Friday, October 4, 2013

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.

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.

Safety Advice
  • 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.

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