Archive for Monday, May 20, 2002

Foreign cover-up considered

Malaysian state wants tourists to respect Islamic dress code

May 20, 2002


— Covered in an Islamic headscarf, long sleeves and slacks, Nawal Abdul Rahman flies a kite on the beach a few yards from Western women tanning their bare breasts.

Nawal, 20, and her sister Ily, 22, find it surreal to see women topless or wearing only bikinis in Terengganu, a conservative Malaysian state with an Islamic government that is trying to tighten up decorum without losing tourists.

"It's hard to see them in bikinis, because in our religion we cannot accept it," says Ily. "We are afraid, because we want to prevent it from influencing our local people."

Terengganu's state government came under the control of the fundamentalist Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party in 1999. The party has since tried, with varying degrees of success, to restrict alcohol and separate the sexes, and is now turning its attention to tourists.

State tourism officials are considering regulations that would ban bikinis and require new resorts to build separate swimming pools for men and women.

But back in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, the federal government sees the fundamentalists as a threat to Malaysian stability. Its Muslim tourism minister, Abdul Kadir Sheikh, compares Terengganu's officials to the Taliban and says some Europeans have canceled visits because of the bikini battle, though he gives no specifics.

In a recent interview, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said introducing Islamic law in a country with a 35 percent non-Muslim minority would cause "a lot of upheaval."

The Terengganu government is already having difficulty making its edicts stick. A rule segregating men and woman in supermarket checkout lines is widely ignored, and a bikini ban might go the same way.

"What are they going to do? Send in the bikini police?" said Malcolm Botha, a South African who runs a water sports business.

Costly proposition

Terengganu last year received 1.4 million tourists out of 12.8 million visitors nationwide, and tourism earned Malaysia $8 billion. The tourism industry fears a bikini ban would drive away visitors and cost jobs.

But the state's tourism minister, Wan Hassan Mohamad Ramli, sees it differently. Foreigners should respect Islam, he said, and segregated pools would make resorts more appealing to Muslims.

One solution, he told The Associated Press, would be to allow bikinis in some places but not others. Another would be a "code of ethics" telling tourists what to wear on the beach.

In conservative Islamic countries, women wear robes that cover their entire bodies and even their faces. But Malaysia has a more tolerant tradition. Farrah, a 24-year-old Malaysian Muslim who did not want her full name used, wears a bikini and no headscarf, and streaks her hair blond.

"If I sin, it should be between me and God, not me and PAS," she said, using the party's Malay-language initials.

Western influences

At Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil island, on a stretch of palm-lined white sand and crystal waters, Farrah's skimpy bikini looks more in keeping with the surroundings than Ily's headscarf.

Tattooed and pierced Europeans outnumber Malaysians in beachfront cafes blaring music by U2 and Alanis Morissette.

Two topless Swedish women rubbing oil on each other's backs drew stares from local and foreign men, but most beachgoers kept their tops on. Some wrongly believed that the government had already banned bikinis.

"I do think it's insensitive to go topless," says Jennifer Thomson, 30, of Philadelphia. "I guess they're not enforcing the bikini ban. If no one else was wearing one, I wouldn't. But everyone is."

Norwegian Britt Gyldenskoj, who wore a black bikini for a snorkeling trip, said she believed that "bikini bans will scare tourists away."

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