Yes, Muslim women do have fun.
The notion that they don't, that their faith dictates a nearly cloistered life, was a stereotype that Munazza Muhammad set out to challenge. But the Philadelphia day-care center operator never dreamed it would land her atop a donkey wobbling up a Mexican mountain in the company of eight intrepid Traveling Muslimahs. By day's end, the women — wearing lightweight, form-fitting "burkinis" that covered all but their faces, hands and feet — rappelled down a waterfall, went for joyrides on a tortuous water slide in a forest, and ziplined, four times, through the trees.
A travel club for Muslim women who want to see the world, the Muslimahs had booked an obstacle-course tour in Puerto Vallarta that turned out to be not for the timid. "There were real tears shed," said Muhammad, 35.
But they survived the adventure and, when it was over, celebrated their accomplishment, flashing the arm-crossing Wakanda salute from the movie Black Panther.
Founded by Muhammad in June 2017, the Traveling Muslimahs — from an Arabic term for Muslim women — has about 60 active members, ages 35 to 65. Among them are teachers, a chef, an accountant, and nurses, and although most are from the Philadelphia area, some live as far afield as Mississippi and California. What they share is a desire to travel without having to set aside their faith because it is inconvenient, or to be branded a killjoy when they opt out of activities with non-Muslim companions. Without fail, they pray five times a day. They do not go bar-hopping or nightclubbing.
In Muslim culture, "it's not common for women to just travel by themselves," said Khadijah Rashid, 40, a coordinator at the International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson, Miss. "The world is a big, bad, scary place, and women are encouraged to have a responsible male in the family to protect [them]. … But now we live in a modern world."
Trip by trip, the Muslimahs are seeing it, often decked out in color-coordinated and themed hijabs, or head coverings, and overgarments. They have ridden camels in the United Arab Emirates, shopped at spice markets in Morocco, skied in Vermont, and visited mosques in Spain.
"The media portrays us like we're just in the home, that we don't really have fun," said Muhammad, who operates the Creative Touch Learning Center in Nicetown. "We want to show the world there is more to us than being a wife and mother. We travel and explore."
The idea for the Traveling Muslimahs (initially called Philly Traveling Muslimahs) came to Muhammad after making Umrah, a minor pilgrimage to Mecca. She posted pictures on social media and the response was immediate, with many posters chatting excitedly about their own travel dreams. She began thinking that perhaps she had uncovered an entrepreneurial niche that she could fill.
"I had heard of black travel groups, women's travel groups, and Muslim travel companies, but nothing that catered to Muslim women," Muhammad said.
Soon, she was planning their first trip, a ski vacation in Vermont.
Muhammad charges an annual fee of $99.99, or $9.99 a month, and handles all travel arrangements; the cost of a trip typically ranges from $500 to $3,000, everything included. Members also accumulate points that can help defray part of the expense of making Umrah or Hajj, the trip to Mecca that is one of the five pillars of the faith and an obligation for all able-bodied Muslims. Hajj ended Friday in Saudi Arabia.
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Rashid and friend Kameelah Wilkerson of Altadena, Calif., traveled with the group for the first time on a recent trip to Morocco and Spain. Noting that accommodation for Muslim tradition is rare in Mississippi (she once had to pray in a closet for privacy), Rashid said she appreciates the respect given to faith practices by the Traveling Muslimahs.
"Everything is laid out. You know where the prayer areas are. The tour guides are Muslim. The food was all halal," adhering to Islamic law, she said. "Your values are understood and known before you even show up."
Members must sign a contract in which they pledge to get along with others, making them free of "fitnah," an Arabic term used to describe forces that cause controversy or chaos. If the pledge is violated, the member could be expelled.
"This is a religion of peace. People are watching us, and we want to demonstrate the best of character," Muhammad said. "If you cause drama, you could be expelled. We don't tolerate that."
So far, one Muslimah has been suspended, but has returned on a probationary period, Muhammad said.
Zakirah Thomas of Northeast Philadelphia joined the group partly to find connection. She converted to Islam about five years ago, and is one of the few Muslims in a family of Catholics.
"Because I'm single, I'm always looking for something to do — to be able to travel, go out or have dinner, and interact with other Muslims outside of the [mosque]," said Thomas, 37, an analyst for a pharmaceutical company. "This group allows you to build sisterhood."
The club also supports the charitable efforts of members' projects on behalf of autism awareness and feeding the homeless.
Next up for the group, Thailand and South Africa.
"We are reinforcing that you can be unique and special in your garb and don't have to conform to society," Muhammad said. "You can be your unique self and be accepted. We are breaking the stereotype just by showing up."