Traveller UnderCover

 “Be in the world as if a traveller.”

Says the Prophet Muhammad.  And this is where my story starts.

For 3 years now, the hijab has had a special place in my heart. Hijabis have served as my inspiration in recent travels around the world, until I eventually became one myself.

In this adventure called Life…

I was blessed with a family of travelers. I started trotting the world young. The memory of my first travel abroad is still quite vivid. At 2 years old, my parents had to drag me into the airport as I helplessly cried “Bring me baaaaaaaack to Hong Kong!” To my joy, it was not the last adventure. My family loved travelling the West, especially the European continent, where our Catholic devotion lead us to pilgrimages here and there – Our Lady of Lourdes in France, Fatima in Portugal, the Vatican City. I learned all sorts of cultures, as well as religions, before I read them in class. When there was no Catholic Church, my dad would say that we all worship the same 1 God so we would visit all sorts of places of worship – quite frankly, never a mosque.

What traveling did teach me was that the world is one enormous, beautiful creation, waiting to be discovered. And, life, is what we can call the adventure. “Khalifah” is one of my favorite Arabic words. In the Quran, it pertains to the purpose of man being a “vicegerent,” or representative, of God on Earth. Travelling, for me, is part and parcel of this leadership. How can we lead something we do not know? When we travel, we are constantly on our toes, eager to seek new knowledge and understand people around us. The Quran beautifully relays “O you people, We have created you from a male and female, and have divided you into tribes so that you may get to know one another.” 49:13 Although traveling to a place miles away has been a worthwhile experience to encounter “the other,” it can simply be a state of mind, of never being too comfortable with what you know and what to do about it. For what is life but a short journey towards Peace?

How the Hijab brought me to Islam

My first time as a solo traveller was for a college internship, the start of many firsts. I have been to Malaysia before, but not as a volunteer, and not in an unheard-of outskirt. I ended up as an English teacher for Rohingya children, Muslim refugees who suffer from ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. It was my first time to encounter Muslims – then, the only things I knew about them were 9/11 and Abu Sayyaff.  We were different on many grounds – religion, language, culture. I would go to this Muslim school in revealing clothes I was too used to wearing, not noticing that the children looked up to me as a teacher. However, I did know how it felt to eagerly want to learn something new. And that’s where I sought to meet my students. I shared with them many stories about the world out there. I thought I’ve travelled far and wide. But to my surprise, they might just know more than I ever did…

My favourite students were Habiba and Wahida, my first hijabi friends. They are no different from our street children in the Philippines. In fact, they suffered far too much, escaping their homes, growing up with no nationality, and the uncertain future that came with it. It was an eye-opener to be exposed to a whole Muslim reality that I was kept away from by the media and my Western upbringing. Not long did I discover that underneath the external differences, were the same old human values we share in every part of the world. Growing up, I have been interested in exploring different cultures, but I never really encountered Muslims, if not for the most persecuted refugees in our planet. I also met friends my age, my first few Malay and Arab friends, who shared with me their lives that turn out to be more peaceful than mine in more ways than one. That year, I came back home a different person.

It took more than a year of debating and exploring many religions and philosophies. My Islamic education formalised in the busiest country in the region – Singapore. Right after graduation, I flew to the island to volunteer for different NGOs, one of which was a school for domestic helpers. There, I met my first hijabi kakak (older sister) from Indonesia. Diyah is a gem – a hard-working mother of 2 from Semarang, motivated to learn, yet strong in faith, on her hijab, in a city where one can easily be subdued by modernization. I also met Indonesian friends my age through the Model ASEM meeting at NUS. One day, we came across a mosque. Not at all grand like Catholic churches, except the curious case of people praying altogether. There was ad about a free lecture on Islam at Darul Arqam, a centre that opened more doors for me not to convert to Islam, but to take a closer look at other religions. You see, one of the unique things about the Quran is that, it does not just talk about itself. It explains the existence of other beliefs, the source being one God, our shared moral values. I came to appreciate the wisdom of Islamic laws shared with its Jewish brothers, but an oft-unseen, spirituality shared with Christianity too. I found, what the Quran deems the “middle nation;” Aristotle’s Golden Mean.

