Travelers are a funny bunch and travel bloggers even more so. While we try to be distinctive non-tourists and go against the cliches that come with being one, we end up living up to our own stereotypes more often than not. The guys are rugged adventurers living the life of Point Break while winning awards for their photographs of yet another mountain and the girls have sun bleached hair, slim yoga/beach bodies and are sponsored by swimwear companies that make Brazilian cut bikinis.
Of course, I am exaggerating but take a look on Instagram and these are the images that pop up more often than not.
I am neither.
That is a good thing but it also makes me feel hugely inadequate at times. What good is a witty, informative article if I don’t have the beach bum to match? Mind you, I have come to terms with that and have also realized that I am not the only one. And that, beach bum or not, I am still a traveler with a lot of privilege. Not only the privilege to travel in the first place but also how I am perceived by the rest of the world when I do.
Needless to say, having a beach bum or not, doesn’t define us as people or as travelers but things like race, economics and religion do. I personally think there are too few travel bloggers out there that are… different for a complete lack of a better word yet I find them and their stories usually a whole lot more interesting than the next Top Ten listacle.
One of these travelers is my friend Amanda. Amanda is my go-to person for all things Moroccan, food, and women traveling as she is not only married to a Moroccan, living in Marrakech, and runs a food tour company but is also devout Muslime. And yes, a traveling Muslime at that. A traveling, writing Muslim woman with a lot of opinions, most of which I share. She is one of these prime examples that while our worlds are quite far apart in many ways, a lot more connects us than divides us. With that said, she is also a travel blogger and one of those that don’t really fit the stereotype above.
Sometimes she gets annoyed when random strangers ask her why she wears a hijab and what her hair underneath is like and more intimate details some people think are okay to just ask anyone you just met. Mind you, that could be me. Not because I am noisy and don’t know how to mind my own business but because I am really curious how it is for her to travel in the world we live as a Muslim woman. Lucky for me (and you) she didn’t mind answering that question here.
What It’s Like to Travel as a Muslim Woman
I’ve never been someone who shied away from controversy. I would never use the word “soft-spoken” or “shy” to describe myself and doubt anyone else would either. The first time I traveled internationally I was 16 years old and it was the catalyst that would change my life. I was raised Christian and became a Muslim over ten years ago. At the time, I had no idea what my life path would be or how my faith choice would affect that. Today I am a blogger, business owner, and freelance food and travel writer.
But, traveling as a Muslim woman isn’t always easy. In fact, sometimes it makes things much more difficult, but probably not for the reasons you might think. The image of a Muslim women is not very positive. The instant response most people have is of a heavily veiled, silent woman. That’s not me. When we moved to Morocco I chose to wear the hijab (headscarf) full time. But when I first started leaving Morocco and traveling I would take it off as soon as I got on the airplane breathe a huge sigh.
Was I sighing because I was so happy and liberated to take it off? No. I was sighing because I knew on the other side of the Mediterranean (or Atlantic) my experience would be completely different without hijab. Traveling as a Muslim woman isn’t hard because of our religious beliefs. Traveling as a Muslim woman is difficult because of how people treat me. What’s worse than being harassed is when I am completely ignored. When people move away from me as soon as they see me. When I see the look of fear in their eyes and I wish more than anything that they would just say hello and realize I am just like them and I would love to know more about their culture.
It took me a long time to get comfortable enough not to remove my scarf when I traveled. It’s a paradox. When you decide to wear hijab you’re not supposed to stop wearing it. But I knew what I would experience would vary drastically. I sometimes travel alone and I wanted to make sure I would be safe. This is a real concern. When I went to Bulgaria last fall our local friend told me maybe it wouldn’t be the best idea to wear it – if I was ok with taking it off. While part of me wanted to push back, in the end I knew I should trust her instincts. It’s also confusing to me when I see girls visiting Morocco playing dress up with a scarf. They wrap it on their heads, sometimes niqab style (covering everything but their eyes), and take some sexy “Arab” princess pictures or wear short shorts and tank tops while draping a scarf on their heads. I can’t help but think when I visit their countries I am being ignored, avoided, and even harassed for wearing hijab while they are inadvertently mocking the beliefs of the people in the country they are visiting. Every time I see this it affects me really deeply.
The best travel experiences for me have been when people have treated me the same as they treat anyone else. I have experienced this in a few places. Copenhagen for example almost left me in tears because it was the first place in a long time that not a single person looked at my husband and I “that way.” Maybe it sounds strange to simply be treated as everyone else but this truly is something special. Lisbon is another place that we loved for the same reason. Being treated normal allows us the opportunity to experience a place for what it is. We’re just visitors, and when locals are willing to share a part of their lives with us it makes the experience even more special.
I’ve also seen how styling my hijab differently has a huge effect on how I am treated. A traditional style leads to looks and stares but when I tie it up like a turban it has zero effect on how people treat me. Maybe they think I’m sick and have no hair? I’m not sure if I would rather they feel sorry for me because they think this or they are scared because they identify me as a Muslim. I have been able to have some conversations with people who have shared they haven’t talked to me or other Muslim women because they’re afraid of offending us and aren’t sure what to do or say. The answer to this is simple. We’re people just like you. You’re not going to offend us by greeting us or treating us as you would any other human. Chances are your interaction might be the only friendly one we’ve had all day.