Amira Patel discovered hiking the outdoors during the pandemic. As a Muslim woman, she is not always met with acceptance on the trails.
After experiencing injustice when hiking in her native English countryside, Amira Patel decided she wanted to help create a safe space for Muslim women outdoors, The Wanderlust Women. She founded the group to break barriers and stereotypes and help those women who have felt unwelcome when it comes to spending time outdoors. Through this initiative and her group hikes, Amira aims to change misconceptions, have conversations with different kinds of people and share their experiences.
Amira Patel started her first group hike with 30 women during the lockdown. They went on more demanding tours and adventurous expeditions while enjoying nature and contributing to the diversification of the outdoor crowds. Now her social hiking group has turned into a big community – a whole tribe of over 10.000 members representing Muslim women and showing that they are not oppressed but can do as much as anyone else. As a powerful woman with a strong vision and an outstanding initiative, Amira Patel was also part of Jack Wolfskin’s latest Wolftrail campaign. This time five women went on an extraordinary expedition to the Austrian Styria to share their stories and experience the unique nature together.
When and why did you start hiking?
As a teenager, my mom took me on a walk. But I didn’t enjoy it at that time. I used to cry the whole time because it was so tiring. When I got older, I started to enjoy this as a kind of mother-and-daughter-time. I discovered the adventurous aspect of traveling and exploring different paths in my early twenties. That’s when I found my own sort of journey. Around the age of 24, 25, I went through a divorce, and that’s when I really fell in love with the outdoors as a helpful and healing space. It was a gradual journey. Now that I am 29, the outdoors is my home office and wandering my full-time job.
Lucky you! Once, you even said that you feel more comfortable in nature than in public spaces.
Yes. The outdoors is where you can be yourself and don’t get judged so quickly. As a part of my faith, nature is also a place where we can remember God and get closer to our faith. Besides that, you can truly switch off there and check in with yourself. Sometimes we are just too busy for that in our everyday life. If you’re in a space like the mountains or the forest, you can learn to be grateful. You can reflect on your own life and recharge. And then come back more energized.
Sadly, you’ve found that some people out there insult you because of how you look and dress. How do you react to such people and statements? What do you say to those who are surprised at you or your outfit when you are hiking in a niqab or veil?
That depends. When I started hiking, people would look at me weirdly or walk on the other side. It’s not permanent racism, sometimes it’s more like microaggression. I would always say ‘hello’ and move on. But there were also a few racist encounters where people told me to go home or wherever I am from, asked me why I am wearing what I am wearing, or if I am lost because they usually don’t see people like me out here. Sometimes I say, ‘Hi, I’m Amira, I’m an experienced wanderer, and I am here with my group.’ Still, sometimes I feel it’s better just not to respond, especially when I’m solo hiking. I tend to ignore it to not get into something. But when people get really nasty, I speak up and say, ‘it’s not allowed what you’re saying. It’s racist.‘
This micro-aggressive or racist behavior is one big reason people like me are not exploring the outdoors because they don’t feel comfortable and safe. I spoke about these problems in public and on social media, for example, to draw attention to the topic.
Were such experiences the reason or the initial spark to found a group like the Wanderlust Women?
I founded the Wanderlust Group because I thought there were so many Muslim women who wanted a space where they were not judged. I wanted to create a place for these women. And I wanted to get them outdoors during lockdown times. There is a lack of diversity in the outdoors and outdoor activities. Muslim people are not well represented. A sense of community was needed to talk and share experiences, connect with like-minded people, and feel like part of something. We as Muslim women often think we are not part of anything because, when you look at the media, any kind of organization, or the fashion business, we are mostly excluded. Only now it’s slowly starting to improve, and they begin to include people like ourselves. I just wanted us to be represented and have that space–that was why I created the group. And I always loved the name Wanderlust.
You were part of the Jack Wolfskin Wolftrail experience–an adventure series for small groups of interesting people, each with their own story to tell. What did you experience when hiking through the Austrian Styria with the other women?
I had a great time and was so happy to have been part of this experience since the Austrian Wolftrail is one of my absolute favorite tracks I have done so far. Although the other women totally included me in the group, I still felt like a small minority because I didn’t see anyone that looked like me during this hiking tour. But I also realized that these hiking groups are an excellent opportunity for everyone to explore the great outdoors, especially in foreign countries. I am not sure if I would have gone to the Austrian Styria without this group which felt so very comfortable.
Together with filmmaker and environmental activist Roxy Furman, you made the film “I Am Capable, “ about Muslim women who dare to bathe in public for the first time. The natural setting was beautiful, and the atmosphere was unique and incredibly mesmerizing. One woman suddenly started crying, and you could really feel how her tension dissolved – that was so moving to watch. Could you describe a little what was happening there?
Women of color or Muslim women are often forgotten. There is no place for them. The woman who was crying in the film has a lot of British friends but not with the same background as hers. It was her first time in the Lake District (editor’s note: a mountainous region in North West England with many lakes and forests), and she couldn’t believe that this beautiful place is in the UK, literally just around the corner, and how beautiful it is. And she just realized what she was missing because she thought she couldn’t go there because she didn’t feel represented or she thought she might not belong here. She was so emotional because she was a part of this journey and finally part of a group.
Last year you said that you thought about what else you could offer at a Wanderlust experience, about integrating mindfulness, mental health, or art therapy–so what did you invent since, and what are your plans for the future now?
We just returned from my retreat, which was all about reflecting, reconnecting, and recharging. It’s not that you just go on a walk and connect with the outdoors. There are many ways, whether it’s grounding (editor’s note: a method of reconnecting with the earth, for example, through direct skin contact with the earth’s surface), meditating, or using the landscapes to do some art therapy. So we did a lot of courses. But the Wanderlust experience is also not just about taking people out but also about giving them the right skills to go and explore independently. We do a lot of different activities, we plan to go on adventure tours, on mountain hikes and camping trips in June, and we train our winter skills in March, how to hike in the snow–so a lot of things going on!
Excellent, so great things are coming up! How can I join? Is it for Muslim women or all women?
Yes, it’s for all women! But we get specific funding to help those with an ethnic background who are underrepresented, who are new to something, who don’t have access or don’t feel to have access to these kinds of activities. But of course, we want everyone to join!
Thank you, Amira. You are making a remarkable and valuable contribution to such an important cause!