Ramadan came and I decided to visit my friends during their holy month in Indonesia, my favorite ASEAN people.  It was a month of many firsts. I fasted with them. I watched them pray in the mosque. I tried the hijab. And it all felt, sounded, looked good. There was no superficiality, as the external had to complement what was really inside. Sounds cliché, but really, there’s a lot more effort put in how I think, speak, carry myself with the hijab on, than in my shorts or spaghetti strap.  I also felt respected. Although I had guy friends, as far as I’m concerned, they knew the values that the hijab stood for. Of course it’s not a perfect world we live in, and I learned that sooner than later, but the imperfection of being human should not undermine the principles that sacred symbols like the hijab represents.

I finally embraced what we call a Way of Life at a youth programme in Malaysia. With the help of, yet again, new-found Muslim friends (I just kept on meeting them for years), I discovered the great potential Islamic laws had on society, if implemented correctly, through the World Islamic Economic Forum. My hijabi groupmate was a special one – Mariam from Guinea. She was very patient, as I asked question, after question. Alhamdulillah, after every doubt came clarity; there always seemed to be a logical answer to criticisms against Islam. It’s just that, my questions never ended… She told me that she herself had them and her focus was something else: “I want to be a better person, a better Muslim.” That simplicity of sincerity struck me. I have been reading the Quran and impressed by its beautiful content and structure, but I continue to rationalize things over and over.

That night, I simply prayed to this 1 God Above to show me the straight path. The next day, He touched my heart. I couldn’t stop crying. I desired for nothing else but to be a better person, and I knew, in my mind and my heart, that all I had to do was to be at Peace, to Submit.

The Perks of Being a Hijabi Traveller

Hijab – more commonly known the “head covering” of Muslim women, is an oft-forgotten tradition shared by many faiths. We see the Catholic nuns, Orthodox Jews and Christians, covered for the same noble values – obedience, simplicity, modesty. However, in Islam, every woman is chosen to serve an example.  As a matter of fact, hijab pertains to the over-all covering of one’s aura, not just of the head, but of one’s mind, heart, and body. In that sense, even Muslim men have hijabs too. For a Muslim, the hijab is a principle – a higher expression of piety, yes, but at the same time, a responsibility to society, as an ambassador of Islam and everything it means wherever one is. I chose the Muslim nickname Maryam precisely so, to remind myself of the best woman named in the Quran – Mary, Mother of Jesus. The way she talked, the way she carried herself, the decisions she made in life, even the way she dressed, was a true model of a Muslim woman.

My hijab plays a major role in my ambassadorship, in taking on the greatest challenge of any leader which is to walk the talk. It has been a privilege to carry the hijab wherever I go – a constant reminder that I am an ambassador of my Lord, with 99 beautiful names I am entrusted to represent.  Islam gave my passion for traveling a direction. At every community I visit, at every meeting, at every encounter with the other, I take the hijab along. When I was sent to Vietnam, a country quite apathetic to religion, I easily made friends with photographers at an event when I wore their “aoi ai” traditional outfit, hijabi-style. Other times, it can be an opportunity for dawah, such as at a site visit in Cambodia, when our guide turned out to be interested in Islam all this while. Personally, the hijab also affected my relationships with family and friends, especially in places where conflict with Muslims dominates public discourse like Thailand, or my  own Philippines. The questions never end. However, gladly, they all soon realise that the love we have for each other has not changed, in fact, it has increased inshaallah.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many times I falter off the path, but this is one beautiful challenge all hijabis are called to take – to wear the hijab with excellence, ehsan, which literally means “to do beautiful things.” For another lesson that the hijab teaches us is that real beauty is inside-out! Being a hijabi traveler, and a revert at that, came with a lot of challenges indeed. But it also came with a lot of His mercy, made present in solidarity with every sister, and brother, I met along the way. I now have extended families in Thailand, India, Singapore, Malaysia, the Bangsamoro.  No matter how many miles we were raised apart, it is these little symbols we share that reveal His bountiful signs within us and among us.

May we let every travel in this short adventure, become a remembrance of our Lord.

“If light is in your heart, you will find your way home” – Rumi. Ameen.

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