Mysterious spice markets, medieval town centers, the solitude of the desert… You are a fiercely independent girl that is not afraid to explore new places on your own. But have the stories of how an Islamic culture restricts women, contradicting information, horror stories from fellow travelers that were chased by market vendors, or newspaper headlines scared you? Don’t let them.
Think about it: girl leaves to explore a country, has the time of her life and returns home with many awesome memories does not make the news. The tiny percentage that actually has a bad experience will.
I am not suggesting that you hang out in a mini skirt in Iran, but if you stick to some basic rules, there is nothing at all dangerous about traveling in an Arab-influenced country on your own as a woman. At least not more dangerous than the risk of getting mugged in your home city. Personally, I felt safer in the back streets of the Marrakesh medina than in my neighborhood in North London, and got less cat calls in the Muslim countries I’ve visited than in my home town in rural Germany. Fewer guys tried to chat me up in souqs and bazaars than in Japanese supermarkets (and with the Japanese being notoriously shy, that means a lot!).
Traveling in countries that are mostly Muslim – which can range from the Middle East to North Africa to Indonesia – can be an enriching and eye-opening experience. Don’t let the fact that you’re a woman traveling alone discourage you. Here’s what you need to know to travel safely and comfortably in these areas.
What is there to explore?
Northern Africa offers train rides with miles and miles of cacti by the tracks, Roman ruins, trips to the Sahara, a fantastic mixture of French and Arab culture in the cities, the pyramids of Egypt, cave dwellings right out of Star Wars in Tunisia and much more. Except for Egypt, where English is predominant after Arabic, the Maghreb is easily accessible if you speak a little schoolgirl French. The Arabian peninsula offers cities like Dubai with space-age architecture and malls as well as many archaeological sites. The cities of Turkey seem more European than anything else and with a secular government, Islam is not a big part of people’s life and traveling is not much different from Europe.
The rest of the Middle East, although not as politically stable as the West, is by no means only a war-torn zone. Iran, despite its conservative government, offers beautiful landscapes, vineyards (Shiraz? It’s a city in Iran. Guess where the wine got its name.) and people that genuinely welcome travelers as they see so few.
Hundreds of travelers work on kibbutzes in Israel every year without being attacked by any extremists. Lebanon is a country that offers a geographical variety like no other and is famous for the fact that you could lie on the beach in the morning, and go skiing in the afternoon. Beirut, before the civil wars of the last centuries, was known as the Paris of the East and offers a great nightlife.
Will you have to wear a headscarf or even burqa? Wear a fake wedding ring and make up an imaginary husband? Will everyone follow you around because you are blond/ginger/small and East Asian/curvy/etc.? Will vendors cheat you when you haggle? Will you get stoned to death if you drink alcohol? Will there be alcohol at all?
It depends on the country you are visiting. The Islamic world, like the Christian, is wide and varied. After all, the country with the biggest Muslim population is Indonesia, and barely any traveler planning their trip to South-East Asia is put off by that, as Islam in Indonesia and a woman’s role in society is very different to that of, let’s say, Saudi Arabia (Singapore and Malaysia are Muslim, too).
In some countries, alcohol is prohibited and you will have to cover up to various degrees. In others, wearing a headscarf is actually discouraged. Just as you cannot compare rural Italy with downtown NYC, you cannot make generalizations of Muslim countries.
Culturally speaking, many countries in the area are located at the Mediterranean, with lifestyles and a standard of living comparable to its European neighbors in Spain, Italy and Greece. Being flirtatious is meant as a friendly compliment with no strings attached and not harassment, so relax. Many of these countries are also used to Westerners, either because they are home to many expats, welcome a lot of tourists, or both.
While life for women native to those countries might be shaped by Islamic cultural standards, people will understand that you are a foreigner and not expect you to obey the same rules.
There are, however, some guidelines and hints that will help you make your trip as hassle-free as possible.
