeling "great pity" for these women, as that propagates disrespect, intolerance and xenophobia.

4. Notice the men.

An easy way to deepen your understandings of Muslim women is to notice how the men around her are interacting. Can you pinpoint her husband? Is he walking with her, in front of her? How does he speak to her, are their interactions decidedly sweet or more business-like?

I won't give away any secrets, but some of my most staunch conclusions (and challenges to that narrow-minded viewpoint of mine) were drawn from witnessing the way Muslim men and women associate in public.

5. Rock a hijab.

Especially if you are working or visiting Muslim-centric areas, such as certain parts of Dar Es Salaam and basically all of Zanzibar, cover up. The act of wearing a head scarf challenges your comfort zone. You should feel uncomfortable when you are walking around these areas in tiny tank tops and shorts. Show your cultural sensitivity, and that not all tourists are scoundrels, by conveying respect in the clothes you wear.

Many Muslim women have come up to me with affirmation and gratitude for my small efforts. What's more, it's an easy way to avoid the calls of "Mzungu!" or obnoxious touts fighting for your shillings. What's more, you'll feel like an absolute goddess.

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Published in Volunteer Abroad Blogs
Megan Lee

Megan Lee is an international educator, traveler and writer. She is currently working in Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda with nine American college students. Read her blog as she makes new rafikis and learn more about Africa this spring.

Website: https://twitter.com/peglegmeg

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