Travel Tips for Women
The Middle East and North Africa (also known as the MENA region) are interesting and exciting regions of the world to travel in and explore. With a few smart and practical approaches women can have a great traveling experience in these places. Countries in the Middle East and North Africa are more culturally conservative than many parts of the US, Europe and Canada. As such, acting and dressing conservatively brings more respect – for both male and female travelers.
The MENA region is a safe place to travel as long as you use common sense and take the same precautions you would at home. With some good common sense and a few tricks, travel in this region can be relatively hassle- free. Be aware of your surroundings, don’t completely trust someone you just met, don’t drink too much, don’t be careless, listen to your instincts, be discerning about how much personal information you divulge, don’t walk down dark alleys at night, and carry yourself with confidence and a sense that you belong where you are . These steps go a long way toward keeping you safe and ensuring you enjoy your Middle Eastern or North African experience.
When traveling in the Middle East or North Africa, I recommend two basic rules:
- Dress more conservatively and modestly than you would at home. Wear clothing that covers past your shoulders and past your knees and has a high neckline.
- Act more socially reserved than you might in your home country.
Those are good general guidelines that will get you through most situations gracefully and reduce potential harassment. Below I will elaborate and provide other important tips.
How To Dress
While some Middle Eastern countries (such as Iran, Yemen and Saudi Arabia) require by law that women, citizens and visitors alike, cover their hair, most Middle Eastern and all North African countries do not require women to cover their hair. When traveling throughout the region, you’ll see women with varying degrees of head covering, or sometimes nothing covering their hair. Whether or not a woman covers her hair depends on which kind of Islam she follows.
I’ve met many well-meaning travelers who wear a hijab or other head covering intending 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 scarf or hijab can range from confusing to downright disrespectful. Dressing modestly is all that is needed to be respectful. It demonstrates that you respect local customs and culture. (However, note that it is uniformly required to cover your hair with a scarf in mosques.) And remember, just because other tourists are baring it all or running around in a hijab does not mean that it is acceptable and that those around them are not offended.
The only time you will be expected to cover your hair is when visiting mosques, where a lightweight shawl or large scarf will suffice. When visiting mosques it is appropriate to cover most of your hair. A little can be showing at the front, but the back of your hair should be all covered.
Traveling in the Middle East and North Africa, you will see a variety of dress amongst local women — from chic western clothing straight off the streets of Paris to the full-on burqa. How a woman dresses depends on her cultural and religious beliefs rather than any government or cultural requirement (excluding Iran, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, where women are required to cover their hair). Middle Eastern and North African women dress well and tend to be very fashionable.
For women travelers, I recommend pants or skirts with hems below the knees, shirts that cover the shoulders and have a high neckline (no cleavage please) and do not show any midriff. 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 and North African cultures (and thus getting more respect in return) you’ll also be much happier when it is 85F and you’re exploring in the desert.
Act More Socially Reserved
At home you may be the gregarious friend who loves parties, people and giving hugs to everyone – even random strangers. In the Middle East and North Africa, I recommend toning it down and acting more socially reserved. Refrain from hugging locals, and only shake hands with men if they initiate it. Even if you seem to be having a grand time laughing and joking, I recommend not breaking the touch barrier since that will often make locals uncomfortable. A hug or seemingly harmless touch of the arm to a man may be taken the wrong way since being so overt is a cultural sign of romantic interest in the MENA region. I’m not recommending not being yourself; rather, be the more reserved version of yourself. This will help you avoid unwanted attention and show respect to locals.
In the Middle East and North Africa, many restaurants and public vehicles, such as trains, have women-only areas. These are areas where only women are permitted (young male children are permitted here with their mothers). If traveling by yourself or with a group of women, sitting in these areas can be a convenient option, especially if the main area is predominantly male and sitting there would make you feel uncomfortable. It is by no means required to sit in these areas. Often the staff will simply assume you wish to sit in the women-only section. If a server shows you to the women’s only area you are not required to sit there. Ask to be seated in the main dining area if that’s where you wish to sit. In trains and metros, if can be beneficial to sit in the women-only section as sometimes women, especially traveling by themselves, can attract unwanted male attention. Men may sit down next to you and be annoyingly curious. These women-only cars can provide a quieter, and sometimes more comfortable, travel experience.
