America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

Social Customs and Traditional Clothing in Zanzibar.

While volunteering in Zanzibar, Tanzania, Fiona Lloyd-Muller chooses to wear traditional clothing styles in Zanzibar as a display of respect towards Zanzibari culture. International standards of beauty vary from around the world and Fiona introduces her perspective from Seattle, WA, to Stone Town, Zanzibar.

Uzuri ni Katika Jicho la Kuziona ~ Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

“Ahhhh, Wapendeza!” (“You are looking nice!”) I hear this most days on my way to or from The Muslim school, and most days I don’t know how to feel about it. The age old adage says: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and I fully agree. However, growing up in America, beauty is certainly defined and portrayed through one way – an unachievable standard advertised through mostly photo-shopped adverts and extremely skinny and unhealthy young models. When Americans think of beauty – of course the definition varies by age, race, place of residence, class etc. – we mostly think of the beauty we see advertised – perfect, skinny, blonde, white, young women clad in skimpy clothes, bikinis, or prom dresses. We think of Miss America. We are taught less is more in terms of clothing. And of course this can be beautiful. And I won’t lie; at home I am most comfortable in shorts and a tank top or a sundress during the summer. However, as I said before, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder – and this is a very important lesson I am learning over and over again while I have spent my first four weeks in Stone Town, Zanzibar.

When I was doing research on Zanzibar before I came, I felt it was really important to be respectful of the customs here, especially regarding how I look and act, especially with my placement at a Muslim School. I googled and googled, but not much came up. I knew that it was a mostly Muslim African island, and that much of East Africa also had a similar influence, but that this would be a bit more strict – it had much more of a Middle Eastern influence because of the history of the Sultans of Oman’s rule for a few hundred years. During this time, and after, the native African peoples intermarried with the Omani people and this lead to a mixing of cultures. I had found one statistic saying the Island was 99% Muslim. I also knew that knees and up had to be covered, and shoulders and hair had to be covered. From this, I began to get a feel for how I should present myself. I assumed makeup was okay, as I had seen many pictures with women wearing eyeliner and brightly colored lipstick. I packed long skirts past my knees, long loose pants, tank tops with scarves or cover-ups, and tee-shirts, and 6 scarves to use as hijabs or wraps. I hoped and prayed that this was going to be appropriate for Zanzibar.

Now, every evening I pick out my clothes for the next day at school. This usually is a long ankle length dress and button down long sleeve blouse, an ankle length skirt with a t-shirt, or very loose pants covered by a long skirt and blouse or dress. And the most important part, a hijab. In the morning, I get ready with my very long covered clothes, put my hair back in a bun, put my makeup on (I was right that it is acceptable to wear it, even to school), and lastly wrap my hair in a hijab, and stick a pin in to hold it. I am then, and only then, ready to go.

In America a woman’s hair is a symbol of beauty and expression. It represents your femininity and who you are. For this reason I saw covering my hair as a way of taking away from my ability to express myself and show my beauty before I came here. Honestly, I struggle to feel attractive when I am dressed as a Zanzibari school teacher; “covered-from-head-to-toe” just isn’t in my personal vocabulary under the definition of gorgeous. However, I am learning to see it differently. Because the thing is, here, I am beautiful. I am not only attractive, but valued, respected, and maybe even especially beautiful, because I am covering my skin, being respectful towards myself, not calling attention to my body. I know this because when I go out on the weekends and evenings without my hijab, I rarely ever get called “Wapendeza”. To me, I look more beautiful then, but to Zanzibaris, I don’t.

This was taken during our class party for Ramadan.

This was taken during our class party for Ramadan.

And at the same time I am covering myself, I am wearing brilliant, vibrant colors and jewels all over. Although Zanzibari women are generally very covered they always looks stunning. The bright colors and patterns, pearls, jewels, tassels and more that are a part of every Zanzibari women’s closet are beautiful, and not exactly modest. What I am trying to say is that although they don’t express themselves through varying amounts of clothing worn or showing skin, the expressions of creativity and color are endless when it comes to clothing patterns, makeup, and jewelry. And to them – and I am learning to feel the same way – this is beautiful.

I also would like to clarify one misconception that many in America, including myself before this trip, had about women dressed in Hijabs and Abayas (the long black robe type thing). I can’t speak for women in other Muslim countries, but here, I have never felt one bit of anger, oppression, or stifled feelings about the strict Muslim manner of dress. Women who are Christian either don’t wear the hijab, or decide to wear it just to fit in, and women who are Muslim seem to have no problem wearing it. At this point, and in this place, it seems to be just an important decorative and protective piece of clothing that is part of life, and is not holding women back or holding them captive in any way. It is a beautiful and important custom and nothing much more.

So when I hear “Wapendeza,” and my first thought is “Me? No, I look like a blob of bright colors,” I have to remember that the definition of beauty is varying, and it would be a boring world if we all looked and dressed the same. Now I am coming to accept the word “Wapendeza” to sometimes describe me in Zanzibar. In fact, it is a privilege to be called that, as I am sure they comment on me more often than the average Zanzibari woman because I look so different dressed this way. My white skin, European features, and height are things that already have me standing out, and even though I am attempting to follow cultural customs of the place I am in, I will never entirely fit in, and I will not try. In my experience with “Wapendeza,” it is a sign of two cultures meeting – The American trying to be respectful yet always standing out, and the Zanzibari appreciating the effort made, even if they are really chuckling at the ridiculousness of a Mzungu (foreigner) dressed as a Zanzibari.


2 comments on “Social Customs and Traditional Clothing in Zanzibar.

  1. Pingback: Last minute Halloween costumes for adults and teens, DIY easy » 2014 Homecoming Dresses

  2. Doglie Jack
    August 25, 2014

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and are taught less is more in terms of clothing. And of course this can be beautiful. At home I am most comfortable in shorts and a tank top or a sundress during the summer. This usually is a long ankle length dress and button down long sleeve blouse, an ankle length skirt with a t-shirt, or very loose pants covered by a long skirt and blouse or dress. I am really grateful to you for this great content.

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