Middle East has much to offer travelers, but women must focus on local culture

Posted October 21, 2015


Sabrina Turkel dressed for the scorching Qatar weather in the only way she knew how – revealing shorts and a skimpy tank top, the typical attire for anything above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Walking out on the streets amid hijab-clad woman and baffled men, she felt so out of place she almost took the first flight back to Miami, her hometown. That shouldn’t be the case when traveling to the Middle East.

Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey. Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia. They’re the grounds that birthed the first people, harbored the first discoveries in science, math and medicine, picked up the first palette and turned pigment into paint and stone into sculpture.

Yet, for many reasons, some within their control, some of out if it, these places that at one time contributed so much richness and wonder to society are now considered one of the biggest fears of it.

Families rarely put Beirut on their road trips, and it’s a scarce sight to see backpackers in Europe make a pit stop in Ankara to sip black coffee. What’s even more of an isolated incident is to see a woman, any woman, for that matter, buy a ticket to view the pyramids on her own and not feel an ounce of trepidation about the dangers of her decision.

There is a way to avoid that.

Like every area, Middle Eastern countries hold their own unique cultures and societal guidelines that need to be followed. Though they’re definitely more stringent than others, there’s still a space for female travelers to explore – just as long as they know how.

Generally, a country’s attitude towards women depends on the extent to which they rely on Sharia law. There are degrees of enforcement, with places like Egypt offering a relatively Westernized approach compared to places like Saudi Arabia, which is the most rigidly composed of the countries with regards to Sharia law. In other places, you’ll find that it is rare for women to be outside alone.

Don’t let this put you off. Most of the time, men will be respectful and keep a distance because of the country’s religious and moral outlook on harassment. However, it is not rare for harassment to occur in high degrees in other places, so if this does happen, just ignore it and keep walking.

Follow typical safety procedures that have been engraved into the common thread of most places, like abstaining from going out at night without a male escort or a large group of people.

“Even though I’ve lived in Bahrain my whole life, I refuse to leave the house alone at night. My cousin and I did it once and even though nothing bad happened, we were harassed a lot and it wasn’t a nice experience,” said Yasmine Eid, a student at the University of Bahrain.

Another important factor to keep in mind is apparel. While some places, like most areas in Israel or Western hotels and spas (especially those on the Red Sea) are liberal with regards to clothing, others are not. Shorts, bikinis and tank tops are fine for the former areas, but are absolutely not recommended for the majority of Middle Eastern countries.

This doesn’t mean you have to invest solely in a burqa and sunglasses. For places like Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Dubai, It is ideal to wear a loose short-sleeved shirt and a long skirt, but jeans, shawls and capris will do just fine. Overall, just dress modestly.

“I went to Egypt a few years ago in a tank top and shorts and it got to the point that I was followed to my car by a group of men,” said Ella Sanders, who has since traveled to seven Middle Eastern countries, just in longer pants.

What didn’t help her was her long blonde hair, which is seen as a rare and treasured sight in these countries and is bound to attract a lot of attention. If the attention bothers you, wear it up or under a hat or headscarf. Moreover, some areas, like mosques, require women to be covered, so bringing a few long sleeved shirts and a scarf to wrap around your head is also a good idea.

Places like the Persian Gulf rarely have women walking on the streets alone. While this may cause you a bit of uneasiness when sitting in a male-dominated café, it this shouldn’t cause you complete distress. Just do what you would in any other place – don’t disappear alone with a stranger.

For first time travelers, it is ideal to start with Jordan or Israel, as they are generally the most lenient and progressive. Dubai is also flooded with tourists, allowing you to not attract as much eyes as you would in other places.

“I was so surprised to see how different Dubai was from the rest of the Middle East, especially from the rest of Abu Dhabi,” said Taylor Silverman. “I felt like I could let go a little more there and not have to be so proactive about what I wore or what I did.”

Being generous with tipping tour guides, hotel staff and guards is also a good thing to keep in mind, as they’ll be tremendously appreciative and give you special deals, like taking you inside fascinating areas which are forbidden to the general public.

While you’ll find that most people speak English, take a card with your hotel’s address and phone number in Arabic just in case. Moreover, be wary of cultural cues and gestures. Try to stray from public displays of attention, as they are seen as disrespectful in most areas.

Ultimately, It’s important to adopt the same common sense you would when traveling to any country alone. The media has reinforced the notion that Middle Eastern countries are extensively dangerous, but you just have to know how to conduct yourself the way you would while visiting any other foreign place.

“I see a lot of women traveling here, and at first they’re a little scared and nervous about it, but they always end up having a great time and telling me after that they thought it would be so much worse,” said Mohammed Omar, a tour guide in Egypt for the past 25 years. “People think it’s all terrorism and war here, but there is so much culture, history and art that is important for anyone to come and see.”

Tip List

  • Learn some general Arabic words or phrases such as hello, yes, no and thank you
  • Stay close to local women when using public transportation
  • Dress modestly in most places, except in tourist resorts
  • In Iran, you must cover everything except your hands and face
  • Bring feminine hygiene products with you, as they may be difficult to find
  • Do your research about each country’s unique culture when planning your trip