Use Discernment When Sharing Personal Information
In the MENA region it isn’t considered inappropriate or invasive to ask a stranger very personal questions – such as whether you’re married, where you live, what your family is like, or if you have kids. It is simple honest curiosity. People are particularly curious about women traveling alone since it isn’t as common to see in this region. You will probably be asked at least once if you’re married, where your husband is, why he isn’t with you, and if you are with a group. Ultimately, it’s up to you how much you wish to share. Talking about families and why you are traveling can be a great way to learn about the other person and gain insight into the culture. As a general rule, I use an extra level of caution when traveling, especially when I’m traveling solo. I often do not share where I’m staying (unless I’m taking a taxi back to the hotel). It’s easy to give the excuse that I can never remember the name or where it is located – I’m a traveler and still getting oriented to the city. Usually, I have a fabricated husband and group that I say is meeting me back at the hotel. This can often deflect what can be a long line of questioning about why I’m not married or traveling with my family. Muslim culture places great emphasis on the family unit, and women traveling solo or even in small groups can be simply confusing to locals. And in some situations a wedding ring and fabricated husband can stop the occasional marriage proposal. There is no need to be a paranoid, but it is prudent, no matter where in the world I’m traveling, to use a little caution with how much I divulge about myself.
Men and women in the Middle East and North Africa often want to be helpful and take care of travelers because they see you as guests in their country. Use your best judgment when deciding whether to accept offers of help, such as a ride somewhere or lunch at a home. I would not say don’t accept all offers; rather, err on the side of caution. And trust your intuition. If something feels off, it usually is. And remember, you can always recommend meeting at a coffee shop or restaurant to get to know someone before accepting the invitation to a person’s home.
A great way to meet locals and expats alike is to reach out to groups you naturally associate with before you fly out. If you are into photography, Google a local photography club or Meetup group. If you love cooking, look for a local cooking class or club. If you like hiking, look for a local outdoors Meetup group or club. Many of these groups have regular monthly activities and can be a great addition to your itinerary. They can also help provide you with on-the-ground information, tips, people to meet for coffee, and invitations to homes for a meal with people you’ve already vetted and established trust with.
Safe Hotels and Hostels
In the Middle East and North Africa, some cheaper hotels and hostels are wonderful places to stay and meet other travelers; others double as brothels or places of prostitution. Still other hostels or hotels may have staff that are less friendly toward women. Look into recommendations from guidebooks and online reviews of hostels and hotels that are safe and friendly toward women.
If you can, book only one night in advance. That way if you arrive and the hotel or staff don’t seem a good fit or you don’t feel comfortable staying you can change hotels.
In the MENA region, they call oil black gold, due to its high value. For the average traveler oil may not seem like gold, but toilet paper will. Generally, Middle Easterners and North Africans don’t use toilet paper. We can thank them for saving a few trees, but trying to get the hang of the small hose each stall has is an art I have not yet mastered even in all my visits to the region. Hotels have TP. Assume that nowhere else will (high end restaurants sometimes do) and always pack a small roll of precious TP with you. It’s also a great way to make friends with other female travelers in the ladies room.
Speaking of Toilet Paper…Don’t Forger to Pack Your Feminine Products
Ladies, don’t forget to pack your favorite pads and tampons as these (especially tampons) can be harder to find in the MENA region. Even if you don’t think you’ll be on your period while traveling, still bring some in case traversing the globe throws off your cycles and you start early. Having a few tampons and pads may also be a lifesaver for a fellow female traveler who forgot to pack hers.
Wearing a Fake Wedding Ring
Wearing a fake wedding ring can help unwanted male attention (and backup your story on a fake husband) and it can also do absolutely nothing for you. I’ve seen and experienced both. Whether or not you decide to wear a fake wedding ring, remember it is how you carry yourself that will make the difference in how people treat you. Be confident, conservative (in dress and manners), and polite — you’ll get a lot more respect in return.
Learn a Few Words of the Language
A few words of Arabic can go a long way in making your reception smoother. Locals appreciate you trying to learn their language. You might even get mistaken for an expat and be given the “special price” at shops, bazaars and souks. Even a few words of Arabic shows locals that you are trying to understand their culture. Be a good, savvy traveler. Learn hello, goodbye, thank you and no thank you.
