Tips for Female Travelers, Middle East
The longer I journeyed through this area of the world the more I felt a sense of deep respect, protection and curiosity from the locals. The landscape and climate is pure perfection, mountains, beaches, vast dessert planes and plenty of sunshine. But as I walked through the narrow streets in my hijab and a loose fitting, floor length cloak I became enthralled with the wonders of the middle east. You see, the colourful fabrics strewn in front of the shops mixed with the purifying smells of Frankincense and the distant sound of the call to prayer ringing across the entire city, made it easy to fall in love. Entering foreign territory always seems a little unsettling at first, but, as a female, travelling to this corner of the world is a completely unique experience with plenty of hidden gems.
Keep an open mind
The number one tip I can provide to any traveller heading to the Middle East is don’t listen to what the media says. This is especially pertinent to female travellers because of how the news reports on the way middle eastern women are treated. For example, are you worried about being groped, harassed or treated poorly? Don’t be, this behaviour is very unlikely, so unlikely in fact that I would say it is more likely to occur in the west as opposed to the middle east. Now this doesn’t mean you should disregard gut instincts and the typical travel tips as you should always take your safety seriously but don’t let that hinder the opportunity to get to know the locals and their customs as this is half of the travel experience.
What to wear in the Middle East
When it comes to middle eastern fashion the best advice I have is learn how to wear a hijab ahead of time. I know, it seems so small and so simple, but from personal experience let me tell you, there is nothing more embarrassing then your scarf flying off your head in the mosque and having a 10-year-old girl put it on for you properly. Its not as easy as it looks, and it can get frustrating fiddling with it all day instead of enjoying your experience.
As for clothing, no breasts, butts, elbows or knees should be visible. More specifically no cleavage (scarves help), long loose-fitting pants, and long loose-fitting shirts or cardigans. Your best bet is to head down to the local souq and shop for some local clothes, you’ll fit in WAY better this way and honestly it will be a lot lighter and breezier then anything your bringing from home. While at the souq make sure you shop around a lot, get the best price (bargaining is key), make sure your ankles aren’t showing and that it isn’t dragging on the ground, and lastly, have it fitted to you so you don’t look like your wearing a black garbage bag.
Lastly the accessories, jewellery is very popular in the middle east, I found beautiful jewels, gold and silver all over the local shops. But you must be careful and know how to tell what is real and what is fake. For shoes, wear whatever you have that’s comfortable to walk in, Arab women wear some stunning footwear but heels are just not a practical choice for sight seeing. Flat sandals and sneakers will suit you just fine.
Adjusting to a conservative culture
This is not just for the way you dress but also the way you act. It goes a long way to behave a bit more reserved in your body language as more outgoing behaviour can very easily be perceived as aggressive or flirty. Another adjustment is the “Touch barrier”. Try to avoid physical contact with men as it can make them very uncomfortable and can be taken the wrong way. Women are a bit more open once you become friends, but always gauge your level of reservation based on theirs. Now all of this being said, be yourself and don’t be afraid to make friends with the locals, just be aware that the cultural differences can make misinterpretations happen more easily.
Saying goodbye to Western comforts
This one I found particularly hard at first, western comforts are something we don’t realize we have until they are taken away from us. For example, the first time you walk into a washroom and instead of a nice clean porcelain bowl with a seat you see a hole in the floor with two-foot pads, this majestic beauty is called the squat toilet.
Other comforts you may miss are consistent electricity (some hotels only have electricity for a few hours every day), hot showers (no electricity, no heat for the water), and no toilet paper or feminine products (I recommend buying the toilet paper at a grocery store and carrying it around with you and bringing feminine products from home).
Don’t worry it sounds scary but you get used to these things over time, and getting out of your comfort zone is a great part of the travelling experience, it allows you to grow and when you get home you’ll realise a lot stronger then you think.
Learn some basic Arabic phrases
This small gesture will really help you make friends with the locals. Even if you mispronounce the words it shows them that you are attempting to understand their culture. Honestly Arabic is a tough language as there are so many different dialects that often sound like a new language all together. So, ensure if you want to do your research ahead of time you search the specific countries dialect. But based on the Arabic countries I have travelled to here are the Arabic phrases I used the most.
Hello: As-salām ‘alaykum
Thank you: Shukran
No Thank you: La shukran
Goodbye: Ma`a as-salāma
Family Section at the Restaurant
Most restaurants and public transport in the Middle East will have a family section blocked off from the men’s section. At first, I didn’t notice this custom and would sit amongst the men but noticed a lot of staring and on the rare occasion discreet irritation from the older men. Eventually someone politely informed me that this section is for men only but because I am foreign they are trying to make an exception for me. On the plus side, the family sections tend to be a little more comfortable and creates a more hassle-free atmosphere.
Save some photos on your phone of your family, children, and hometown as Arab’s will love to see this. They are a very family oriented society so showing them your family and where you come from is a great bonding opportunity.
Now this is only a suggestion, but telling people your married will make things a lot easier. It is still not widely accepted to travel with a boyfriend or stay in the same hotel room as a boyfriend in Arab culture, so saying your married will avoid a lot of awkward conversations. Many travellers even go as far as purchasing fake wedding rings, but we found that telling people that “we don’t take our rings while we travel as we are scared we will lose them” was a sufficient enough explanation.
Find a partner in crime
This is a recommendation that I have heard from several solo female travellers. You are more likely to be invited to hangout with locals as a female when you have a friend with you. And let’s be honest, it adds to the experience if someone else is there to enjoy it with you.
Khat, Hookah or tea nights with the girls
Typically, at night the women will go into a tea room to enjoy chewing Khat and smoking hookah, I highly recommend partaking in the event. This is where I learned the most about the people, the culture and the customs. You are in a private setting so touchy subjects can be explored openly and the women are much more relaxed in this environment and you really get to bond with them on a personal level.
Chelsea Klapwyk, Assistant Writer editor & Photographer
Chelsea is an avid reader, writer, and fitness junky with a passion for travel. Starting out as an editor she quickly became enthralled with photography and has recently jumped into the writing arena. Although she is self admittedly a clumsy novice, she is excited to share her stories of how she navigates her way through the difficulties all new back packers face. Chelsea has worked closely with Uncharted Backpacker for the past year and has added a refreshing new dynamic to the team.