Packing and styling
In preparation of my trip to Morocco, I kept reading the ‘dress modestly’ mantra and almost saw myself wearing a burqa for the entire trip. When I arrived in Marrakesh, I knew what the guide books were talking about: there were lot of Western women of all ages in tiny shorts, tops and flip flops traipsing around the souqs. If you dress like this, don’t be surprised that you will be hit on – the same thing happens at home when you wear skimpy clothes! Dressing slightly smart (read: business casual, but with trainers and jeans allowed) will give you a lot more respect from the locals.
Actually, in some cities you will be surprised how trendy and elegant the women dress (I was wishing I had brought heels on more than one occasion). Don’t wear anything skin-tight (why would you when it’s boiling hot, anyway?), keep your elbows, breasts and knees covered and you’re golden. You can throw in a scarf if you like, but chances are you won’t need it (the most conservative mosques will offer some to borrow).
More than anywhere else, it helps tremendously to learn a few important phrases when traveling on your own in the Arab world. North Africa is easy if you speak some basic French – do make use of it (you are also much less likely to get ripped off in restaurants, cafés etc. than when you speak English). In any case, learning to say hello, thanks, yes and no, in the local language will go a long way and will serve you in many countries. And if you can open a conversation with a word in the local language, many people will be inclined to think you’re an expat rather than a tourist and will be much easier to deal with.
>> Read about living as an expat as a woman in Pakistan
Many people assume they will have to hire a private driver or guide if they want to explore without a group tour. But this doesn’t necessarily make things safer, and you will probably be amazed at the state of many ‘private hire’ vehicles. Do not fret, you won’t be abducted when using public transport!
When using buses or waiting in busy transport hubs, stay close to local women and you will be left alone by any hustlers and, depending on your language skills, might have great conversations. Some countries have a brilliant and efficient transport network that easily beats that of some western countries (Morocco has the cleanest train stations and trains I’ve seen in my whole life, and the Turkish highway buses are stellar). If you do decide to hire your own driver, ask other travelers for their recommendations. Always discuss the price of the taxi ride before you get in and do not be afraid to barter (it’s okay to say “But yesterday someone took me for this much!” if you feel someone is trying to over-charge).
Depending on where you are going, some places will have a great hostel culture with affordable bunk beds and single rooms (dorms will always be female-only), while others don’t really have a travelers scene and only offer expensive hotels (Emirates, Lebanon, I am looking at you).
Hostel staff will most likely try to sell you tours, personal guides etc. – don’t expect those tours to be different from the general hustler variety. If you are insecure and/or don’t mind being dragged around every little handicraft stall, go for it, as they tours are usually cheap.
Keep in mind that certain cultural rules still apply, even if you are in a seemingly ‘international’ hostel. A friend thought she could walk around with her hair uncovered after taking a shower in her hostel in Tehran. She was not stoned to death, but quickly reminded by everyone that she needed to cover up inside the hostel as well. I prefer to make reservations in advance as that will not have you wandering the streets in search of an Internet café or hostel, looking vulnerable.
>> Find hotels in the Middle East
Going out and dining alone
It’s an absolute myth that you cannot go out to a restaurant, bar or café on your own, or will be harassed and stared at if you do. While it is true that in many countries, you will not see groups of women in public places like this, I have never experienced or heard of anything but approving nods from fellow male guests and courteous service by the staff.
You will find that there is not much of a clubbing scene in many places (sometimes also due to prohibition), but where there is, use your common sense just as you would when going out on your own at home.
Maybe you think I am downplaying things. Many things depend on the person, but if you consider this kind of trip on your own, chances are you are the gutsy type. If you can travel on your own in Europe, the US or South-East Asia, you can travel on your own in Muslim countries without any trouble.
Use your common sense and maybe plan ahead a bit better than you would for other trips. Countless women have experienced an unbelievable sense of freedom traveling in the Middle East and North Africa, due to being ‘outside’ the regular society, and were met with great respect by wonderful people. If you need more inspiration, read something about/by Freya Stark or her peers who traveled in the Middle East centuries ago.
Read more about traveling alone:
- 7 Solo Female Travel Myths Debunked
- Women’s Travel Guide
- Things a Woman Backpacker Should Pack
- 19 Resources for Solo Travel