Although the Middle East is one of the most fascinating regions on Earth and holds a great potential for being explored by independent travellers, negative headlines about instable political situations and extreme cultural differences deter many tourists from embarking on an amazing journey to this area. Especially for women, the Middle east may seam like dangerous territory, best to be avoided. While some areas of the Middle east are indeed undergoing some politial unrest, many countries in the expansive area defined as Middle East as seen on the map below are perfectly safe for western travellers, with no exception of women. travelling to the Middle East as a woman can be a great experience, as long as you follow a few main guidelines. In most Middle Eastern countries, women’s roles in society are defined by traditional values. Being aware of and respecting the social norms of the country you’re planning to visit will not only establish a better understanding and interaction with the locals, but can contribute significantly to your sense of safety and confidence, so that you will enjoy your trip to the fullest.
- Keep your guard up
A beautiful key value in most Middle Eastern cultures is hospitality. Giving strangers a warm welcome, offering help and generously accommodating them is inherently ingrained in their mentality. On the flip side, foreigners in general and foreign women in particular evoke interest and fascination. In contrast with the local women, who mostly adhere to traditionally ristrictive norms, the relaxed liberty of western women is unfortunately someties interpreted as permissiveness. This applies to sexual advances as well as attempts to sell things. In order to prevent such misinterpretatons, it’s important to act with some caution when in engaging in social interactions with local men. That is not to say you can’t meet wonderful people and make meaningful connections! Just keep in mind that you’re entering a culture very different from what you may be used to, where naivety can be taken advantage of.
- Dress modestly
The simplest way to avoid unwanted attention in the Middle East is to dress modestly. Although your first reaction to the desert climate may be to rid yourself of unnecessary layers and catch a tan, you will discover that long, flowy clothes will keep you cool and enable you to blend in with the locals. While modesty standards vary between different countries and areas, covering upper arms and knees is a good guideline to go by. You may also want to keep a light scarf in your hand bag in order to cover your neckline or even pull it over your head when you feel like it, or when visiting a religious site. Mosques, synagogues and other places of worship often require visitors to follow specific dress code rules, and shawls are often provided on site.
- Be aware of regional differences
While most countries in the Middle East tend to follow rather conservative norms when it comes to gender roles and clothing, there are definitely differences within the region. Both Cyprus and Israel are not predominantly a Muslim and have a more liberal, leniant culture. While some areas of Israel like Jerusalem’s old town are mostly inhabited by religious Jews who also adhere to modest dress codes, Tel Aviv’s standards are far more easy going. The picture below shows women during the annual Gay Pride parade. On a regular day at the beach, neither locals nor tourists are afraid to show some skin. By contrast, even modern and technologically advanced cities like Dubai and Istanbul uphold relatively restrictive clothing customs. Make sure to pack some covering clothes, just to be on the safe side. Once you arrive at your destination, you can always get a better feel for the most suitable options.
- The (imaginary) husband
Exploring the Middle East alone as a woman can cerainly be an exciting and positive experience. You do have to be prepared to attract some attention, as in many Muslim countries it is not customary for women to travel by themselves. A simple but rather effective way to rid yourself of unwanted suitors and curious inquiries is to present a husband, either by mentioning him or even by asking a fellow, male traveller to play along. Wearing a “fake” wedding ring may feel a little odd, but proves to be elegantly effective. If you’re travelling with your boy friend, it is recommended to simplify things by presenting yourselves as a married couple. As much as you’ll enjoy spending time together on your exciting holiday, avoid any public displays of affection, as this can be regarded as inadequate behaviour.
- Be confident
Ultimately, the best way to enjoy your trip to the Middle East as a woman while staying safe is to be yourself. While it is certainly important to be observant and respect the local culture, you should definitely not feel shy or intimidated. On the contrary, most Middle Easterners appreciate assertivity and confidence, and will respect you for standing your ground. Don’t agree to anything out of mere politeness, have the courage to be straightforward. When visiting the souk (market), try not to show too much enthusiasm for a product, but challenge yourself to engage in the customary bargaining. With this mindset your trip to the middle east will be a truly authentic and unforgettable experience.