Middle Eastern travel can be daunting for a westerner these days, and it can be even more intimidating for western women. Western women travelling alone inside the Middle East can be seen as a threat to many social and cultural traditions upheld in conservative middle eastern countries (which is off-putting and can seem like a ton of pressure). While many tourists may come home discouraged from their Middle Eastern travels (sometimes from westernized beachside resorts), the rules and experiences for us explorers can be a little different.
I’m an archaeologist (a lucky one, who has been privileged to travel and conduct fieldwork in the Middle East). I’ve had to confront my own western biases and perceptions, because it’s part of getting ready for work. I know what it’s like to obsessively research cultural norms before throwing hiking boots and socks (and tampons! So many tampons) into a bag and hitting the road. It’s necessary, and I have to do it every time I travel someplace new.
As an anthropologist this task intrigues and excites me, but for others, I can see it getting in the way. So I’m here to help talk you through the ins-and-outs of negotiating Middle Eastern encounters as an explorer and as a woman, as someone outside the traditional tourist category. I’m here to encourage you explorers to venture outside your comfort zones.
The most frequently asked question I hear from curious people at parties is: “Insert Middle Eastern country here: Isn’t that dangerous?”
My answer is: all travel is dangerous, regardless of destination. Yes, areas of the Middle East are experiencing terrible civil unrest and human atrocities. My advice? Unless you have direct business there, don’t go to these locations. Stay out of war zones, don’t try to infiltrate borders that are under contention. Don’t use border crossings that have a reputation for hassling westerner traffic (this seems like common sense to me, but maybe the point needs to be made—remember those American hikers who “accidentally hiked into Iran”?).
I grew up in a self-proclaimed “paranoid” family, where we devoted evenings to discussing the details of catastrophic “what-if” scenarios over dinner. I may be more vigilant about feeling safe than other world travelers. That being said, I have never felt safer as a solo-western-woman (#SWW) than I have in Middle Eastern countries like Oman or the UAE. I feel less safe in my run-of-the-mill hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah than I do when I’m driving solo, cross-country in the Jabal Al Ahkdar of Oman. This is mostly because normal, everyday people in Middle Eastern countries are
1) surprised to see you so extracted from tourist centers,
2) generally kind to foreigners,
3) too busy leading normal lives to really care about your presence.
It is AWESOME. And liberating. And allows you an avenue to make those positive inter-cultural interactions that every traveler covets.
But Reilly, you might say, that just sounds like you don’t care about who/what you might encounter in the wide world. What happens when that one encounter turns violent?
When I read old travel accounts from western “explorers” I can’t help but notice how they seemed oblivious to venturing into so-called hostile territory. The famous explorer and mountaineer, Gertrude Bell, during her expeditions across Mesopotamia and the Levant, learned the hard way that encounters can quickly turn dangerous. Luckily, this never stopped her from exploring. Gertrude, even with all her orientalist faults and operating from her pedestal of western privilege, understood that her personal security relied upon the number of positive relationships and encounters she built with individuals in foreign environments.
My point here is this: As explorers, confronting what society traditionally sees as threatening or dangerous (especially for women), we are at the forefront of the act of exploration itself. It’s almost as if we are investigating things we don’t know about, or something. That’s the point, right? It shouldn’t stop us from asking questions or seeking experiences. What we can do is assess and manage known risks.
I mentioned before that I’m vigilant about my safety in the field. What this means in terms of travel is that I trust my instincts. If something doesn’t feel safe, it’s time to stop what I’m doing and remove myself from the situation. As a lone woman traveler, I cannot stress this enough. All women travelers will tell you this. Your safety is what enables you to enjoy an experience—you won’t be able to do this if you don’t feel safe. There’s no shame in backing down from a situation or experience that darkens your horizon. I’m much happier to seem like a “wet blanket who has no fun” than to have my safety and well-being compromised. Everyone is different, but nobody should feel unsafe. Knowing your own limitations and trusting your instincts is invaluable to a traveler.
If you’re a woman travelling in the Middle East, hopefully safety won’t become a concern. Travel blogs will often prompt women to dress conservatively while travelling in the Middle East. DO IT. Dressing conservatively is the easiest way to avoid unwanted attention AND show cultural respect.
Chances are, if you are an obvious outsider, you will attract curious glances and interest from more outgoing individuals. If you are modestly dressed, you may still be an obvious outsider, but instantly less threatening and more-deserving-of-respect to many people with whom you are attempting to interact. Thus, while you may not fit in, you can be accepted. The bonus? If you still get unwanted, persistent, rude, or threatening attention, and you are modestly dressed and becoming increasingly distressed, you can take refuge with nearby women.
Dressing modestly in the Middle East is extremely useful when you need the assistance of other women (who are generally also modestly dressed, because they live there). In my experience, being a woman in the Middle East affords me membership to a special females-only clubhouse that our male counterparts are not invited to (it’s way fun by the way! You can go out for dinner, stay in for movies and henna parties, walk around the family gardens, and learn all the good recipes from someone’s grandma). Your chances of gaining an invitation to that clubhouse increase drastically when you don’t appear like a half-naked social risk to local ladies. And I promise, the Ladies Only tent at Middle Eastern weddings is way more fun than what the boys are up to in the Men’s tent.
Destinations in the Middle East aren’t for everybody. But if you feel that familiar wanderlust when imagining date palm oases surrounded by shifting sands, I encourage you to take the plunge and go explore them for yourself.
Are you traveling to the Middle East soon? What are you gearing up for?