The truth about travelling solo as a Muslim woman is that very often, despite our conservative lifestyles and religious observance, we have no other option. Although solo women travellers are no longer a rarity, it is not often that one finds Muslim women travelling alone, especially for leisure or adventure.
I was 27 years old when my dad allowed me to travel abroad alone for the first time. I moved to the United Kingdom for a year and he only agreed as he had a niece who was living there at the time. There was nothing scary or unfamiliar about the trip because we had gone to visit her a year earlier and I would be living with her family.
In the days since then, Muslims have become both the quickest growing segment of travellers, as well as being most likely to be profiled as a result of our faith and dress codes.
WHY AM I TRAVELLING SOLO AS A MUSLIM WOMAN?
If you are an observant Muslim I imagine you have already had the beginnings of an apoplectic fit. A lifetime ago I may have been exactly the same. Real life has taught me that we do not always get what we want in this life, and have to do the best we can within our personal circumstances.
I must confess that my solo travel adventures came about out of necessity more than a desire to travel on my own or a desperate need to ‘find myself’. I have been living in Dubai for more than a decade and have no male relatives here, or any relatives for that matter, to accompany me.
I would love to travel the world with my late mum and dad because they were the best travel companions one could wish for. I would love to spend more time exploring new places with my brother and his family because he, like my parents, is an easy going and amenable travel companion. My nephews and niece love learning new things and having new experiences and I can hardly wait until they are old enough to travel with me. I would love to share the romance of Paris or the delicacies of Penang with a husband, but I may never be destined to have one.
So for now I have to make the best of my situation, and that means plucking up courage to face my fears and test my own physical and mental limits by travelling solo as a Muslim woman.
WHAT I LEARNED TRAVELLING SOLO AS A MUSLIM WOMAN
JUDGEMENT AND CONDEMNATION
Thou shalt be judged. To your face, but mostly behind your back. Everyone and their shadow will have an opinion on your character and your life. Actions have consequences whether you are Muslim or not, and we alone are accountable for our actions. If you decide to travel solo then be prepared for the fallout.
Complete strangers form an opinion about you based solely on how you are dressed and think that they know you and how you relate to the world based on whether you wear more or less fabric.
If you choose not to dress conservatively they assume that you are a woman of loose morals who won’t mind unsolicited male attention or that you must love nightclubs and bars. If you choose to cover they assume that you are one of those… you know the stereotype. Oppressed; Meek; Submissive; Barefoot and Pregnant; Chained to the kitchen sink.
- Grow a thick skin, people will think and say what they want about you. If they are not your parents their opinion does not count either way, so don’t lose sleep over it.
- The amazement and wonder from Non-Muslims who have never before met a Muslim in real life, only to encounter an unmarried female travelling solo was unexpected. Many have only been exposed to the stereotypes via all media channels and learning that we are erudite and financially independent always seems like a shock. All we can do is try to be ambassadors of goodwill and clear up their misconceptions about our faith where we can.
FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN
My first solo vacation was a long weekend break to Istanbul to satisfy a craving for baklava. My travel buddy had departed the country a few months before and I had no option but to embark on my baklava quest alone.
I remember walking through the air bridge from the aircraft into the arrivals terminal building, and experiencing momentary panic. I wondered what madness had caused me to embark on a trip to a foreign city on my own, without any friends or local contacts in case of emergency.
I was flooded with doubts and worries and it probably showed on my expression. I heard a voice asking if I needed assistance and I smiled, realising I was going to be ok.
- Plan, plan, plan. My Top Travel Tips for any traveler has information on every aspect of a trip and will help lower the fear factor.
- Arrange accommodation in advance and know how you will get there from the airport, bus or train station. I prefer hotels or guest houses with private rooms and bathrooms but there are hostels that have private rooms too.
- Get a city map and keep it with you at all times, so even if you take a wrong turn you will be able to find your way to a transport hub or landmark.
- Learn a few words in the local language even if it is only the customary greeting or how to say thank you. Locals appreciate the effort.
- Be cautious and trust your intuition especially when encountering over friendly locals or fellow travelers who may have ulterior motives.
I always remember my dad asking a fellow traveler whether he would not be bored on the trip through Malaysia and Singapore without his wife. He was adamant that he wouldn’t. When we saw him two weeks later he said that it was the loneliest he had ever been, and that he wished he had taken his wife too.
I am grateful every day that I have never been plagued by feelings of loneliness or isolation, despite being away from family and friends for extended periods. In the beginning when I had no friends in Dubai, I could chat to my friends online and call my mum to check on her.
To be honest, I like doing things alone. Eating out, watching a movie or even shopping. It is much less stressful than wondering if the action movie I want to watch will bore a companion or whether someone else will find my shopping habits annoying.
- Explore on your own and enjoy finding quirky cafes, boutiques or bookshops or browsing at local street markets.
- If you are staying in a hostel try chatting to some of the other residents and try making new friends.
- Keep in touch with family and friends via social media or calling them by phone or Skype.
- Use social media to make new friends in the place you are visiting and arrange to meet them for coffee. You may end up getting a free tour guide.
- Try to make connections with people who are good and kind, without any expectations.
On the few occasions when I was daft enough to travel with a large suitcase I always regretted it.
Heaving the suitcase up and down stairs or in and out of planes, trains and automobiles is no laughing matter and at the least can cause muscle spasms and strains. At least one third of the clothing was unworn and beauty products unused.
If you feel comfortable wearing an abaya go for it as it will reduce your ‘what do I wear today’ worries. I prefer to wear long skirts or tights with long tops when travelling, as it is unlikely to get caught in a closing door of a tram or under my feet when going up and down stairs.
- Pack a pair of comfortable shoes for walking and at most one other pair for dinner or occasions.
