One of the challenges of being a Muslim traveler is that whether you like it or not, you become an ambassador for 1.8 billion people. This means that you are bombarded with questions ranging from curious, interesting, great, weird, and just plain out rude. It is an overwhelming task to carry as we navigate through these questions while still trying to understand our own identities.
With that being said, we do know the importance of having a dialogue. This is because during our travels we’ll come across people just seeing or talking to a Muslim for the first time. We try our best to clarify what’s true or not true regarding the information portrayed in the Media about Muslims. In this post, I share with you some of the things people have told me, my friends, or my family members during our travels. I also provide better ways of phrasing these questions or statements.
What Not to Tell A Muslim Traveler
1. Are Muslim women oppressed?
You see it in television shows, in movies and especially in the news. Muslim women have no rights. They are forced to cover, they aren’t allowed to attend school and then one day during one of your travels, you meet a Muslim woman. This is the first Muslim you’ve come across, she doesn’t appear to be the same depiction of Muslims you see on television, but you have to ask her this burning question. “Are Muslim women oppressed?” This question might seem well-intentioned but it isn’t. It’s generalizing 1.8 billion people worldwide. Many of the coverages you see in the media don’t tell the full story. Economic duress, anger management, societal expectation, and culture could be major factors in play. Western countries or countries many see as developed face the same issues. Just watch how a woman is described in the U.S. when she is in a leadership role or seeking one. This study highlights that women’s salaries are set back by 31% when having a child. Would we generally say women are oppressed in the U.S?
Instead of asking a Muslim traveler if Muslim women are oppressed, talk to us like a friend, ask about our life, our dreams, our travel adventures, etc. You can also ask us how we feel about the way Muslims are portrayed in the media. This is a better way to really hear our voice and learn from our experiences.
2. I feel like you are judging me right now
As a Muslim traveler, I come across people with different lifestyles and practices from mine. Having an open mind is imperative to understanding and learning from others. In the Islamic religion, alcohol and pig meat (pork) are prohibited. Many Muslims don’t consume these products. This doesn’t mean that we’ll judge you if you do. Muslims have been living in the same space as Christians, Jews, Atheist, Pagans, etc for thousands of years. A difference in your lifestyle doesn’t make us twitch. If we are around you or we travel with you, or we become friends with you, it’s because we appreciate who you are as a person. I promise we aren’t judging you.
p.s. Who consistently spends time with someone and judges them. That’s exhausting!
Don’t feel like you have to ask about our opinion on what you consume. We respect your consumption choices without any judgment.
3. Are you a moderate Muslim?
The first time someone asked me this question was when I lived in Spain. I was on a mini weekend trip to Sevilla with a friend. We decided to meet up with another traveler, a young man in his late twenties. “I see that you are wearing the headscarf, you are a Muslim, right?” he asked. “Yes, I am” I replied. “So, what kind of Muslim are you?… are you the moderate Muslim or..” not wanting to complete his sentence. He finally said… ” or are you practicing, practicing?”. I honestly didn’t know what the purpose of this question was for. I had to ask him to define what a moderate Muslim is? ” You know, you go out once in a while… you drink occasionally. I mean my other Muslims friends do it and they are pretty cool,” he said. Lost for words. I didn’t know where to begin.
Asking a Muslim if they are moderate or super religious is like saying, “can you tone down your identity to make me feel comfortable about mine.” Instead, try to learn or accept who a Muslim is, regardless of their religious level. In addition, not all Muslims practice the religion the same way. This is part of the diversity and nuance of life.
4. Just a sip no one is watching…
Sarah, a friend of mine went for a work conference in Italy. While at the conference they were having a toast. Everyone raised up their glass of Champagne to toast. Sarah picked up a glass of sparkling water. “Sarah, that’s lame! why don’t you raise the glass of Champagne instead?” Sarah’s supervisor said, putting her on the spot. “I don’t drink alcohol, I have mentioned this before” Sarah replied. “Come on Sarah, just a sip wouldn’t hurt, no one is watching,” said her supervisor.
Instead of challenging our dietary choices, learn to respect it. If you are the host of a program be it for travel or work, provide options for individuals with unique dietary choices.
5. Aren’t you hot in that?
Every country has its consensus on what’s acceptable or not. In some countries, staring is rude while in others its mere curiosity. The same goes for asking personal questions. In summer it isn’t uncommon to find Muslims, especially Muslim women wearing long sleeves, pants or to still put on their headscarves. In some parts of the U.S., I get occasional glances. The people in the south (U.S.) are more vocal, “Aren’t you hot in that?” they boldly ask. In Spain, older ladies will motion for me to take off my scarf because “it’s too hot.” While traveling some travelers will consistently fan themselves and start to whine, “it’s so hot. How do people survive in this heat?”
Instead of asking how hot we are in our attire, invite us to a pool party! Just Kidding ( I mean you can if you want to) but it will be preferable if you just don’t say or imply anything. Trust me, we feel the same temperature as you do. It gets tiring trying to explain to someone that we are ok or that we aren’t dying of heat exhaustion.
