When we travel we import a little of our own culture with us, we can’t help it. But sometimes it pays to think twice about how our hosts might perceive us…
“Madam, why so many Japanese prostitutes come to my home?” said Nazar.
It was a casual question.
He stood on the pontoon hugging our cat, while I sat on the boat chatting to him. We were waiting for my partner, Jamie, to come back to the marina. Nazar adored Millie, a feeling she encouraged by wrapping herself round his legs whenever he visited. Her reward for letting him cuddle her was a fish hooked out of the brackish water by a bit of bamboo and string attached to a twisted hook.
“Prostitutes? In your home?”
Nazar’s English is limited and heavily accented, with a vocabulary learned from passing sailors and conversations had with tourists in his auto-rickshaw. He doesn’t always use the right word. Some time ago, we had worked out that ‘home’ to Nazar meant Fort Cochin, not the two-rooms he shared there with his wife, mum and four children.
“Yes, in my home. Everywhere, madam.” He carried on tickling Millie.
After two years of working and helping us in the marina, he still couldn’t bring himself to call me by my name. But I was encouraged that he felt at ease enough to talk to me so lightly about prostitutes.
“Nazar, how do you know they are prostitutes?”
“No clothes, just under garment. Not like madam.”
I glanced at my cotton trousers and long sleeve tunic, a kind of uniform I had adopted when we sailed through the Red Sea and continued to wear in India.
“These prostitutes, you’re sure they are Japanese?”
“Yes. And Australia. But more Japan now.”
To Nazar ‘Australia’ was a catch-all for the worst kind of westerner. There had been a bad experience with an Australian-crewed yacht once, which had coloured his view of that country. He was too embarrassed to give us the details.
Dismissing the image of a horde of rampant Japanese harlots in their knickers running round his very Muslim household, I quizzed him further.
“Have they just started arriving this week?”
“New from Japan, madam. Always Australia.”
The number of visitors from south east Asia, more specifically China, had been on the increase over the past few years. I began to understand what Nazar was talking about.
“I don’t think they are prostitutes, Nazar. That is how many tourists dress in their ‘homes’.”
“No!” Nazar shook his head and widened his eyes.
What I find interesting is that it wasn’t the fact that so many prostitutes were visiting Cochin that appalled him, or even that so many of them were ‘Japanese’; he was dismayed by the idea that any woman who was not a prostitute would go out in what he took for her underwear.
“Why they must look like prostitutes?”
For a moment, I didn’t know what to say. Because in some way I wondered the same thing. A pile of sleeveless and low-cut tops were gathering dust in the back of a locker on the boat, along with my shorts. I didn’t miss them. Long loose garments which cover your skin are the most practical in hot climates: they protect you from the sun and allow air to circulate in all the right places. And they don’t cause misunderstandings in countries like India where women outside modern cities eschew western-style clothes.
In the nine years I have spent sailing from Turkey to southern (Muslim-dominated) Thailand, I have learned to be ambivalent about women covering themselves. My Turkish girlfriends — wearing tiny skirts, strapless tops and tossing their long hair — had derided women who wore the hijab (headscarf), saying it was an anachronism in modern Turkey. In pre-Arab Spring Egypt, tight-fitting jeans and stretchy T shirts stood next to black abayas (full body covers) and burqas (face covers) in the supermarket queue. We were served in the Sailors Bar in Aden by a girl wearing a diamanté basque and high-cut shorts, who threw a black jilbab (loose full body cover) over herself when she went home. On one island in the Maldives, a fenced-off area was given over to tourists ‘to wear their bikinis’ while local women, clad in black from head to toe, swept the path clear of leaves
I explained to Nazar that in the UK, a sleeveless, short dress is acceptable, but that a naked woman walking round John Lewis would be breaking our laws. Then I told him about communities in places like Africa and South America where nudity is the norm for women (and men).
“No, madam, no.”
Nazar and I were as perplexed as each other by such opposing notions of how women should dress.
It’s easy to make judgements based on our own culture. To assume the moral high ground, or to misinterpret what we see. Maybe that young girl having fun in India wearing her low cut, tight top is studying to become a doctor. Perhaps that woman wearing a veil in Bradford feels liberated by covering herself.
Shalina Litt, a radio presenter in Birmingham, said in an interview with National Geographic that when she adopted the niqab (veil) she had a conversation with a man and thought “Wow! This is liberating. He is having to listen to my words, not judge me by my clothes or my face…”
Of course oppressing women is wrong. Indoctrinating them into believing they should hide behind swathes of cloth for your own selfish reasons is wrong. As is promulgating the idea that girls should place so much importance on their appearance that they strive for impossible goals like ‘thigh gaps’. But I understand where Shalina Litt is coming from. The idea of not relying on your looks to present yourself to the world is an appealing one. And in some ways, it is the feminist ideal.
Times are changing in India, and women are slowly becoming empowered across religions and castes. But it hasn’t yet stretched to allowing ‘good’ girls to wear short skirts.
For the time being I’ll stick with the baggy trousers and loose tunics. It seems like the easiest way to avoid being mistaken for a prostitute.