Traveling with a hijab was not a subject I was planning to write about. The idea triggered when I received messages from other Iranian women who were confused about how they would be received outside of Iran while wearing a headscarf. I first wrote the post in Persian and thought that would be it. I don’t really have a big readership of Muslim travellers and it was not going to be interesting for anyone else. But then I thought that people might actually be curious to know what it’s like to travel around the world with a hijab. The reactions we get and the struggles we deal with…
Let’s face it, the travel blogging community mostly represents travel through the eyes of western travelers. I know a few successful Asian bloggers and fewer from the Middle East. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to share an experience so many of us deal with because we still live in an Islamophobic world.
I personally don’t want to make traveling with a hijab a thing. I hardly ever come to a point where I feel my headscarf is affecting my experience, but I still want to talk about it. Mostly because there are so many women who feel conscious about it.
What is traveling with a hijab really like?
My perception of a Muslim woman has truly changed through travel and life abroad. I believe that there are so many different versions of Islam and came to realize the significant difference between my beliefs with my Palestinian and Turkish friend. Sometimes the difference was so huge that what seemed right to me, would seem wrong to them and the other way around. There’s no single way to be a good human or a Muslim and things get a lot easier once we all agree on that.
Living abroad and traveling with a hijab are two very different experiences
When living in a different country, you’re bound to have interactions with locals of many different backgrounds. When travelling abroad, you’re likely to meet people who’ve met tons of tourists or travel very often. The later will care very little about a piece of material on your head as they’ve probably met loads of Muslims and have a broader perspective of the world.
When I was studying in Lisbon, I was once horribly insulted by one of the students. I spent an hour crying in the bathroom because I felt like shit and hated my university. I couldn’t believe that someone in an academic environment would do such a thing that I’m so embarrassed to even mention now.
Another time I was called a terrorist by an old man while waiting for a train and there have been a few incidents where I’d been followed or stared at while just walking in the street. I remember someone shouted terrorists at me and mum when I was only 9 years old living in down under just after 9/11. It was a long time ago but hey, it has stuck to my mind.
Fortunately, I never experienced any of those while traveling with a hijab. These were all experienced while living or studying abroad and it’s only been a handful of times.
The hijab can be an ice breaker
Traveling with a hijab is not always that bad. Sometimes it works as an ice breaker because, to be honest, a lot of people don’t even know what the hijab stands for. I have been occasionally approached by people who were just curious to know what it was all about. It’s good to be open to conversations and it’s nice that people like to hear a personal opinion rather than just listening to mainstream media.
People can react differently in different countries
People’s information or values are pretty different around the world. In North American or northern Europe, people are accustomed to seeing women with headscarves and hardly blink an eye. It doesn’t mean that you’ll never meet mean people but at least there’s no staring.
In countries like Japan, despite the very few numbers of hijabis, people are raised to respect your personal space and choice of clothing. They’d never make an opinion about it on the street and they will absolutely not stare. In fact, I’ve had a few incidents in Japan where people actually wanted a photo with me as if I was some interesting creature. I never took it the wrong way and there was no harm in saying cheese for a photo while showing the peace sign with your fingers.
In India, the diversity people deal in their own country is just so massive that they wouldn’t bother about you looking different. Is there anyone kinder and more peaceful than Indians? I’m yet to find.
In countries where Muslims are rarely seen, it’s natural to catch a few stares. Most of the time they are just curious but it’s still pretty annoying.
Everyone has a unique experience
People’s experiences in one specific place can be very different. It’s really a matter of luck. I’ve traveled to France quite a few times and I’ve never felt insulted by anyone. My friend’s experience was however different.
Another friend of mine Zahra who works in Oslo says that she was treated well in Parisian shops because she was probably taken as a rich Arab, which was very different from Oslo. In Scandinavia however, Muslims have lower incomes and people are not used to seeing them in expensive shops. Hence why you might experience someone following you around rather than just being nice.
It depends on the situation
I follow a lot of Muslim bloggers who wear burkinis while going to the beach in Europe or the USA. I’ve never had the guts to wear one because I just can’t deal with all the eyes that will turn.
I was once walking along the beach in spring with a friend of mine in Cascais. We were both barefoot and the weather was still pretty chilly, so not so many people around. But I still remember the heavy stares of people who apparently thought it was absolutely MAD that two girls were walking along the beach with a hijab!!
I’ve walked along plenty of beaches and this never happened again but it still makes me nervous about going to the beach in summer.
It’s easier when you’re dressed casually
I personally love colours and don’t dress very different from other people apart from the additional scarf. I don’t wear crazy makeup or have a very unique hijab style, and it helps not to catch too much attention. I also get a lot of compliments on my scarves hear and there which is always nice.
Now everyone’s choice of clothing is like this and I can imagine that wearing a long black abaya or a chador can be quite eye-catching in a non-Muslim country. It’s totally cool if you’re comfortable with it but it can cause unwanted attention.
Hijab has many different forms
A lot of people, mostly fellow Muslims have a specific idea of hijab. They expect you to either take it off or wear it according to their standards. The truth is that we’re all on a journey of hijab. Hijab has so much to do with one’s culture, backgrounds, and their overall beliefs. A Muslim woman from Africa will certainly be dressed differently compared to one from Indonesia, Turkey, Saudia Arabia or Iran and it’s absolutely fine! Even if you’re not a Muslim, people feel differently about revealing too much skin.
Muslim women need to reach an agreement that their personal criteria for the perfect hijab is not necessarily the right one or the only one. Once we agree on that, we can then expect people to respect our different forms of hijab without prejudice.
Being insulted by your own countrywomen is the worse
The enforcement of hijab in Iran can be very harsh for people who don’t believe in it. That’s something I can truly understand and I believe that people should have the freedom to dress as they like. However, for many, us Iranian women who do wear the hijab on our own will and continue to wear it outside of Iran seem like a good target for a backlash. Since these people can’t express their anger to the responsible men, we seem to be an easier target. And there’s nothing worse than that!
One person’s opinion should not affect your whole trip
As I said, there’s very little chance that you’ll deal with any of these situations while traveling with a hijab, but if you do, don’t let it ruin your whole experience. It’s ok to feel horrible and angry, but you shouldn’t let one person’s words to affect your trip. And please don’t make a general judgment about a certain nationality because of some stupid person’s ignorance.
We’re not ambassadors of the Muslim community
I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on Muslim women to prove the media wrong and I hate that. We don’t have to continuously prove that we’re not like some fools doing horrible stuff in the name of our religion. If people want to have prejudice or judge the whole population of Muslims based on the act of a few, then it’s their loss. We have the right to feel hurt, angry or make wrong decisions like everyone else. We are so much more than our hijabs and we don’t have to make up for anything besides our own actions.
I mean if we pay tons of money and go through extra security checks in the airport to travel the world, why the hell do we need to put so much pressure on ourselves to enlighten the ignorant world??
In the end, all I want to say is that it’s ok to feel nervous to get out of your comfort zone. But none of this is serious enough to stop you from discovering the world. Most people are a lot nicer than you think and hardly care about your religion. Don’t make your hijab an issue and no one else will do either.
I’d love to know if any of you have had any positive or negative experiences while traveling with a hijab. If you’re non-Muslim, I’m curious to know your thoughts when meeting women in hijab either in your country or on your travel. Do you feel like an automatic prejudice fed to you by the media? How do you overcome it?