[Flashback]: What It Means to Be a Muslim Woman of Color Abroad

The following post was first published in May 2019.

Ramadan Kareem to all my fellow Muslims observing this blessed month! May this month be one that brings you closer in faith and helps you reach a beautiful state of self-consciousness. And I truly hope you all find the healing you’ve been looking for. It’s my second Ramadan here in China, and now that I’ve adjusted to life here, alhamdulillah I don’t feel so out of place and a mess. Also grateful to have another Muslim sister (oh hey, Leena!) to accompany me and break fast with. This year feels a lot more special. I’ve been sensing an automatic calmness within me, and I can tell it’s partly because of the communal feel I get here, and it’s something that really makes me feel whole inside. That, but also because of the weather and simply, me. Let’s just pray this calmness lasts me this whole month and more inshaAllah, and that my students don’t end up drying me out – literally.

To those who are unfamiliar with Ramadan – it’s the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, where Muslims all over the world fast from food and liquids from sunrise to sunset. The purpose of this month is for us to refrain from things that would otherwise be permissible, in order to establish steadfastness in faith and of course develop discipline. Because our bodies are consciously being deprived of these things, we become hyper aware of ourselves and that’s the purpose. We are made to focus on our soul. It’s also the month where the Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad, and so many people dedicate their time to reading and practicing the Qur’an. Because Muslims go by the lunar calendar, we wait until the moon is sighted to determine when the first day of Ramadan will be – along with all the other months on the Islamic calendar. Ramadan lasts for either twenty-nine or thirty days, and throughout the month people gather with friends and family to break fast and worship together. It’s a joyful time for many Muslims and something we look forward to every year.

I recently got back from Beijing with Leena for our May Day break. Quite refreshing I’d say and a trip well planned. I find it so convenient traveling outside a country or to a different city living outside the US – transportation is easily accessible other than going by plane and that’s something I really appreciate. And for the experiences along the way, I’m just gonna say that traveling anywhere in China will always be amusing. And as for traveling while being a visible Muslim woman and a person of color, it’s quite an intense feeling to see how attentive people become from your presence. This goes for all foreigners abroad, although we may just get a layer or two of extra attention (bad or good). Lovely isn’t it…

Traveling as a Muslim woman and a woman of color, there’s a lot to talk about, but to keep it short I’ll state a few things that have caught my attention. We all know how our physical appearance can greatly change the way people communicate, in a positive or negative way, and that teaches you how to navigate the world and the people you encounter on a day to day basis. I’ve had many encounters where people acknowledge my religion and try to group it with my racial/ethnic culture, and I’ve come to understand that that’s how people identify you and where your lineage originates from.

People really don’t care if you’re from the US or Western Europe unless you’re white. Otherwise, if you’re a brown/black person they really wanna know where “yo mama’s mama’s mama’s mama’s mama come from.”

China isn’t the only country that has made that clear to me – I’ve experienced it from other travels as well.

Being a Muslim woman – it’s not just the Muslim aspect that determines the whole experience, but the many other social aspects that will shape your experience. Traveling anywhere, you’ll realize which parts of your identity people really make clear to distinguish you as being ‘different’. Whether it’s your skin color, religious or cultural attire, physical features, etc. As stated in my blog on Blackness Abroad – experiences vary, and that’s what makes our stories important. And the most important thing we must do is acknowledge and listen to one another’s experiences. There is a lack of voice within the Black Muslim community regarding this – and I pray that one day it will be something that is given the rightful space it needs.

Coming from my personal experience, here’s what it means to be a Muslim woman of color abroad.

Image courtesy of Mariam Addish

You are literally teaching the world.

Every person you encounter, whether it’s abroad or even in your home country, it’s likely they’ve learned something from you about your Muslim identity (people will connect your religious identity to your racial identity). And as a woman who visibly wears the hijab, people are highly curious about what and why you do the things you do. Whether it’s the food/drink restrictions, prayer, fasting, hijab and so on, you get my point. You kind of become the representative. And as annoying as it may be, knowing you have to represent yourself and others (let alone have to explain yourself), it’s equally an opportunity to share and bring light upon a topic that would otherwise be misunderstood. We as a collective have a responsibility to carry ourselves in a way that will not cause harm to those who share our identity. Traveling won’t always be the easiest, and frustrating moments will come and possibly haunt you – even then it takes a lot of effort and reminders to realize that ‘Yes, I am representing not just myself, but many’. Our actions go far. Mindful traveling is everything!  

You’re sometimes a role model to other brown/black Muslim girls/women who also have a passion to travel for leisure and/or educational purposes.

I recall getting a message from a sister stating her interest in going abroad and wanting to know more about what it’s like being a Muslim woman abroad. And within the message, she also spoke of how my ability to share my experience has been an inspiration to her. This goes for all individuals who may be even slightly in the public eye. Your actions, no matter how small, have an impact on others, especially when you share a similar identity with those following your journey. Sharing any type of experience will show and give way to those who share a similar interest, but also make it clear they can do it too. You may be traveling solo and thinking of how your experiences are affecting you specifically, but you are also making a difference in someone else’s life – and that can be a beautiful thing. We all deserve to experience life not always having to be cautious of what we place on our head, nor our skin color – and that, my friend, is what needs to be shown to the world.

