Where did all the women go?
Seriously. Walking around the “New Town” section of Ipoh, Malaysia, away from the small tourist hub that consists of a few gentrifying streets of quaint coffee shops, was a bit like walking through some Twilight Zone episode where most of the women had been erased from the city.
The first day in town we were a little unnerved by the degree of machismo on display, with groups of men occupying most street corners. Even as a dude it felt a little creepy being surrounded by so much undiluted maleness.
On the second day we decided to start counting. One, two, three, four men we passed without encountering a single woman. By the time we saw the first female on the streets of Ipoh who wasn’t named Shannon we had counted to forty four.
Nothing but heads
Forty four men and one woman. In biological terms that’s unnatural. If we were flipping coins it would be like tossing four dozen straight heads. Only on the streets of Ipoh, they were all turning up penis heads.
We didn’t stay in town long enough to get a feel for whether this absence of estrogen was normal. Our visit coincided with Chinese New Year, and that may have impacted the street life we observed.
Some days we did notice more women than on others, but never did we encounter a mix even close to the 51.5% proportion that the World Bank says is the female share of Ipoh’s population. But on those few days we saw enough, anyway, to observe a somewhat jarring difference between how the city’s Muslim and Chinese cultures expressed themselves.
We weren’t surprised to encounter a certain old-world conservatism on the streets of a Malaysian city that lies somewhat outside the normal tourist track. What we didn’t expect was the degree to which some of the resident Chinese population deliberately flaunted that conservatism.
Some restaurants on the “Chinese side” of town, for example, would advertise their ice cold beer selection and pork dishes in a way that seemed to mock religious abstinence from such things.
Ipoh’s residents had struck a live-and-let-live bargain of sorts. A bargain that apparently didn’t apply to us.
More brazenly, though, were the stark differences in women’s fashion with high heels on some, head scarves on others, a micro skirt here and a niqab there. Some women wore clothing revealing enough to draw attention in Santa Monica while others covered even their faces.
And yet for all the provocation, we saw no indications of trouble between the two communities. From the outside looking in, it appeared that Ipoh’s residents had struck a live-and-let-live bargain of sorts. A bargain that apparently didn’t apply to us.
We were walking just a few blocks away from our hotel when I left Shannon briefly on the sidewalk to drop some trash in a dumpster, because I’m good like that. The rubbish bin couldn’t have been more than ten meters away, but the path took me off the sidewalk and out of sight.
When I turned around to walk back to where Shannon waited, dressed un-provocatively in her Old Navy T-shirt and ankle-length skirt, I saw two young men walking in her direction looking intently, and obviously, at her . . . up and down, up and down.
This was different
Now plenty of men have stared at my wife, and I’ve never blamed them. She’s nice to look at. But this was different. These men were not gazing admiringly. They were not ogling or even leering lasciviously. These stares were not designed so much to see as to be seen. They were flagrant and obvious and, we both felt, intentionally menacing.
The message we both understood from these men was that Shannon should not have been out by herself, or maybe even out at all.
Seeing this I angled in their direction and looked back at the lookers, making sure I was seen. I wanted them to understand that Shannon wasn’t alone. I looked at them as intently as they looked at my wife. Not up and down, but right in the eye.
Eventually they looked away, returned to a normal walking speed, and went on their way without doing any real harm.
I won’t say it was a traumatic experience because it wasn’t. But I dare say it was a cultural one.