August 13, 2015

Journalistic experiment: what means to be a Muslim in Lithuania

Two female journalists, when making a research, tried to live as Muslims and to have a chance to feel on their own what experience women covering their faces by veils in Lithuania.

Jurgita Laurinėnaitė-Šimelevičienė, Giedrė Buivydienė, weekly Veidas

About 3 thousand Muslims live in Lithuania, however, why we almost don’t see women covering their hair by headscarves and their body lines – by long gown as it is common for female Muslims?

If, anyway, our sight catches somewhere a woman with the head coverage or the veil opening just her eyes, we may be almost always sure that she is only a random foreigner.

Here Tatars, the majority of whom are Muslims-Sunnites, have been living in Lithuania for almost 600 years. After renewal of independence in Lithuania, the number of Muslims having come from Turkey, Africa and other countries started increasing as well. Lithuania is becoming a new home not only for Islam-professing refugees from states being convulsed by unrest – nowadays we also hear intentions to accept hundreds of Muslim refugees from African countries – but also for foreigners coming to study or work here.

Per strada con giornalisteAfter fall of the Iron Curtain, another tendency was also noticed, i.e. more and more Lithuanian women having moved to foreign countries for their work or holidays, start romance relations with Muslims, make families but come back to Lithuania to start here their family life. Often Lithuanian women, having become wives of Muslims, convert themselves to Islam; thus, a light-haired, blue-eyed and Lithuanian-speaking Muslim is not any news in Lithuania of 21st century.

Nevertheless, it seems as if Muslims do not exist in Lithuania at all. As well as homosexuals and homogenous couples growing up children „do not exist“. Equally as there “weren‘t“ disabled people living on the upper floors of blockhouses without elevators during the Soviet times.

Our research shows that majority of Lithuanian Muslims (in particular – women) feel themselves almost the same as do homosexuals because both of them are made to live double life due to intolerance and stereotypical attitudes of society. Only some of them conceal from their familiar people their sexual orientation and the other – the chosen religion and lifestyle based on its requirements.

As the newest social survey represents, about one third of Lithuanians would not like to live in the neighbourhood of and rent accommodation to Muslims, and about one fifth of them would not like to work in the same job place with Muslims. Muslims in the eyes of Lithuanians are one of the least preferable social groups, like the Roma (gypsy), former prisoners, mental patients, homosexuals or Chechens.

“Many familiar people do not know that I am a Muslim. I am just too weak to fight against stereotypes and argue that my husband was not forcing me to accept Islam, that it was my choice and I feel better so, that I have not betrayed Jesus and have not done anything bad. I am choosing not better but easier way. Moreover, I do not want to worry some family members, in particular – elderly ones, as they will not really understand and get nervous without any reason“, a Lithuanian female, having converted to Islam two years ago and together with her foreigner husband living in Vilnius, said to Veidas. The young woman, who will be called as Agne here, asked not to mention her real name and details of her personal life as she fears to be recognized by her friends and familiar people.

The interviewee has disclosed that she is wearing a traditional black dress of Muslim women and even a facial coverage niqab only when visiting the motherland of her husband. She would like to dress herself so in Lithuania; however, so far she has not had sufficient courage to wear even hijab – to cover her hair by a cloak. The woman is sure that it would not be safe for a traditionally dressed Muslim woman in Lithuania.

“It happens in France that Muslim women wearing facial coverage niqab are being raped or hit. I haven‘t heard anything about violence cases against Muslim women in Lithuania but I just feel uncomfortable to wear Muslim clothes here. People look and replicate. You must be very strong to be yourself and overcome all stereotypes. I cannot do it yet. I do not know what will be future“, – Agnė expresses her self-feeling.

Therefore, how indeed a woman wearing traditional Muslim clothes feels in Lithuania? What do Muslim women experience in our country? Finally, is our society already prepared to accept differently looking people?

To find answers to these and other questions, authors of these lines decided to make a journalistic experiment to self-assure what means to be a Muslim in Lithuania. Having dressed in abaja – a long black Muslim gown and having covered our hair by cloaks and our faces – by niqabs, we tried to experience what Agnė and other Muslim women living in Lithuania do not dear doing yet: we were walking around the downtown, visiting shopping centres and a cafe, buying in the market, riding the public transport, going to the state institution to arrange personal affairs, trying to rent an accommodation and even looking for a job.

Our goal was to experience by ourselves if our society nowadays is sufficiently mature to respect and accept people having chosen another religion, and what imprint on our approach towards Muslims was made by the events of the 11th September and the armed attack in the editorial office of Charlie Hebdo.

Therefore, we are starting examination of tolerance of Lithuanians.

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