7 Lessons From Traveling Solo as a Hijabi
As much as I am not a big fan of the term ‘hijabi’, I cannot deny the fact that in a highly visual world, what I wear plays a big part in how people perceive me.
Solo women travellers aren’t rare nor hard to find. Women hold an equal stake in the solo traveling/backpacking community today.
A hijab-ed solo traveler though is a whole different matter.
I have often been asked: “Isn’t it hard to be a solo traveler with the hijab?” and “Don’t you face any challenges while traveling around, especially in the West?”
My answer has always been the same: Not really.
Perhaps I’ve not really given it much thought prior to this. Truth be told, I’ve never seen myself as any different from the other women travelers I meet on my travels. But you know what?
I AM different.
It took a while for me to appreciate the situation I’m in and the unique learning opportunities I’ve had.
So here are 7 lessons I’ve learnt from traveling solo as a hijabi.
1. The way other people treat you depends a lot on how you show up.
People will naturally mirror your actions. I have learnt that if you are open, friendly and genuine, then other people will treat you the same way. I don’t make my hijab an issue, so they don’t make it an issue. Most of the time, the travelers I meet on the road barely bat an eyelid about my hijab. To them, I am what I am – a fellow traveler, trying to figure things out as I go along.
I have learnt that I need to teach people how to treat me, by doing exactly how I would like to be treated. When you greet others with a smile, with an open posture and with a glint in your eyes, you invite others to treat you the same way. When you close yourself off to others, well, people are too caught up in their own lives to bother prying their way in.
2. The world isn’t the terribly scary place it’s portrayed to be.
Perhaps it’s the traveler mentality – we’re all in this together, so let me help you as much as I can because God knows I might need the same kind of help in the future – that makes it so easy and a lot less scary.
I have been treated with so much kindness throughout my journeys. When I was lost upon arriving in Sevilla late one night, a fellow traveler from South Africa offered to navigate and accompany me to my hostel, and he insisted on nothing in return.
In Vienna, I shared a room with a Romanian traveler who would always share her bread and jam with me. In Bali, a female traveler who was in her late 40s sat down with me and imparted to me such wise words about life and love when she realised I was struggling internally.
My faith in humanity constantly gets restored when I travel solo. The world is filled with beautiful souls. All we have to do is to keep our eyes and heart open to them.
3. Other people are genuinely curious about Islam and it is up to us Muslims to be open about sharing our faith.
The hijab is a very real symbol of my faith, and people often get curious. Especially in today’s media-saturated world, it is not surprising how little people actually know about what Islam truly stands for.
Instead of being a hindrance, my hijab has led to many wonderful conversations about faith, religion and humanity.
In the common spaces of hostels, I have spoken about Islam with people from different walks of life and of different faiths. Each time, I walk away with a renewed conviction in my faith and a stronger desire to keep learning about it. It has also made me realize the importance of open dialogue. We are, after all, all humans to begin with.
I have had many women travelers ask me to teach them how to wear the hijab, and I’d gladly oblige. The wonder in their eyes the very first time they try on the hijab is something I will always hold dear to my heart.
4. The Muslim sisterhood (& brotherhood) is real.
The hijab is like a sorority ring – it’s a physical symbol that screams “Hey, we’re family! Whaddup girl!”
Whenever I meet a fellow Muslim sister on the street, the smile is instant. If we pass by each other, the salaam will be said.
My travels have been made a lot easier because of fellow Muslims, male and female, who are so giving of their help when they know I am traveling alone.
I have had heavily discounted (if not free) meals at sit-down restaurants given to me without my asking, random shopkeepers would hand me snacks as I pass their stalls, and I have been shown to my hostels many a times by kind Muslim sisters whom I meet while navigating my way from the bus or train stations.
A shopkeeper once told me, “Being allowed to help a traveler, what more a Muslim traveler, is God’s way of answering my prayers.”
5. The hijab protects the woman, and is a reminder that Allah is always close.
Often, other female travelers will share stories of how they sometimes get harassed on the streets and by other male travelers. My interactions with the men I meet while traveling have overwhelmingly been respectful. Some occasionally get cheeky but, hey, I appreciate that’s all done in good fun with no malicious intent.
Wearing the hijab means that I don’t get persuaded to engage in activities I may otherwise regret. I steer away from activities such as pub crawling or having a night out in the streets that could lead to undesirable consequences. It sends out a clear signal to others that I’m not to be messed with.
The hijab also acts as a subconscious reminder to me that I am never alone. In moments of despair, of doubt and also in moments of joy, I’ve realized that I will touch my hijab to reassure myself that Allah is always, always close. It keeps me centered. It keeps my vision clear.
Allah is always with me.
6. We are not defined by our circumstances, but how we act within the circumstances.
Admittedly it’s not all rainbows and butterflies on the road. I have had occurrences when ignorant people scoff at me about my hijab.
In Sevilla, an elderly man came up to me while I was walking alone in the national park. He spoke in Spanish, pointed to my hijab and gestured to me to take it off. Taken aback, I quickly recovered and smiled at him. I shook my head, tried to smile as genuinely as possible and walked away.
I was riled up about it initially, and kept harping on the incident as I continued my walk. And, I started to doubt the journey and my capacity as a Muslim. Should I have fought back? Should I have said something?
But I quickly realized that I shouldn’t make that one incident affect my entire trip or my opinion of people. I shrugged it off, said a prayer for the man, and decided that I was going to enjoy my trip to the fullest anyway. A couple of minutes later, while exploring a fair that was happening nearby, another man gestured to me, held out his hand, gave me a handful of caramelized nuts and then waved me away with the kindest of smiles.
These back-to-back incidents were a powerful reminder – you cannot control how things end or how others treat you, but you can sure control how you treat yourself and how you react in the face of undesirable situations.
7. I am more than my hijab.
Lastly, and a lesson very close to my heart.
I have learnt and embraced the fact that I am a person, with my own quirks and interests, with a mind and a personality to live for.
My hijab is my obligation to God and an ode to my faith, something I do so willingly from the heart, but it by no means strips me of my person and my ability to give back to the world.
The hijab has added value and dimensions to my identity, not drowned it.
Traveling solo allowed me to learn so much about myself. It has opened up doors of insight that had me appreciate the complex being that I am, as I navigate through this world.
I may not know exactly where I’m going, but I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.
7 Lessons From Traveling Solo as a Hijabi photo credits: Atikah Amilina