For as long as I can remember, the intersections of my identity as a Black woman, a Muslim, and a Muslim woman have come with labels of caution. These labels were about how I would be regarded in the world and in most cases, it was negative. To many people, nothing about my physical appearance indicates that I have the right to live in the most complete and robust version of myself. There’s a belief that my identity isolates me and that, outside of America, others would not accept or respect me.
As a Black woman, I am seen a certain way: aggressive, loud or uneducated. As a Muslim woman, I am often perceived as oppressed, docile or the person you’ll find walking 10 paces behind a man. Combining the two would instinctually befuddle people because, to many people outside of the U.S., Black people are from Africa and Africa only.
My first relocation took place in 2015, exactly one month after Sandra Bland was killed. While I had never lived overseas before or even traveled much abroad, I felt that my safety in my own home was being jeopardized and I didn’t have many alternatives left. So I purchased a one-way ticket to Cairo, Egypt. Even though I was aware that women, Muslims and people of color faced prejudice and marginalization on a global scale, I was steadfast in my belief that there must be a location on the planet where I could live without fear of suffering such dire repercussions for being who I am. And so I began what would become a search for my soul’s home.
To be completely transparent, I was also tired of all the narratives around being Black, Muslim and a woman in the U.S. — narratives that were deeply rooted in misogyny and anti-Blackness had no place with me any longer. I stepped into the mindset that the world was just going to deal with it and accept me as I was and not fear or misunderstand my existence. However, no matter where you go, from Asia to Africa, colorism, misogynoir and sexism still dominate cultures and societies globally. There are overt levels that you can absolutely escape, but colonialism and imperialism have shown that it’s deeply rooted and is also prevalent in the travel journey like a stamp in your passport.
However, embracing new experiences while traveling to different countries alleviated most of my trepidation about how people would see me because I knew that the more opportunity I gave to them to lean in, they’d be hooked.
One of those moments was my time traveling throughout China. So many people have spoken about how they felt like they were treated like sideshows because people would take pictures of them or even try to touch them. For years, people would ask how I could even travel there when the northwestern region of Xinjiang, China, was being investigated for human rights crimes against Uyghur Muslims. But, I also knew that after traveling the world, every individual’s experience is unique and a culture is never painted with one brush.
My time in China showed me that just because certain cultural elements are unfamiliar to me, it doesn’t make it wrong. So in moments where people may have reached out to touch me or wanted an unwarranted photo, I made the decision to educate them on my culture and that permission and boundaries are essential for me. I also found that some actions or attitudes that come across as mocking were actually admiration and wonder. And I could be OK with that, while still being myself and allowing people to be themselves with a little more compassion and understanding (from all parties). Overall, there were an array of various reactions to me but mostly, people left me alone.
Just for a little context, China has one of the oldest Islamic histories in the world and around 20 million Muslims currently live there. I don’t speak Mandarin outside of basic phrases, but the Islamic customs that I was taught as a child — and learned through my experiences as an adult in terms of brother- and sisterhood — met me at masjids in Chongqing and Beijing while praying beside my sisters and their children. I dined in several halal restaurants across the country where people greeted me with smiles and “salaams.” And so, I felt solace in knowing that I was right where I needed to be because these strangers and I were connected through a thread of humanity. Whatever experience these people could have with me, they’d tell someone about it and probably dispel a myth, similar to the myth I am dispelling in my writing: that a woman like me can’t successfully travel across the world and find peace.
There was a time during my travels that a group of high school students in Cairo, Egypt, asked me about coming there alone. It completely blew them away that I left with no family, let alone any male relatives. I understood their concern, of course. But I remember explaining to them that in life, it’s important to identify who you want to be in the world and take every step toward that. I told them that my greatest goal was to live without fear and also be a strong representation for women like myself — and the best way to do that was for me to travel and live among people who didn’t come from where I came from or looked like me.
Regarding my personal safety, my habits and behaviors have stayed consistent. At night, I don’t venture off too far from where I’m staying. I typically make sure that by the time the sun goes down, I’m exactly where I need to be for the remainder of the evening. I also identify where I’m going ahead of time and plan my journey back home. This way, in situations where cab drivers may like to take detours or my phone may not have service, I know precisely when I’m not headed in the right direction.
I also carry some type of weapon on me, whether it is pepper spray, a knife, a taser, or even strategically placed keys. And although I use social media frequently, I never geotag my location in real time and, if I’m solo, I don’t stay in the same accommodations for more than 72 hours. I never want someone with unsavory intentions to know that I am consistently alone and make the assumption that I can be an easy target. The reality is that in order to enjoy myself abroad and at home, I do what I feel is necessary to up my level of physical safety.
But back to my emotional security: I have realized over the years that the trepidation of global travel doesn’t exist for me because I allow people to get up close and to ask the uncomfortable questions. I also offer insight into who I am regarding the intersections I present to the world. The concept of people “fearing what they don’t understand” is real. Fear focuses on the unknown, so I lean into learning and also teaching because once people know, then they have a responsibility to do better, be better, and expect better from the people around them.