October 6: Defining Modesty

In the last four months I have lived in three very distinct locations: Zanzibar Tanzania, Canada, and Lilongwe Malawi. One thing that has struck me is the varying ideals of modesty and what women wear (are expected to wear) in each of these places.

In Zanzibar the majority of local women do not wear pants, they wear a hijab and and cover from neck, to forearm/wrist, to the ankle. This can be mostly explained by the fact that the population is 95% Muslim. As I wanted to fit in while there, the clothing I chose to wear was quite modest and conservative by Canadian standards. Before leaving Canada I thought I would be very uncomfortable dressed this way, but quickly found comfort in being viewed for positively accepting and participating in the cultural norm of clothing choices. Zanzibar is a beautiful tropical island that attracts a lot of European tourists who dress just like they do at home, which the local people find upsetting and offensive. In the end, I was surprised to find myself more uncomfortable on the beach with the tourists than I was in the village with my colleagues.

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Then I headed home to Canada for the majority of the summer there. Once back in Canada my heavy clothes from Zanzibar were happily stowed in my drawer for future use and my shorts, skirts, and bathing suits made their annual appearance. Myself and my pale skin were happy to get a bit of sun, after spending a couple of months on a really hot tropical island!

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Finally onto my final destination for the year: Malawi. Although Malawi is a neighbouring country to Tanzania, it is a country with a population consisting of 68% Christian and 25% Muslim people. So I figured things would be a bit different from Zanzibar. I was encouraged by EWB to bring clothes that covered at least the top of shoulders to my knees and to bring a couple of skirts to wear in villages where wearing pants is not acceptable.

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The packing list for Malawi was correct, and I indeed feel comfortable so long as the top of my shoulders and knees are covered.  So the biggest surprise came to me, as I realized, yes most women (even in the capital) cover their knees and shoulders as an act of modesty -yet public breast feeding is totally acceptable here.

I am used to life in Canada where breastfeeding in public happens, but is are. Perhaps because Federal laws do not specifically address a woman’s right to breastfeed and British Columbia and Ontario are the only two provinces have laws that protect a woman’s right to breastfeed. And *if* you do see a woman breastfeeding in public she is often heavily covered in blankets. Yet  in Malawi, no one bats an eye at the women who publicly and openly breastfeed their children in friends homes, restaurants, on the bus, or even just on the street.

My Canadian culture has taught me it is ok to wear basically whatever I choose in Canada, yet I wonder how a breastfeeding Malawian woman would feel in Canada?  While it would be ok for her to show her knees and shoulders, she may feel Canada is conservative due to breastfeeding openly in public is often frowned upon.

My conclusion, I cannot possibly begin to define modesty.

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