Not all Muslim women wear a hijab, the Islamic headscarf, but those who do often feel the covering immediately makes them stand out — and become a possible target, considering the surge of Islamophobia in recent years. But a new generation isn’t letting this deter them from pursuing their dreams of world travel, and are even brazenly doing so solo. One is Saudi Arabian Esra Alhamal: “At the end of the day, my hijab is a piece of cloth — a very meaningful piece of cloth, but it’s still cloth. It doesn’t describe everything about me.” Her sentiment is echoed among an increasing number of young, independent, and educated Muslims who are spending billions on travel every year, despite experiencing travel restrictions and visa difficulties. Alhamal, along with three other women from other corners of the globe, share why they consider traveling to be a kind of act of resistance against stereotypes and how they refuse to let fear ruin the joy of discovery.
“People react to the energy that you’re projecting to the world.”
— Esra Almahal
Kareemah Ashiru, USA
Though Kareemah Ashiru describes herself as a solo traveler, she’s not so sure about the accuracy of that. “It might start out as solitary, but nine times out of ten, I make new friends and continue my journey with them,” she says. “The world isn’t the scary place the media makes it out to be.”
After graduating from the University of Toledo in Ohio, Ashiru decided to follow her dream of seeing the world. Colorful hijabs and a prayer mat in her suitcase, she boarded a one-way flight to Spain to teach English and explore Europe.
It was during the planning of that trip that she realized how sorely underrepresented Muslims are in travel media. “I wanted to know where to eat the best halal food, the attitudes toward Muslims in Europe, and local places of worship, but there wasn’t much information online, especially for hijabi women,” the 26-year-old says.
Despite limited resources, Ashiru managed to uncover delicious halal paellas on the road just as she sought out the best flamenco or sunset spots. When she began exploring more of Europe and sharing her adventures on social media, fellow Muslim women bombarded her with messages about how they wanted to do the same. So Ashiru founded the Hijabi Globetrotter, a blog with the goal of inspiring and mentoring Muslim women travelers and increasing their visibility in the media.
“As a hijabi woman, the mere act of traveling is a political one,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to shatter stereotypes, and Muslim travelers that come after me will have an easier time.” She also believes her faith and passion for travel are intertwined: “I see it as my religious duty to seek knowledge and see God’s wonders.”
Elena Nikolova, Bulgaria and Qatar
Born in Bulgaria, raised in Greece, educated in the UK, and living in Qatar, Elena Nikolova has been traveling virtually all her life. After converting to Islam in 2009, she continued her travels in Europe, often alone, as a hijabi. But what she really wanted to do was perform umrah, an Islamic pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Saudi Arabia. “It’s a trip of a lifetime for all Muslims,” she says.
When she looked into umrah packages, though, she discovered that they were out of her price range. It took time and meticulous research, but she was finally able to go on a DIY umrah in 2013, and saved herself thousands of dollars. Nevertheless, the scarcity of travel resources available to Muslims astounded her, and she felt compelled to start Muslim Travel Girl, one of the largest halal-friendly travel websites, out of sheer need.
“The Prophet himself was a traveler — he encouraged travel and discovery.”
— Nora Yusuf
Visiting the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah gave her so much spiritual fulfillment, Nikolova wanted to help others feel the same. When she shared hacks for a luxury umrah on the cheap, she was taken aback by the interest. Since then, she’s become an umrah specialist, but says the travel desires of Muslims far exceed these Islamic-pilgrimage trips.
The 32-year-old can readily reference Quranic verses about seeking knowledge and the importance of performing pilgrimage, and she believes in Islam as a religion that actively encourages its worshippers to explore. In return, she says, the world gets to know Muslims in real life. “Most people who are biased against Muslims have never met Muslims; they’ve just listened to the news,” Nikolova says. “Travel is one of the best ways to change misconceptions about Islam.”