- Ensure that tops and skirts or trousers can be mixed and matched and that they fall within the same color spectrum. This will reduce the number of clothing items as well as matching head coverings and handbags required.
- Lay out what you think you need, then reduce it by a third.
- Always pack a hat to protect your face from sun exposure during summer. This can usually be worn over a head covering without compromising on style.
- My beauty routine is relatively simple. Foaming gel cleanser followed by moisturizer or sunblock. In the evenings I use Bioderma micellar water cleansing wipes to remove the grime of the day. I always carry lip balm and lipsticks to ensure my lips don’t resemble dried fruit after a day in the sun. Another must have is a travel make-up set that doesn’t take up too much space.
DO NOT JUDGE A BOOK BY IT’S COVER
On a trip to the UK for a bloggers conference during early Autumn a few years ago, I made the mistake of packing way too much. Instead of my usual carry-on size trolley bag I opted to take the one a size up to accommodate bulky cold weather clothes. Many of the older transportation hubs do not have elevators or escalators and the thought of carrying the heavy case up and down weighed on my mind.
Yet every time I was faced with a flight of stairs, a stranger was at hand to assist. With a ‘Let me help you with that love’ or a ‘Can I grab that for you’ they whisked my heaving bag up or down the flight of stairs as if it were a feather.
How often have I heard the phrase ‘Don’t judge a book by it’s cover’? These were not men that I knew, and not a single one of them were even Muslim. They were all white British men who reached out to help a brown skinned foreign woman.
By the same token, I had a very strange experience on a vaporetto in Venice. I sat down next to an older woman who immediately stood up and went to sit on the opposite side of the boat. I had showered and dressed in clean clothes less than an hour before, so was not emanating any foul odors. The unwarranted look of disdain and contempt on this stranger’s face brought tears to my eyes.
- Don’t believe everything you read in the media. Most people won’t judge you based on the color of your skin or the covering on your head.
- Strangers will surprise you with their kindness, be thankful for that.
- Strangers will surprise you with their unkindness, be grateful for that, for your tears of pain and sadness are a blessing.
KNOWING YOUR TRIBE
A transliteration of Surah Ahzab verse 33 of the Qur’an:
O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.
This verse and others in the Qur’an have been used by many in the media and mainstream Islamphobes to ridicule and further enforce the stereotypes of Muslim women. We are often portrayed as subservient and downtrodden possessions in overbearing patriarchal societies where we are forced into silence or militant radicalism.
My experience travelling solo as a Muslim woman has given me a completely new appreciation for my faith and my simple head covering. When I step out into the world I am immediately identifiable and known as a Muslim woman by the way that I dress. I try to conduct myself in a manner that does not bring humiliation and shame to myself or cast my faith in a bad light.
- Good manners and a pleasant countenance go a long way to making new friends. Be cautious though, because it may be misconstrued as being open to idle chatter or flirtation.
- Do not be surprised when strangers are respectful and even deferential. It’s that headscarf I tell you! Most respectable un-related men know to keep their distance and watch their language around a Muslim woman.
- Don’t freak out as I did (silently), when a Muslim stranger in Florence struck up a conversation with me on a park bench. You can read all about it here.
- Just because you don’t see the outward expression of faith on others, does not mean another Muslim will not recognize you. Be prepared to pleasantly surprised when common courtesy and consideration are met with an unexpected ‘Asalaamu Alaykum’, the standard greeting of peace amongst Muslims.
I stressed so much before my vacation to Italy, knowing it would be hard to find halal food and wondering how I would cope with my gluten intolerance.
- Mobile halal apps assist with finding halal establishments like cafes or restaurants in the city specified. I have used the Zabiha app for iPhone and found it to be useful and accurate.
- Vegan and vegetarian food is an option in many places that do not cater for Muslims.
- Eggs, yogurt and seafood dishes are good protein substitutes when halal meat or chicken is not available.
- When booking food tours or tours where meals are included, always remember to specify food restrictions clearly at the time of booking. I always indicate in the notes that I do not eat pork or other non-halaal meats, and no alcohol. Thus far the food tour operators have been very accommodating and ensured that vegetarian and alcohol free substitutes were provided. On the one tour where my food restrictions could not be accommodated (Singapore) this was communicated beforehand and full refund made.
WASHROOM FACILITIES MAY BE LACKING
Very few public toilets outside of the Gulf countries have toilet hoses or bidets to perform the ritual cleansing after using the toilet.
- Carry an empty disposable water bottle to use in public toilets.
- In South East Asia many establishments have traditional flat toilets with a small jug and tap. Ensure that your clothing is tucked in to prevent it getting soiled or soaked when using the facilities.
- In places where there are water restrictions it would be advisable to carry anti-bacterial wet wipes.
WHAT I GAINED TRAVELLING SOLO AS A MUSLIM WOMAN
- Asserting my independence and self sufficiency at a time when Muslim women have been stereotyped as subservient and downtrodden chattels.
- I have learned resilience because travelling solo challenges my abilities and my mental and physical limits.
- By working through the challenges encountered on my travels and finding solutions I have become more resourceful, courageous and confident with every small victory.
- I have learned to appreciate the benefits of financial security and stability and to be less wasteful. There is nothing like having 15 euros in your pocket to teach the lesson of thriftiness.
- What I love the most about being identifiable when travelling solo as a Muslim woman are the greetings of salaam and smiles of acknowledgement that make a new city feel less alien. From the young mother walking her infant on a residential street to the older lady doing her grocery shopping. We recognize and know each other as part of the same community that transcends race, kinship, borders and nationality.
PS: The lady in the blue burka is not me and the photo is by Imat Bagja Gumilar via Unsplash.com.
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