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How to travel the world by yourself … as a woman! Part 1

 Journey woman in Iran

Starting today, I will publish a few articles about women travelling. The author, Adriana, has travelled to more than 65 countries, some of them (even if it was a business trip) not really usual tourist destinations: Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia. Several times, she travelled alone or together with other female companions (India or Iran). In these articles, she will share her travelling experience in countries which seem complicated for women travellers to cope with.

Most travellers prefer to travel in a group or at least a pair with friends and family rather than alone. But there are those destinations that no friend or family member is particularly interested in … so what do we do then? In most of the cases, girls would give up the idea just because “no one is going” as women and girls are even less likely to wish to travel alone or in a small group unaccompanied by a male traveller. I am not for travelling mostly “solo“: it is very nice to have someone by your side to share the “good” and sometimes “bad” or at least “tiring” times. But I would not give up on that “dream destination” just because cousin Vinnie or your boyfriend is not a big fan so… that’s why this article.

For women travelling alone or in small women-only groups there are some challenges men don’t face but the rewards are also there: no man from your country would have access to the “women only places” you can go into freely; you get to meet local women more closely and learn about their culture and country (pray that they speak English!). The few things we have to take care of in our pre-departure planning and once we are on the road should not stop us women from travelling – this article is based on my personal experience and that of my female friends.

Most places in the world that are unsafe for women would be so for men… so take the usual precautions: don’t go out at night in areas that are not deemed safe (check on the internet, reputable travel guide-books and at your hotel/ hostel). If the political situation is volatile make sure you check carefully the situation in the area you wish to visit (foreign affairs offices websites and local sources should help you); again what would not be safe for women would not be good for men either.

With the exception of few large cosmopolitan cities like New York and Amsterdam, in most other places foreign women visibly different vs. the local women will attract some curious looks from local men especially if the women travel alone – at best this is all you get. In most cases it is simple curiosity or a genuine desire to help as women are perceived more in need of help in some cultures. So … don’t dismiss anyone trying to talk to you especially if they seem friendly. You may excuse yourself if the discussion is too long for comfort or casually mention your husband (even imaginary) – most times you won’t need to do that. A good book and some large sun glasses are good ideas to avoid unwanted “eye contact”.

There are some regions and countries where women travelling alone or without a male companion might need to plan a little bit more before starting. Key details regarding visa, dress, transportation, hotels are especially helpful for a comfortable journey. From my own personal experience the Middle East (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, some places in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco, etc) and the Indian Subcontinent (India, Pakistan, etc) require some specific pre-departure planning and behaviour during the trip for women.

One of the key cultural differences between Europe and the regions mentioned above is that in many countries for various reasons women would not travel alone but with their husband or in a group with other family members; men would travel alone only in business trips but for vacation they would go as a group of various extended family members (grandma & aunty included). For example on a trail in Sri Lanka near Nuwara Elia if one person from our (relatively small) group of four would lag behind to admire the landscape or take that special picture, locals (travelling with big family groups) would ask worried “Where are you from? Are you lost from your family group?” … as they would not phantom anyone wishing to travel by themselves especially a woman.

Visa: For countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia (business visa only) getting your visa as a single woman traveller might take more time and more bureaucracy, even a few visits to the embassy, but if you are persistent and patient enough you are bound to succeed. You need to kick-off procedures well in advance (at least 2 months from my experience) and have a lot of patience and a bit of faith … Inshallah! Iran embassies issue tourist visa but Saudi Arabia issues only business visa (unless you are Muslim and wish to visit Mecca for Haj). If you are offered a business trip to Saudi Arabia … don’t hesitate, just go! You will not regret it – have female colleagues that gave up on the opportunities for fear of the unknown and maybe few visa complications (not impossible to overcome). One important tip: if somebody says “no” to something at some stage in the visa process … don’t give up, ask again in a different way or a different person … it just takes some more time but chances are some bureaucrat was trying to get some work off his desk. Unfortunately there is a clear difference in the treatment of groups and couples (Iran visa in 2 weeks; Syrian visa on the spot; no questions asked) vs. single women (Iran visa 1.5 months and 3 visits to the embassy; Saudi business visa in 2 months). Various agencies from home and abroad (for Iran: “Iran Mountain Zone”; email: m.hajabolfath@mountainzone.ir; contact person: Mohammad Hajabolfath) can lend you a hand. Most of other countries pose little problem you just ask at their respective embassies (touristic countries like Turkey and Egypt may be even easier than the others).

Dress. The golden rule here is to look at what the local women wear and act accordingly. If the aesthetics or the logistics of the local dress are challenging just head to the local market or bazaar … usually with friendly prices and local women will help you – Dubai may differ at the “friendly prices” part unless Versace has some “abayas” on sale (traditional Arabic women attire – looks like a large robe and covers you from neck to toe). There are countries where there aren’t so many women on the streets to get inspiration from … especially unnerving in India (try buying underwear in a shop with only men sales-persons!) but some Cairo or Damascus neighbourhoods as well. In some more conservative parts of Turkey or Jordan men would sit smoking a shisha in public but women would pass their time “hidden” at home in the company or their (usually female) friends and relatives. Hope the few advices below would help you in these cases.