Nora Yusuf, Malaysia
In 2016, Nora Yusuf took a leap of faith, giving up a successful career as an engineer to become an adventure photographer, and hasn’t looked back. Since then, she’s gone on expeditions all around the world, including the Arctic region and Antarctica, and has journeyed across Africa and South America in a 4x4 Land Cruiser. “I’ve always loved the outdoors,” Yusuf says. Her engineering background specializing in green technologies helped refine her interest in nature and the wonders of the earth.
But even in the most unusual destinations or the harshest environments, the 40-year-old Malaysian national has never felt restricted by the requirements of her faith. “Islam is a religion of logic. It’s meant to make things easier, not more complicated,” Yusuf says. From praying to keeping halal, there’s no Islamic principle or routine that would clash with long-term travel, she explains. Situations like sickness, pregnancy, breastfeeding, or an intense trip exempt believers from fasting during Ramadan. Likewise, the schedule for Muslim prayer is flexible: While Muslims traditionally perform five sessions of daily prayer, if worshippers miss a time, they can simply reschedule. “The Prophet himself was a traveler — he encouraged travel and discovery,” she says. “And you can find a small, clean space to pray anywhere in the world.”
Throughout her adventures in more than 70 countries, she’s never gone hungry, either. Even in Antarctica, it turned out that the chef of her excursion ship was a Bosnian Muslim who was happy to prepare halal meat and even some Malaysian dishes for her. “There are Muslims everywhere — or vegetarian choices,” Yusuf says. “And we are big seafood eaters in Malaysia. My grandfather was a fisherman, so I eat a lot of fish, too.”
In comparison to all the heavy camera gear she lugs around from country to country, Yusuf finds that she can effortlessly carry her faith to the remotest corners of the world.
Esra Alhamal: Saudi Arabia and the U.K.
When Esra Alhamal stood on a beach in Madeira, Portugal, it suddenly occurred to her that there were many eyes directed at her in her swimsuit. Though flamboyantly patterned, it was modest in design, covering her entire body except for her hands, feet, and neck. She felt her body tensing up.
“I had two choices,” says the 31-year-old founder of the travel blog Arabian Wanderess. “I was going to let this ruin my day or find a solution to defuse tension. I chose the latter.”
She flashed a big smile and waved enthusiastically at the owners of the gazes, who smiled and waved back. As a solo traveler, friendliness and positivity have been her tried-and-tested weapons to deal with tense, awkward moments such as this one. It’s an approach that has never failed her, often leading to conversations and new friendships. “People react to the energy that you’re projecting to the world,” she says.
Born and raised in Saudi Arabia and living in London, Alhamal first became smitten with wanderlust while attending college in Arizona. She learned early on that when she’s outside the Muslim-majority world, people will likely stare. “It’s not a comfortable feeling, but more often than not they usually do so out of curiosity rather than bad intentions,” she says. “The people I met in Portugal said they had rarely seen a woman in a hijab — let alone a woman in a modest swimsuit.”
“Of course, being stared at and having to explain yourself and your faith can get exhausting at times,” adds Alhamal, who is working toward a Ph.D. in architecture and teaching Islamic art. But she loves sharing details about her faith and interacting with others, so ultimately the rewards of travel — new experiences and the opportunity to open her mind — make any uneasiness worth it.
Tips for Traveling Halal-Style
Illustrations by Olivia Waller
Find the right accommodations. An Airbnb home provides much-needed flexibility in terms of cooking, prayer spaces, and privacy, says Elena Nikolova. To organize what she calls “hijab-free” holidays, she searches photos and reviews to find discreet villas with a pool where she can soak up the sun alone sans her hijab.
Connect with Muslim travelers. Esra Alhamal and Kareemah Ashiru founded the Facebook group Muslimahs Who Travel to swap tips on keeping halal, staying safe, and traveling during Ramadan. In fact, when Ashiru posted about an upcoming trip to Turkey, a fellow member living in Istanbul ended up becoming her personal guide.
When in doubt, go veg. Nora Yusuf advises Muslim travelers to seek out vegetarian options if they have any concerns about keeping halal on the go. While halal restaurants are gaining a bigger presence in cities like New York, Berlin, and London, travelers to more remote destinations may need to avoid meat altogether.