Hayate Ait Bouzid is a former Master student Anthropology at the VU who did her fieldwork research on the environmental behaviour of middle-class people in Brunei Darussalam. A country that is barely known by the large public or at best misconceived. She is sharing her story about how the preconceived view of Brunei made her question her trip to this Southeast Asian country.


Photo by Hayate Ait Bouzid

Being back from my three months of fieldwork in Brunei Darussalam, it feels like I have never been there really. It all seemed like a dream. With emphasis on the word dream not nightmare. To be honest, in the beginning I was quite afraid of this country, afraid of the unknown. Especially with having very few people in my surroundings who knows something about this country. And even if they knew about it, the first two things they would say were: ‘Oh yes, it’s located on the Island of Borneo, I have been to Sabah you know’ or ‘Oh.. do you know they have Sharia there..?’.

The latter really made me question my trip to Brunei. In one way or another I was afraid it would limit my research. So a few weeks before going there I really had this thought: ‘Sh*t what did I get myself into, by going to this country…?.’ I was browsing on YouTube for a few minutes of reassurance, but I couldn’t find much. The feeling got worse, with every news article I read about the restrictions by the Sharia law in the country, the negative stories about the Sultan and how Christmas was totally banned in Brunei.

The association with Saudi Arabia was made very easily. They had oil and the Sharia, so it didn’t need much to convince me that this was a true replica of Saudi Arabia. I wasn’t really concerned about my safety, but more about the restrictions. ‘Would I get access to my respondents? Would my gender hinder my research?’

It is funny how a French-Moroccan Muslim anthropologist who considers herself ‘open-minded’, is afraid to go to a Muslim country just because she heard and read a few things about it. I started to view this country through a black and white lens, without leaving any space for nuance. I forgot that this was not the first time that the adjective Islamic was portrayed in a negative manner in our society. But this time it was different, the adjective was used in association with a continent that was unknown to me. ‘What if in Southeast Asia they were really extreme..’

Thinking back while writing this, this fear of the unknown was mostly created through the media. In our society the media has an important position and its influence is big. It basically has the power to influence our attitude and thinking towards a specific country or group of people. It has the power to create wrong stereotypes. Cultivating the fear of the unknown to a degree that even a Muslim becomes afraid of going to a Muslim country.

But hey, little did I know that these three months would have a positive impact on how I viewed unknown places from now on. Brunei is totally not what I expected, from a positive point as well as a negative one (I didn’t expect the public transport to be that terrible). And the best of all, I hardly felt that this country had the ‘vibe’ of a Sharia country (keep in mind: I have never been to a Sharia country, but I guess the media did a great job in creating that ‘vibe’).

I have seen it all, from hot pants to niqabs. I have seen teenager couples walking hand in hand all the time and even a man with long black hair, eye make-up and beautiful red polished nails working as a restroom attendant in the Yayasan Mall, built by the Sultan. Not really something you would expect in a Sharia country, right?.

Muslims and non-Muslims live in harmony and respect each other. Apart from being only compatriots, they were going to the same schools, living in the same neighbourhoods and in the several cases that I encountered even being best friends.

During my stay in Brunei, Chinese New Year was celebrated publicly at the Chinese temple with the Lion dance. That day, my Chinese friend took me to a Chinese open house. Open houses are very common in Brunei during Chinese New Year or the Islamic Eids. People open their houses for people to come eat and have a good time together. At the open house that I went to, they even had halal food for their Muslim friends and guests, something I really could appreciate. Towards the end of the celebration (after 2 weeks) the Sultan also held an open house and invited all the Chinese Bruneians to eat at his palace.

And then the most important thing, gender equality. Yes ladies and gentlemen, the ‘West’ could really learn from this country.. Equal education from beginning to end (for all subjects), equal work positions and same salary (!). Brunei has even one of the few all-female manned deck crew, something that is unfortunately still unusual in the 21st century. Along with that, I met with some really powerful and inspirational women that did great things for the Bruneian society.

To keep it short, this experience taught me one important thing: never expect the media to fill in the blanks for you. If you never visited a country don’t assume you already know everything about this country, just by watching some videos on YouTube or by reading some news articles.

Lastly, I don’t want this to sound as if I have been paid by a Bruneian tourism agency, but I really invite everyone to visit Brunei. Of course, like any other country it has its own negative points, but the overall impression that I was left with was more than positive. After all, I am happy I didn’t let my fear overcome me from going. I have always wanted to see how Muslims in non-Arab-Islamic countries practice their own religion and the fact that Brunei was unknown to most, made it an even more unique experience.

As one of my Bruneian friends once told me: ‘Brunei is a treasure that needs to be discovered’. To be honest, in the beginning I was quite sceptical about this phrase, but like any other treasure it takes time to appreciate the beauty of Brunei Darussalam (Abode of Peace).

From now on, I won’t let my fears get in the way in restricting me from the beauty of this world and its people.

This blog post has been previously published on standplaatswereld.