Tips for Women Traveling to the Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East and North Africa are more culturally conservative than most parts of the US, Europe and Canada.  Acting and dressing conservatively garners more respect for travelers — both male and female. Even with increases in tourism over the years, seeing women traveling by themselves or with other women still can seem out of place to many Middle Easterners. This brings a unique set of challenges, but with some good common sense and a few tricks travel in this region can be relatively hassle free. Generally the Middle East is a safe place to travel as long as you use common sense and take the same precautions you would at home.

Most importantly the whole “the Middle East is dangerous” mentality is untrue. I feel safer most of the time in Mid Eastern countries than I do at home. They have problems there, of course, but they’re of such a different variety than in the U.S.

While sometimes in some Middle Eastern countries there is terrorism and war, this region does not suffer at all to the extent that we do from rapes, robberies, gun violence, home invasions and other crimes so common in the U.S. I think when people hear that the Middle East is dangerous they think that war and terrorism is piled on top other crimes like we see at home and that makes the whole region seem just impossibly dangerous. It is not.

Crime in the Middle East as a whole is low; there’s very little chance that you’re going to be a victim of terrorism or that anyone is even going to hurt you. The Mid East is safe. It really is.

When traveling in the Middle East we recommend to basic rules:

1) Dress more conservatively and modestly than you would at home. Wear clothes that covers passed your shoulders, passed your knees and has a high neckline.

2) Act more socially reserve.

Those are good general guidelines that will get you through most situations gracefully and reduce potential harassment. Below we will elaborate and give you other important tricks and tips to make your travel experience in the Middle East more enjoyable.

What to Wear

While some Middle Eastern countries (such as Iran, Yemen and Saudi Arabia) require by law for foreign women to cover their hair, we do not operate any tours in countries that require this. I’ve met many a well-meaning travelers wearing a hajib or other head covering who intended to show cultural respect, but unfortunately this is not necessarily how it is perceived by locals. If you’re not a Muslim, wearing a head covering outside of a country where it is law or a mosque can rang from confusing to downright disrespectful. Dressing modestly is all that is needed to be respectful. It demonstrates that you respect local customs and culture.  And remember, just because other tourists are bearing it all does not mean that it is acceptable and that those around them are not offended.

The only time you will be required to cover your hair is when visiting mosques and a handy lighweight shawl or large scarf will suffice.

Covering Your Hair

Traveling in the Middle East, you will see a variety of dress amongst local women — from western dress straight off the streets of Paris to the full on burqa (though you will see far fewer of this attire in places like Jordan and Turkey). How a woman dresses depends on her cultural and religious beliefs rather than any government or cultural requirement (not include Iran, Yemen and Saudi Arabia). In general, Middle Eastern women dress well and very fashionable.

I do know, though, that the women of the Middle East do not appreciate the image many of us in the Western world have of them. These are strong and proud women, often educated and holding professional positions, not helpless, passive secondary citizens controlled by their men as many outsiders tend to think of them.

In fact, I’ve learned one way to tick off a Middle Eastern Muslim woman is to suggest that a man is forcing her to cover her head. Maybe in some countries, in some instances women don’t want to wear the hijab, but often they do. Often little girls can’t wait to grow up so they can cover up like the adult women do. Women covering themselves in the Mid East is not a product of male power and domination, rather it is their culture.

 

For women we recommend pants or skirts that are below the knees, shirts that cover the shoulders, have a high neckline (no cleavage please), and do not show any mid-drift. Also no transparent clothing (be careful with whites and sheer fabrics ladies), bra straps showing, and skin tight clothing. Leave those skinny jeans and crop tops at home, instead opt for looser fitting more breathable cotton and polyester. In addition to showing more respect for the Middle Eastern culture (and thus getting more respect in return) you’ll also be much happier when it’s 85F and we’re exploring in the desert. The only time you will be required to cover your hair is when visiting mosques. We recommend bringing one large, lightweight shawl to easily cover your hair the few times we do visit mosques.

 

Solo female travelers in the Mid East are not common, so unique challenges do exist.  Keep in mind that you’re presenting a sight very different than the locals are accustomed to seeing.  Particularly in the more conservative countries, such as those in the Persian Gulf, women do not often go out in public alone much less travel alone.  The sight of a non-Arab solo female traveler does cause locals to stare.  They may make remarks, although this is rare.  No danger lurks behind the attention.  Solo females in most of the Mid East are simply an unusual sight.

Act More Socially Reserve

You may be the life of the party at home, but one of the essential tips for girl travelers in the Middle East is to tone is down a little to avoid unwanted #attention! This is not to say that you can’t be yourself, but do your best to be more reserved. If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then perhaps the Middle East isn’t the holiday destination for you.

Is Anyone in the Middle East Accustomed to Seeing Women Alone?

Airport and hotel employees as well as taxi drivers and tour operators are more accustomed to seeing women traveling alone than the general public, making transit, your hotel stay and any tours you might undertake uneventful in this respect.  Buses in Middle Eastern countries often have separate seating areas for women and children. Sitting in such areas is not mandatory but an option that might make you feel more comfortable.

Will People Stare or Make Remarks?

In many parts of many Mid Eastern cities, be they shopping areas, parks or just long stretches of sidewalk, primarily men are gathered, often by the hundreds, with not a woman in sight.  Passing through or spending time in these areas can be uncomfortable due to stares of curiosity, although it is not often that the men will say anything.  Areas filled with nothing but men are completely safe, although they might be uncomfortable for the solo female.  Be aware that you very well may come upon at least one of these predominantly male areas.  If you’re very uncomfortable, turn around and go back.  Or stay and expand your comfort zone.