- Hello: As-salām ‘alaykum
- Thank you: Shukran
- No Thank you: La shukran
- Goodbye: Ma`a as-salāma
- Yes: Aywa
- No: La
Most countries in the Middle East and North Africa do permit alcohol, though where you can find it varies from country to country. In Jordan, you can purchase wine and beer in the grocery store. In Egypt, you can purchase alcohol from bars located in hotels and also from your neighborhood sketchy liquor store (I avoid the latter as the “off brand alcohol” has always seemed a bit dodgy, low quality, and certain to give a bad hangover). When at bars, watch your drink; don’t leave it with a stranger. It is best to avoid drinking too much or walking around inebriated. This can invite unwanted attention or give the wrong impression. Most MENA region countries let you bring in a certain amount of alcohol. This is best consumed discreetly in your room. Middle East and North African countries have less tolerance for drunken disorder and loud parties. If you decide to re-enact Animal House you may find yourself quickly in jail. This does make walking around at night more pleasant as you won’t have to worry about gaggles of drunken frat boys or bums bothering you – unless they’re expats who aren’t taking my advice.
Is it safe to be out at night?
Whether it is safe to walk around at night is a legitimate concern for women and always a good question to ask. Overall, Middle Eastern and North African countries are very safe. Unlike in western countries, you won’t see intoxicated people on the streets unless they are Westerners. Still, be prudent, and use good judgment when deciding whether to walk back to your hotel at night. Don’t walk down dark alleys or through deserted parts of town, and don’t head into remote areas of the desert with a stranger.
A woman alone at night may attract attention. I recommend sticking to parts of town that are more frequented by tourists and are well lit. If there are also many women and families out, that’s also a good place to be. And make sure there are plenty of taxis where you are. If you are lost, ask a store owner, restaurant attendant or hotel staff for help. Locals generally will go out of their way to help you. Still, use much of the same common sense you would use at home. And always remain aware of your surroundings. If you don’t feel comfortable, take a taxi back to your hotel.
- Wear large sunglasses and avoid eye contact or smiling at men as you walk around town. Walk with a purpose rather than as an aimless tourist. This will help avoid unwanted men from trying to strike up a conversation.
- Sit in the women-only areas of public transit (especially on packed metros).
- Sit in the back of taxis and never let taxi drivers pick up other passengers. Be firm about this.
- Be firm when making requests and approach the situation like you expect them to be followed. Middle Eastern women can be much more direct than Western women. Don’t leave room for arguments when you make a request. Do this politely but firmly.
- If you are uncomfortable in a situation, leave.
- Don’t engage with verbal harassment on the street. If someone yells something at you, it is best to ignore it and keep walking.
- Trust your intuition. If a person or a situation doesn’t feel right, it usually isn’t and it’s best to leave that situation.
- Take a business card from the hotel or have your hotel write the name, address and phone number in Arabic. This is handy in case a taxi driver gets lost and can’t find your hotel. Also note if you are staying near any famous landmarks.
A Final Word on Harassment
Harassment 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 your comfort zone, such as traveling in a foreign country, harassment can seem more threatening glaring. Each traveler’s experience is different. One person can experience little to no harassment, while another traveler can have the worst experience of her travels there.
It is smart to do your homework and research each country’s specific culture and situation. Study other travelers’ experiences, but don’t let one or two women’s negative experiences deter you from going to a place you’ve wanted to explore. Rather, with some good common sense and a few tips a lot of harassment can be avoided. As I’ve described above, dress more conservatively, act more socially reserved and act confidently.
Most harassment is harmless, words yelled in passing. I recommend ignoring them and moving on. Engaging will only encourage the harasser. If someone makes you feel physically threatened duck into a shop, restaurant, or hotel and ask for help. Locals want you to feel welcome and will help run the aggressor off and can get you a taxi.
Don’t forget to pack your sense of humor and a big smile
Acting socially reserved and having your guard up can sometimes hinder getting to genuinely know people. At the end of the day trust your instincts. If you’re naturally a trusting person, use an extra layer of caution. But if it feels ok to meet someone for tea or lunch, it probably is. Treat invitations like blind dates back home. Feel free to accept them, but tell someone else where you’re going, who you’re meeting, what time you expect to be back, and have an exit strategy in case the situation takes an unnerving or uncomfortable turn. Most people you meet will genuinely want you to have a great time in their country and usually be overly helpful. Middle Easterners and North Africans pride themselves on taking care of guests to their country. Travel with the mindset that you will meet good people and you usually will!