You may feel ‘othered’.

As sad as it can be, it’s true. You may encounter many travelers along the way, and simply because of your hijab it can distance them from making the effort to try to connect with you. This isn’t always the case, of course. You’ll likely see other Black and brown travelers and of course it’s a given you’ll exchange smiles and/or even have a quick conversation. From personal experience, I do believe it has a lot to do with who you are dealing with. I get less of an acknowledgement from white travelers, as compared to my fellow brown/black travelers. You’ll definitely see the barrier.

You’ll often be profiled for your hijab and your skin color.

I’m sure we’ve all heard stories or experienced airport security doing a ‘random check’. As far as I know, there is nothing random about it. Not only that, walking into planes, going through immigration – it can be a bit nerve racking, and yes I do believe it all depends on where you are traveling in the world. Although, one thing is the same: the staring may never go away. You’ll always be stared at, whether from a distance or upfront – people will always find a way to watch you, one way or another. From experience, I’ve had less of an issue traveling within China, than when traveling within the US – and that says a lot about tolerance and how accepting certain places are of our identity. I may carry a US passport and yet I will always be seen as a threat in certain countries more than others.

You’ll realize how anti-Black the world is.

Although I may be culturally and racially Black, the majority of the time I’m not recognized as a Black woman. And although it can be frustrating having to explain where I come from, I’ve had to learn to take it as it is. As stated previously in my blog on Blackness Abroad, the world is very anti-Black and it will become even more apparent to you when you’ve traveled to certain parts of the world. From the way language is used to the obsession of wanting lighter skin. The billboards of white people or of lighter complexion – it’s all been schemed that way to keep white people and light skin on top. And as a Muslim woman, it’s something we have to navigate through, knowing that it can be our racial and religious identity that becomes targeted. I cannot speak for all situations but I do realize the importance of the presence of Black Muslim women in all spaces. The more we see us, the less we become scared or distant from places we would otherwise like to travel to.

Our identities make us resilient.

When you’ve experienced enough situations where you’ve become used to standing out or even feeling marginalized, you tend to find your resilience in those spaces. You begin to embrace the attributes that make up who you are. If you’ve gone through this, you know it’s an empowering feeling, and if not – think of a time you felt out of place in any situation, whether in a workplace, school, grocery store… You most likely learned how to deal with whatever it is you are going through. And that is what makes you resilient. Wearing the hijab may seem like a barrier (and in some cases it can be), although you realize your presence is too valuable to be in spaces that would otherwise harm you or cause you difficulty on a mental or physical level.

You tend to have to walk more consciously.

As brown and Black Muslim women, it’s a given that we walk differently on this earth. Society may enforce it upon us, but no doubt we’d rather walk consciously than recklessly. Carrying multiple identities that tend to cause attention, you become more alert of your surroundings. You become a vigilant and conscious traveler (this applies to all people). You make the effort to identify who and what can be of harm to you based on how people look at you and any subtle racial comments. And from those experiences, you learn the aspects of your identity that are particularly being focused on in any given place – whether negatively or positively.

Image courtesy of Mariam Addish

You’re learning more about who you are and where you come from.

Traveling is one of many things that can truly open wonders intellectually, emotionally and mentally. Having the privilege to experience the world and it’s awes, it makes you wonder about yourself and your own history. And for a person who has a passion for history and geography, you feel like you’re on a never-ending journey of wanderlust. No matter how far the place may be from where you may have originated from, you will always find some type of connection and that’s what makes us closer than we think. And the many conversations you have with others, whether locals and/or foreigners like yourself, you develop a desire to know more about yourself as a whole. And as a Muslim woman of color, it has truly opened my eyes to acknowledging the power and resilience we as women and women of color have that often times goes unacknowledged.

Nevertheless, if life continues to permit me to do so, I will never stop making an effort to see the world. Whatever I experience that may rub me the wrong way will never be enough to make me give up the fact that I’ve been given the opportunity and privilege to travel. And not just solely travel for the heck of it, but to travel with a conscious mind.  Meaning that despite facing barriers, I can still develop a love and appreciation for the world and what it has to offer and, of course, what I have to offer. Travel isn’t solely about having the best time, but about experiencing what it’s like walking in different spaces and navigating through various situations that are foreign to us. We may think it’s mostly about learning about different cultures, but I’d say it’s more so about understanding where and how we stand in the world. If we look deeper, most of the learning we do is about ourselves. And whatever we pick up along the way it’s the passion we have for making an effort to understand the people around us. We must walk confidently within our own skin enough to learn to not care about others but more so about the path we are walking. You are the main one, and everyone else is like a side dish – you don’t need them, but they can accentuate your journey.

And that’s the thing about traveling with an identity that changes how people associate with you: others may not understand you fully, but you learn to understand yourself wholly.

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