Is it Safe to Stay Out After Dark in the Middle East?

Staying out after dark is a concern for solo female travelers, and with good reason.  Darkness does produce a lot of bad behavior that doesn’t take place during daylight hours.  The crime rates in Mid Eastern countries, though, is extremely low.  The Koran, the biblical text on which the law in Muslim countries is based, forbids alcohol and drug use by Muslims.  For this reason there are next to no intoxicated people on the streets in Muslim countries.  These sober societies are by their nature far safer than countries in which altering your mind is common.  Violence, rape, thefts and other crimes are virtually non-existent.

However, the sight of a woman alone at night is very unusual and may attract attention.  If you are out after dark, try to stay in areas frequented by tourists.  Watch and make sure that there are plenty of taxis driving around any area you enter so you can get in one quickly in case you get lost or just want to return to your hotel.  If you’re concerned about being out at night, store your hotel’s number on your phone so you can call them if you need directions or help.  You will probably find that if you do get lost and ask directions, people will go out of their way to assist you.  In general, you can safely go out at night in the Mid East, but exercise all the same precautions as at home.

Can I Smoke and Drink in the Middle East?

Smoking cigarettes is not common in most areas of the Mid East, although smoking shisha often is.  Smoking in your room as a solo female traveler is perfectly acceptable as is smoking discretely in public or even sitting down to try shisha.

Alcohol consumption is legal, although uncommon, in Muslim countries. Typically the only bars or nightclubs you will find are in hotels.  It is perfectly acceptable for solo women to drink alcohol in these locations in the Mid East.

Is There Anything Else I Need to Know?

Many restaurants have a separate curtained-off section reserved for women and families.  Sitting in this area is entirely optional.  Although it may sound counterintuitive, sitting here may not be a good idea.  The server is almost always male of either Arab or southern Asian descent, and the sight of a woman sitting alone can sometimes cause them to come much closer than you would like.  It is unlikely anything untoward will happen in this private area but if you are directed to it and you don’t want to enter, don’t.  Indicate that you want to eat in the main dining room.  If the main room is already full, then go to another restaurant.  The unusualness of solo women in shops and taxis may also attract unwanted attention from males.  Always sit in the back seat of a taxi.  If you are in a shop or anywhere else and someone is making you uncomfortable, leave.

Share information wisely

In many parts of the world, the Middle East included, it’s not considered intrusive to question a stranger about their marital status, income and family situation.

It’s nothing sinister, just genuine curiosity. And people (especially taxi drivers!) are particularly curious about women travelling without a husband, brother or father accompanying them. You will definitely be asked where your husband is and you can also expect to be asked whether you’re travelling in a group.

It’s up to you whether you answer these questions truthfully. It can be a great segue into asking about the questioner’s life, but if you feel uncomfortable it’s okay to fib a little. Whenever taxi drivers asked if I was married I always said yes. And if I was asked where the rest of my group was I’d say vaguely ‘at the hotel’. Which hotel? I can never remember the name of it.

Use common sense and when it comes to how much you reveal to a stranger, trust your gut instinct.

Deciding where to stay

In many countries in the Middle East, it’s rare to see women working outside the home or in the service industry. This means hostels, guesthouses and hotels are often staffed entirely by men. This can be disconcerting at first and you might even go days without speaking to another woman.

Often guidebooks will mention specifically whether a hotel is or isn’t suitable for solo female travellers and if you’re uncertain, do a quick search online for reviews from others who have been to your destination recently.

Pack Toilet Paper Everywhere you go

This is a great way to bond with other female travelers.

Don’t forget to smile!

Constantly having your guard up means it can be difficult to have genuine interactions with the local population, particularly with men.

But trust your instincts – most people are actually not out to get you, and chatting with people about their lives is one of the most fun aspects of travelling. If feel like it’s okay to have tea with someone or visit their home, it probably is!

To Wear a Fake Wedding Ring or Not to Wear a Fake Wedding Ring

This is one of the age old delimmas amongst female travelers to the Middle East.

Harassement

Harassement can and does happen anywhere — from the streets of New York to the crazy bum in the small town, to a chic bar in London. But when outside of our comfort zones, such as traveling in a foreign country, harassement can seem more glaring. The Middle East and North Africa is a very diverse region — women in Egypt can experience more harassment than in places such as Jordan. Each traveler’s experience is different, and where one can experience little to no harassment in Morocco another traveler can have the worst experience of her travelers there.

Learn a Few Words of the Language

shukran, etc can go a long way to smoothing your travels. Even a few works of Arabic shows locals that you are trying to understand their culture. Be a good traveler. Learn hello, goodbye, thank you and no thank you.

 

Using the same common sense as when traveling in other foreign countries works. Don’t be careless, don’t totally trust someone you just met and don’t drink too much (contrary to common belief, alcohol and bars do exist in much of the Middle East). Be aware at all times that you’re in a world very different from your own, inside a culture comprised of people who think and behave very differently than you are used to. Dress modestly and behave respectfully.

I’ve found that in Persian Gulf countries there are rarely women on the streets alone. If you are alone in this region, you will likely be stared at quite a bit. While this might make you uncomfortable, just ignore it, keep moving and don’t worry that anyone will do anything more than stare.

If you go exploring alone anywhere in the Middle East, take a business card from your hotel or, if they don’t have one, get a staff member to write down the hotel’s address in Arabic with you as well as their phone number. If you get lost or end up with a taxi driver who can’t find your hotel, this can help.

 

And a traveler’s secret, you might just be mistaken for an expat.