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Women's Travel in the Middle East
The Middle East can seem like an off-limits destination to some female travelers, but there’s no reason why women should miss out on visiting this fascinating country, rich with history, a unique culture and beautiful scenery.
Yes, there are vast cultural differences in attitudes to women, and these are countries where women are not usually seen travelling alone. But with a little common sense, and a respect for cultural and religious differences, you can still travel and stay safe in the Middle East.
Attitudes Towards Women Travelers
The place of women in Muslim countries depends on the degree of Sharia Law operating in each country, but in general, it is unusual for women to be seen travelling alone without their families, and women have rigidly defined roles.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, women are covered up most of the time and are not allowed to drive cars. In general, women are held in high esteem, but their place is extremely regimented and conservative. Women are expected to be reserved and behaviour otherwise will make you stick out for all the wrong reasons. But this doesn’t mean that you will treated badly in Middle Eastern countries – just show some respect for local traditions and culture and you will be respected in return and left alone.
One shock most women will find is that in countries like Iran, women don’t go anywhere alone, and are never seen alone in public, only out with their families or in groups of other women. So you will stand out, and may feel a bit strange sitting alone in a café or restaurant, which are usually male dominated.
However, you are still perfectly safe, simply follow the rules you would anywhere - don’t go off alone with a man, or group of men, and if you do feel awkward, there are plenty of women-only areas in many parks, restaurants and cafes. Don’t worry about being rude: no-one will be offended if you insist on sitting next to a woman on a bus or train.
Be aware that if travelling with a man, everyone will talk to him and may ignore you. There’s not much you can do about this, so use it to your advantage- use your male travel buddy to haggle for you, and you are much less likely to be bothered by touts!
Also be prepared for Gender segregation in countries like Iran: On local buses, men and women sit separately even if related. On most trains and long-distance buses, men and women sit together. If on public transport, the woman should sit in the window seat, or try and sit where a group of women are sitting together. In general, if you are travelling alone, sit next to someone of your own sex. In a taxi, sit in the back behind the driver.
Unrelated men and women may not be alone together, so don’t be offended if men try and avoid you! In a home, be prepared to sit and eat separately from the men – do not join them!
- Firstly take the same precautions you would take in other countries – don’t go to isolated places after dark, and be wary of ending up alone with strange men.
- You will also need to be sensitive of cultural differences, and be careful not to be misinterpreted – a simple ‘western’ gesture such as fixing the gaze of a man or smiling could be seen as a sexual advancement. Of course if someone is talking to you, maintain eye contact! The best advice is to be more reserved than you normally would, and avoid being openly friendly.
- The chances are you won’t have to worry about being hassled or harassed by men – as it is considered rude to approach a woman sitting alone and force your company on her without invitation.
- If you do feel uncomfortable in any situation, feel free to be rude, and make a fuss – they will not want the attention and should leave you alone. Don’t don’t feel like you have to respond if someone starts talking to you, and do leave if someone makes you feel uncomfortable.
- If you are blonde, you will attract more attention than dark haired women, so maybe bring a hat or headscarf to cover up if you find yourself being hassled.
- Traveling alone or with another female will make you more vulnerable – sometimes it can help to make a male ‘buddy’ in your hostel if you don’t want to venture out alone. Be aware that if you are out with a man, you may be addressed through him, and that it will be assumed you are married. In many cases, it’s best to pretend that you are.
- Avoid public displays of affection.
Places to Avoid
There are no places that are off limits for women, but solo female travelers may be more comfortable visiting the countries that employ a less strict version of Sharia Law. Saudi Arabia employs one of the strictest interpretations of Sharia.
Women are not allowed to drive, they are under the guardianship of male relatives at all times, and must be completely covered in public. In Kuwait, Yemen and Iran women must also be completely covered.
Countries like Egypt may be more relaxed towards females travelling alone, but many women can still feel uncomfortable by the hassling they may get in Cairo and the more touristy areas - usually this will only be to sell you things, but some can be quite persistent, so try to ignore any unwanted attention, and show a fake wedding ring, or tell men you are married to try and stave off any unwanted advances.
If you have blond hair especially, you will be approached, so consider covering your head, wearing a hat and wearing your hair up. Even in the main cities, do not walk around alone at night.
Best Places for Women Travelers
Attitudes in Egypt, and the more touristy parts of the United Arab Emirates, are more relaxed to solo female travelers, although the hassle women can get can put many solo females off. In cosmopolitan cities such as Beirut, women will feel alot more comfortable traveling alone.
But aside from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, there is no hard and fast rule to how strict countries are. For example. you’ll find attitudes in the major cities in Iran are surprisingly laid back – women can be seen wearing makeup an jeans as well as veils.
In general, as long as you are respectful of local cultures, customs and dress codes, don't go out alone after dark, and use your common sense, many destinations are fine for female travelers.
What to Pack
- Tampons/Sanitary Towels/Any other feminine hygiene products, and nappy bags for disposal – they will be hard to find.
- Toilet paper – you won’t be able to get it outside of hotels, and the squat toilet is inevitable – so some sort of antibacterial hand gel/sanitizer might be a good idea.
- Clothes – What you are expected to wear varies a lot from place to place. In a Red Sea resort, and more Westernized places, you can relax a bit, but otherwise, you’ll need to cover your body.
- Bring loose, linen trousers, long sleeves or a loose tunic, and a headscarf if you enter a mosque.
- Never wear shorts. A long skirt is also a god send – not only is it modest and cool, it’s ideal for squatting down to go to the toilet!
- In Iran, the dress code is very strict and must be observed – you must cover everything except your hands and face. If you are visiting a really strict country, bring a shirt dress or long sleeved shirt, buy a ‘monatu’ (loose, knee-length light jacket worn over trousers) from a local market, and bring a pashmina to wear over your head. It’s unlikely you’ll need to wear a ‘chador’- a black cape-like garment, unless you are visiting a mosque far away from the tourist trail.
- In general, it is better to be dressed too conservatively than to offend the locals. Do your research for each country before you travel to check what women wear.
- Bring shoes as well as sandals in case feet are covered as well.
- A (fake) wedding ring – this is a useful thing to have if you are travelling alone, with other women or with a partner if you aren’t married. Being seen as married will help lower your profile as you will be seen an unavailable.
- Carry a basic kit of plasters, rehydration salts etc.
What to Leave Out
- Normal Women’s magazines such as Vogue, as well as any indecent images.
- Alcohol (strictly forbidden)