We've always championed women with the courage to leave their lives behind and see the world solo. But being on the road on your own does come with complications. This is especially true if you're a Muslim woman. Anissa Syifa Adriana, a 25-year-old backpacking YouTuber, is one such intrepid soul who inspires us with her determination to explore new countries — even in the face of prejudice. Ahead, Syifa tells us — in her own words — how her identity as a Muslim woman has shaped her travel experience.
I was brought up in Indonesia, a nation with the largest Muslim population in the world. To us, backpacking has always been a very foreign concept. Holidays are seen as a luxury because of how weak our currency is. My parents have never been abroad, and we don't even travel within our own country.
I was working at a job with the government when one of my coworkers told me about Couchsurfing. All of a sudden, this whole community — and the idea of inviting someone to stay with you and showing them your own city for the sake of new friendship — was opened up to me. I met up with a few local Couchsurfers here in Jakarta, and that helped me build the mindset that I should be travelling more.
In August 2016, I had saved up about US $1,000 (on a $200 a month salary) and left my job. I was on the road for six months, hitting up different countries in southeast Asia — including a 550-mile motorcycle trip throughout southern Vietnam — before settling down as an English teacher in northwestern China at the beginning of the year.
In many ways, I feel like I was quite naive before leaving Indonesia. As a Muslim woman, I was part of the majority: I wore a hijab daily as a personal choice and prayed five times a day. It wasn't until I was out of the country that I realised that some people are uncomfortable with it.
Nearing the end of my stay at a big hostel in Thailand, I thanked my male host and asked if I can give him a hug. He was very hesitant and asked, "Are you sure you can hug me?" Little gestures like that would happen a lot on my trip: People were a bit reluctant to look me in the eye when I wore my hijab. I often needed to initiate conversations, so that people would know I'm a somewhat cool person to talk to. This was more common when I interacted with Western travellers, probably because they have less exposure to Muslim women, or haven't directly communicated with them. When I worked in a hostel in Malaysia, I didn't wear it, and there was no judgement or prejudice.
[The hijab] doesn't change who I am. But when I put it on, things are different, and I become self-conscious of it as well.
A Couchsurfing host I had in the Philippines also transferred me at the last minute to one of his friends, because the friend has a Muslim fiancée. He'd never hosted a Muslim person before, so I think he just wasn't sure what to do. He told me, "Your hijab is a really bold statement to me — I don't really know how to interact with you, and I don't know if it's okay for me to stay with you." He was being respectful of the fact that he's a man and I'm a Muslim woman, but this episode stayed with me vividly.
Another major thing I noticed when I was wearing a hijab is how much longer it takes to screen me at immigration. If I enter on a tourist visa, I'd typically get questioned for no less than five minutes, and the people before me in the line would never take up that much time. The officers are also sceptical about me having three first names and no last name. (Ed note: It's common for Indonesians to not bear their family names.)
I receive a lot of judgment from other Muslims because of how I live. The comment that I'm "not Muslim enough" — because I wear makeup and I travel alone — is often made on my YouTube videos. One of my recent videos was filmed in a car, and I was shown touching the shoulder of my male driver. Someone left the comment, "You're a Muslim and you shouldn't be touching someone's shoulder," and they preached that I should be learning more about Islam, but Indonesia is not an Islamic country.
I receive at least one hateful comment on every single one of my vlogs. But I don't feel the need to respond to these: I stand by how I practise my own faith. Plus, there are more important things to worry about than touching someone else's arm.
However, I've been rethinking my relationship with the hijab lately. It's only a piece of cloth — it doesn't change who I am. But when I put it on, things are different, and I become self-conscious of it as well. If I don't wear it, I can just be any solo female traveller.
It's nice to have space from the hijab sometimes, because it becomes completely attached to your identity. At the same time, I also feel the obligation to break the stereotype of how Muslims are typically portrayed by wearing it on my travels. This back-and-forth is an inner journey I'm going through.
I don't feel the need to respond to [mean comments]: I stand by how I practise my own faith.
When people look at my hijab, they immediately associate me with religion, which can be a very heavy thing. The media has been portraying people who look like me in such a way that it triggers fear and a lot of misunderstanding among other people.
Aside from the association with terrorism and bombers, the stereotype is that hijabi women — those who choose to cover their hair with a scarf — are not allowed to leave the country by themselves. I get a lot of questions about women's standing in Indonesia, and some people are surprised that we are allowed to work and drive.
Solo travelling is really empowering for me because I want to show people not all Muslim women are like that. I'm proud of my culture and am proud to be the first Muslim friend of many of these travellers.