In most countries in Asia (e.g. Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia) the locals, men and women are more conservative in dress vs. Europeans … if in our countries at the first warm ray of sun in spring we start wearing small T-shirts and spaghetti tops to have a nice tan, in Asia people don’t strip and sunbathe and don’t wear revealing clothes (white skin untouched by sun is considered beautiful). Even in Buddhist countries quite egalitarian with women rights in better places than elsewhere, in rural areas people are quite conservative and plunging necklines and clingy T-shirts will not be highly appreciated – knee-length pants and long-sleeved t-shirts will win you more friends. The more we dress similarly to the “local standard” the less attention will get … or at least the wrong kind of attention. In Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia I saw quite many locals bathing in the sea almost completely clothes – customs evolve slowly!

In Muslim countries (Indonesia without Bali, Turkey except the “all inclusive” areas, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon except the majority Christian areas, the Emirates) the dress might need to be a little more covering. In general Muslim women dress covers all body revealing just the face and the palm of hands … consequently your T-shirt needs to be strictly long-sleeved; your pants and skirt ankle length. To note these rules obviously don’t apply in the “all inclusive” areas of Turkey and Egypt: if you stick to the “all inclusive” areas and only take day-trips organised by the resort (Egyptian Museum, Troy in Turkey, etc) you have nothing to worry about when it comes to dress. If instead you go in a female only small group in less touristical areas … the more covered you are the better it will be.

Probably shopping in Dubai won’t  mean a lot of challenges when it comes to dress (unless your style is more revealing than a belly dancer which I would not recommend given the ice cold air-conditioning in Dubai malls). Also not recommended in Dubai (as in most Middle East and some parts of Asia) to express public display of affection for persons of opposite sex (a kiss in the mall parking lot after a “hot date” may prompt police to come and investigate – happened to a friend of mine; they got away with a few questions). Some English weren’t lucky to get away but spent some time in jail for “sex on the beach” … they weren’t talking cocktails!

If we really go to extremely conservative areas or countries (e.g. some areas in North India and definitely Pakistan) it’s necessary to go one step further with “covering dress” … ideally we should wear loose clothing that does not reveal too much the shape of the body: don’t pack stretch fitting jeans, or tiny T-shirts. Think what was appropriate in the 30s in Europe and you will be safe – the local women wear loose tunics and pants called shalwar kameez (if you spend some time in India or Pakistan have some shalwar kameez done for you by the cheap local tailor – usually a guy unfortunately; don’t disrobe for measure taking as the clothes are supposed to be loose).

In some Muslim countries the law requires that women cover their hair in public (Iran and Saudi Arabia are an example) as per the modesty principles of hejab. In Iran a few pashmina shawls should do the trick – avoid flashy colours especially red (very tough for me as I loooove red and I am a red-head). On top in Saudi Arabia it’s mandatory to wear a black “abaya” (robe) with a “matching” black scarf (you can either purchase it or tailor it in advance or have someone meet you at the airport to hand you one). Don’t worry too much about the abaya … if you made it through the visa process then you have what it takes to learn to wear it in no time. If you have trouble “veiling” yourself with the hejab (the pashmina, any scarf you wear on your head to cover your hair) then check out the internet (“simple hejab tutorial” on YouTube will give you many choices – I used the following simple style) or ask the local women to help you – they will be happy to assist you. If you visit mosques in most countries they might require you to wear a scarf on your head and generally covering clothes (usually to hire at the entry for women of the mosque). In Iran they might ask you to wear a chador – all body encompassing piece of cloth like a big black & white bed-sheet that you hold with your hands also for hire at the women entrance (ask for help with how exactly to wear it – I never really got it!). If you stay for a long time in Iran consider buying a chador – very cheap and will help you become “invisible” if you wish (“chador + shades = absolutely no unwanted male attention” I tried it myself in Mashhad in Iran with amazing results – no selling of no jewellery or requests for the telephone number all day!).

More about women travelling tips in the tommorrow’s episode !

Change of clothes for Saudi Arabia

On the way to Saudi Arabia – dress change

How to dress as a woman in Egypt

In Egypt, Pyramids dress vs. Islamic quarter dress

Women in Bar in Iran

In an Iranian restaurant

Women traveller dress in Iran

How to get dressed in Iran

Women hejab in Iran

In private, you can wear no head scarf in Iran

Mumbai fashion: Salwar Kameez

Mumbai fashion

Chador Iran

In Iran, you should wear chadors only when visiting shrines (mosques where you find the tombs of the Prophet’s or Imams’ relatives)

Women travel dress in Iran

The chador is not compulsory to be black

Iran girl dress

Perfect hejab wear !

Până acum există "2 comentarii" la acest articol:

  1. Ele says:

    Thank you. I watched a couple of videos about hijab and I must say it’s really elegant and classy!

  2. Ali says:

    Dear Sister i am very happy to know abot your life and internationally experience regarding travelng and tourism in Asia as well Gulf states.

    I am willing to know Adriana sister How to get Saudia Arabia Business visa and my Muslim sister she is from Romania she want to come for business visit and she is also Muslim Mashallah so please let me know how did you got the visa and what age are required she can get the visa or not her aged is 25 years old please answer me soon and how did u get the visa Saudia arabia her father is Syrian but her mother is Romanian.

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    My name is Cezar (where the nickname "Imperator" comes from) and I have travelled to 105 countries around the world. In this blog, I would like to share with you stories, memories, travel tips & tricks and news to help you plan your journeys !

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