6. I don’t think you were targeted. It’s just a coincidence
For some Muslim travelers going through airport security is a nerve-wracking experience. This anxiety is valid too. We hear cases from our families, friends or neighbors being harassed at the airport for appearing Muslim or for having an Arabic name. One of the ways we combat our fears of flying is by sharing our experiences and finding solutions to protect our rights.
A Muslim traveler expressed her frustration on a facebook group about being treated badly by the airport security in the Vienna International Airport. Many of the group members kept telling her not to think too much about it, “It’s just a coincidence. This happened to me too when I wore a hat. You are overreacting. They are just doing their job.” These were the comments that flooded the thread. I was truly disappointed.
Instead of comparing your own experience and stating that everyone goes through this. Listen to us when we experience our frustration of inequality. Share our stories and find ways to help to the best of your ability.
7. You can’t be Western
In other countries having multiple identities or nationalities is unfathomable. I remember telling a Peruvian vendor that I was from the U.S. “and I am from Montana” he said laughing. “You must be from the middle east” he continued while pointing to the scarf I was wearing.
When a Muslim traveler or anyone for that matter tells you where they are from, believe them. Don’t laugh, don’t ask, “where are you really really from?” If he or she is comfortable to share that information with you, he or she will. Muslims come from around the world. Being Muslim doesn’t equate having origins in the middle east. In fact, the majority of Muslims come from Indonesia.
8. Tell me about Islam?
I get asked this loaded question many times as a Muslim traveler. Especially from people that usually don’t come across Muslims in their daily life. Although I don’t mind clarifying doubts people have about Islam, it can be overwhelming to answer such a magnitude of a question as “tell me about Islam?”. Muslims aren’t obligated to teach you about their religion.
Instead of asking, “tell me about Islam?” meet us halfway, learn a little about Islam yourself, ask us informed and specific questions, mention what you see on television about Muslims and let’s discuss.
9. When in Rome do as the Romans do
This motto never sat well with me. It’s is one thing to respect the customs and practices of people in a particular country, it’s another to force such practices on others. As a Muslim traveler, I try to connect and participate in cultural activities as much as I can as long as it doesn’t infringe on my values. You can’t force people to adapt to the culture of the majority. Even non-muslim Western expats don’t do that. I have seen cases were some British or American expat resides in a foreign country for many years and never learn the local language. In fact, they expect the locals to learn English. These types of expats usually create their own spaces to live the life they are comfortable with while living or traveling abroad. Also, these same expats are the ones to say “Do as the Romans”. How ironic! It is hypocritical to force assimilation on people when many don’t practicalize this is in reality.
Instead of telling a Muslim traveler to get over it and do as the Romans do, ask how we can get involved in your customs.
To my fellow Muslim travelers, make efforts to reach out to locals and participate in activities that you are comfortable with.
10. My Muslim friend in X country drinks alcohol why don’t you?
Similar to the “Are you a moderate Muslim question”. Don’t be that person that asks this question or questions like “Why aren’t you wearing a scarf like my friend back in x country”. Muslims come from different backgrounds and religiousness level. We aren’t going to throw another Muslim under the bus nor are we going to explain our religiosity to you. Instead of asking this comparative question, try to accept our difference in lifestyle and get to know us.
11. You don’t have to worry about a bad hair day.
While on a group trip in Morocco, we were all expected to quickly get ready on time. One of the girls was having a bad hair day. She looks at me and says, “You are so lucky wearing the hijab, at least you don’t have to worry about a bad hair day.” The hijab is not a bandaid to cover our flaws.
If you like our hijab or headscarf we would appreciate if you let us know but don’t compare it to a casual cap worn during a bad hair day. Because it’s not.
These are some of the questions not to ask or things not to say to a Muslim traveler or any Muslim for that matter. The key here is to basically treat us like you would like to be treated. Get to know us, get to know us, get to know us. I repeat or infer to this throughout this post. Muslims come in different shades and perspectives. It can get confusing for you when you box us into one stereotype. The first step to understanding us is by listening and getting to know us as individuals. I hope you learned a thing or two from this post. Feel free to leave a comment down below!
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“Please ask me about islam” is a question I am always delighted to hear…please by all means do ask instead me of listening to the non sense on TV in the medias, and bad written wiki articles, whatever I say will always b.
People are genuinly interested maybe because they see us and maybe we shattered that fake image of Islam they had in mind. I like people who ask. I met someone who couldn’t stop asking ans was profusely apologizing, like hey it’s cool. In the end, that person and all the quiet people around us told me they thought we didnt like to talk about our religion, and that we kept to ourselves, like there’s this subtle distance and “don’t ask” atmosphere. That allowed for the opening of a big dialogue and we had a nice time chatting and where they shared about their own “religiosity” level, (Christian and Indhu) and I learned a lot about the traditions in their respective countries!