As much as I am not a big fan of the term “hijabi” (do we really need to put labels for everyone?), 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 travelers aren’t rare nor hard to find. Women now take seats at the table 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 on?” 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.
Firstly ― and most easily obvious ― is the fact that I look different with the hijab on my head. With Islamophobia on many people’s tongues today, it’s easy to see why this could possibly be an issue. Secondly, most people still struggle to place my race, religion and nationality together (I’m a Malay woman who is Muslim, from Singapore ― did you get that?). Thirdly, my travels are deeply rooted in my faith.
One of my favourite verses in the Quran speaks about celebrating diversity and travel on Earth: “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.” [Al-Hujurat 49:13]
I’ve kept this verse close to my heart as I embarked on my solo travel adventures. I’ve always been clear about my intentions in travelling ― to explore and learn as much as possible from the lands and people different from my own.
It took a while for me to appreciate the situation I’m in and the unique learning opportunities I’ve had. Being a Muslim woman wearing the hijab in a world that’s trying to negotiate between love and hate, between acceptance and protectionism, between building bridges and constructing walls, is quite the experience, and I’m here to speak up.
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’ve learnt that if you are open, friendly and genuine, then other people will treat you the same way most times. 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.
“Most of the time, the travelers I meet on the road barely bat an eyelid about my hijab.”
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 I invite them in with conversation and genuine interest, they respond 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. Some of the best people I know and keep close in my life are those whom I’ve met while traveling.
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 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. In Sarajevo, a group of teenage boys shielded me from an assault by gypsy children and then led me safely to the city centre, all the while sharing with me their love for their country.
“Some of the best people I know and keep close in my life are those whom I’ve met while traveling.”
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’s 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’s 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, and we get to always choose to understand each other.
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. We all need reminders of our faith.
The hijab 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. Being a very physical symbol of my faith, I hold it dear to me, especially when I’m alone on travels.
It’s very similar to how my Catholic friend plays around with her crucifix when she gets nervous and needs a physical reminder of her faith. Once, we were in stuck in a difficult situation and saw each other fiddling with the different items. We couldn’t help but laugh. “Well, I’m sure God will hear us. Both of us are praying for the same thing! Double whammy!”
Even if we’re not subscribers of any religion, humans naturally hold on to some form of faith to get through day to day lives. Most solo travelers especially find this important because when we’re all alone with our own thoughts and baggage, faith is the one thing that helps us make sense of the things around us.
5. 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 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 angrily 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. 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.
6. The Muslim sisterhood (and 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, a greeting 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.
“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.”
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 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.
To come along with me on my travel adventures, join me on Instagram at @thetudungtraveller !