I’ve been to a few places since I was 13 years old. Sometimes with my family, but most of the time on my own. For all the journeys I’ve ventured on during the last eight years, I’ve always been wearing my hijab.This is one of the hardest things I’ve always want to share, because I realized the fear that every Muslim girl and woman with hijab has to face while abroad. With the word Islamophobia being mentioned more often in the media, I can’t deny how scared I was when I had to go to Paris alone last year and it was just a week after Charlie Hebdo shooting.
But, we are just like every other traveler in the world. We have the same right to explore all the existing places on this earth and there’s no stopping us. That’s why I keep going places, that’s why I will never think my hijab can stop me from learning about this strange planet called Earth. And with this post, I just simply want to share a few things I’ve learned from all my journeys.
1. I most probably have had the wrong idea, but the world is filled with so, so many beautiful souls.
I kept thinking about how many rude stares and comments I would get in public places along the journey, I kept playing scenarios in my head about how people wouldn’t talk to me because of the thing on my head. I was totally wrong. On Christmas Eve 2008 in Arroyo Grande, California, I spent it in a church because my host-dad is a senior pastor there. I was beyond surprised when everyone welcomed me with warm hugs and asked me many curious questions because “I am the Girl who comes from Indonesia”, not “I am the Muslim Girl who wears Hijab and Went to Church Celebrating Christmas Complete with Hijab On”.
I still remember that time I just got out from the church library to meet up with my host-parents and a few people came to my direction with smiles on their faces, “Are you Nerissa? Welcome to California!” or “Do you like America? It must be a little different from Indonesia, but please enjoy your first Christmas here!”
This is one thing I always try to remember – that everything in this world is already set up in pairs. Black and white. Up and down. Left and right. So are good and bad.
2. The way people treat me depends on the way I treat them.
I’m being totally honest here; I’ve never ever, ever experienced anybody being rude to me (when I approached them first). Travelling solo means there’s nobody you can depend on besides yourself and that happened a lot to me when I got lost in the middle of a foreign land where nobody speaks my language. I have no choice but to ask anyone around me. But the thing is, if I don’t make my hijab an issue, they wouldn’t either. In Paris when I was looking for Shakespeare & Co, I asked a woman who didn’t look so busy with a smile and polite gestures and what did I have in return? A friendly smile and a lovely conversation! She even took me to the bookstore!
I mean, don’t be afraid of something that is only happening inside your head. It’s only in your head, the fear you’re scared of. We just need to start nicely and we might be surprised how strangers on the street could turn out to be one of our best friends.
3. The warm and familiar feeling I get when meeting fellow Muslim travellers or locals.
This is my favourite part which I experience every single trip. Being called out, “Salam, sister!” in the middle of busy market in the city or getting a half-priced ice cream because the lovely lady was so happy finally meeting a Muslim customer.
Sometimes I recall the first night I was in London and I had no idea which bus would take me home. I was stranded at the bus stop for around an hour and my phone died, so I couldn’t call any emergency number and I saw a man who I thought noticed me. I asked him directly, he smiled and told me to get on bus 124 toward Catford, but in the end he got on the same bus with me and helped me until I reached my front door. Later on, he told me that he’s also a Muslim and it was nice knowing there’s a girl with hijab in our neighbourhood.
4. Some of them only understand our religion from what they’ve seen on tv and they’re just genuinely curious about it.
And at that moment, it’s only us Muslims who can give them the answers. On the first day at school in London, my teacher asked me right away, without asking anything else first: “Nerissa, I’ve been reading this article everywhere and I just can’t get the logical reason behind it. Please tell us why Prophet Muhammad cannot be animated?” and I’m 100% sure it was my hijab telling him that I am a Muslim.
I screamed inside my head because I didn’t know why. I felt so bad that day because I couldn’t give an answer. Later at night, I called my mom for an answer and the next day I came to the class proudly and told him right away.
Or when almost everyone I knew at school asked me, “So Nerissa, why aren’t the two other Indonesian girls who are also Muslims wearing hijab, but you are???” You know, this is a simple question but if you can’t answer it correctly and wisely, it could lead to a misunderstanding. And here again, your task is only to be a good Muslim agent. Tell them why are you wearing that weird clothing on your head, tell them that you are doing this because it’s so much more than the symbol of your religion and faith, that it’s your identity, that’s you’re wearing it because you know you have the responsibility, that nobody can look down on you just because you’re wearing it.
Tell them, they’re just curious.
5. As we’re all on the same path, travellers are the most open-minded people I know.
Travel. Get out from your comfort zone. Book a ticket, pack your bag and go somewhere. Traveling is probably the best answer to become more open-minded.
Travellers see more things non-travellers. Travellers see beyond their own bubbles. Travellers see how diverse the world is out there. Because travellers meet so many people along the way. They know this world isn’t only filled with one specific race and religion, because they see the world out there.
No matter how much you’re scared getting out from your hostel room to the common room and meet other travellers because you’re wearing your hijab, you’ll be surprised how it doesn’t stop them from asking about your stories.
Here I can always find myself becoming more and more tolerant for any kind of diversity each time I return from a faraway trip.
6. Good things will just pop out everywhere.
- In Singapore where I asked for a bowl of jjangmyeon, the chef himself came out from the kitchen and said, “No, Miss. You’re wearing.. (gestured to my hijab) and this contains pork. You can’t.”
- I went to a local pub back in 2012 with my school mates, it was really my first pub experience and I didn’t hate it. When all my friends were ordering tequila, suddenly one of the bartender came to me asking wether I wanted to have a coke or a glass of sparkling water. It was really nice of him.
- New Years Eve 2013 where I spent happily in Westminister Bridge watching the massive fireworks in the London sky, there was this one guy coming and asking me in all of sudden, “Hey, are you okay? You look a little pale.” when all I knew that I was just very sleepy and tired.
7. At last, the world isn’t as scary as you think it is.
This point will sum up what I’ve written above. I’m sure as travellers, we’re all in this belief and we believe in the power of “Paying It Forward”. There’s nothing wrong with giving a hand to another as they know sooner or later, they will need someone’s help too.
During all my journeys, I’ve lost count of how many acts of kindness I’ve received from other beautiful souls out there. It surprised me how I could feel at home when I’m not even home. It surprised me how I could feel so welcomed when I’m not even where I grew up.
Here I’ve learnt that nothing can stop me from being curious about the outside world. For always being thirsty for more adventures, for more stories, for meeting more and more beautiful souls. There’s nothing at all. Especially not my hijab.