Fernando was one of the few Uber drivers in Mexico City that conversed in English. Glad to have found someone who could speak more than a few words of English, I struck up a conversation. We chatted in general about where I came from, the duration of my visit to Mexico and the places I had already explored, when he asked: “When your husband told you that you would be traveling to Mexico, what were your first thoughts?” I laughed and answered that I pictured vast desert, a surplus of cactus and men riding donkeys dressed in ponchos and sombreros. He laughed heartily, then said that he knew I am from Islam. At this point I was slightly nervous, not sure what to anticipate. Much to my relief, he carried on saying that just like how you have misconceptions about Mexico, the world has misconceptions about Islam. He continued to say he has read some of the Qur’aan and Islam is a kind and beautiful religion. My heart soared upon hearing this!
My most recent trip was from South Africa (home) to Mexico. My outbound flight had a transit in Frankfurt and inbound a transit in Washington. I usually enjoy most of the travel experience, from wandering through different airports to the destination itself. This time I felt less excitement and I was extremely anxious. I’ve travelled to Istanbul weeks after the Coup, with the country in a State of Emergency. I’ve travelled to Kenya after the bombings, when people were cautioned about travelling to the country. On both accounts, I was never in this state of anxiety. Why the nerves? I wasn’t even exiting the airport, I was only in transit. I had nothing to hide, I had a valid VISA and all documentation in order. I was nervous because I was transiting through Frankfurt and I am a Muslim, because I was transiting through Washington and I am a Hijabi.
How I wish I could tell you that my trip was hassle free, that I sailed through airport security and check points. On the contrary. We were stopped in Frankfurt by police officers just as we disembarked the plane. The questions asked were routine. We were again stopped in Mexico by police officers asking routine questions. All our luggage was searched before exiting the airport. It didn’t stop there. On our outbound flight from Mexico to Washington, my husband’s boarding pass was flagged before boarding. My boarding pass scanned clear, but we were both pulled aside and searched thoroughly. This for me was the most uncomfortable experience. Our hand luggage was searched and we were fully patted down in front of the remainder of the passengers boarding the flight. This had me on the brink of tears. We cleared airport security in the US and my hijab was lightly patted, nothing intrusive. I was always searched by a female and was never once asked to remove my headscarf. Advice from me on dealing with this is to remain calm and co-operate within your rights while travelling.
Being in the spotlight is not limited to the airport security checks. I sometimes feel that I stick out like a sore thumb in places where Muslims are a minority or absent. On more than one instance I’ve been stared at. The look is more of curiosity and not fear. My reaction to the stares, is always a friendly smile. I have been asked on occasions as to why I wear the headscarf, I am always happy to explain. As a matter of fact, the onus is not only on the world to change their perception, but on you as well to break the stereotype.
This was my experience. Some may have had a breezy travel experience, some may have experienced much worse. I narrate my story not to discourage you, rather to make you aware and reinforce that you are not alone. The reality is that as a Muslim traveller the chances of being stopped by airport security is heightened. My encounters didn’t dissuade me from wearing my hijab, given the slightly stubborn person that I am, I wanted to don it more proudly. I didn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed of being a Muslim, rather more willing to change the way people thought about Islam. It definitely didn’t make me want to stop travelling! Travel helps you to discover yourself. You learn about new cultures, meet interesting people, eat delicious cuisine and discover a little bit of magic in each place travelled to. It also allows you the opportunity to give a little bit of yourself back to the world. No matter how many times I get stopped, questioned and searched, the enrichment that travel imparts far outweighs!
My challenge to the world- Be like Fernando. Don’t judge me by the piece of cloth on my head or the beard on my husband’s face. Take the time to understand my religion. Take the time to get to know me and then decide for yourself.
My challenge to Muslims of the world- Be bold, be fearless and TRAVEL. Explore the beauty of this world and marvel over the magnificence of your Lord’s creation! Give the world the opportunity to get to know you and the beautiful religion of Islam. Stay true to your character, let your character shine and break the misconceptions the world may have.
I AM MUSLIM, I’M A HIJABI, I WILL TRAVEL.