Female Traveler Safety in Muslim Countries

Author: Betsy Perry

Female travel to Muslim countries is on the rise as businesses invest in the region and more higher education institutions support study abroad programs.  To help keep female travelers safe, it’s important to prepare them for the specific security concerns and cultural differences they may encounter. Share this information with your female travelers prior to departure help ensure their trips to Muslim countries are safe and successful.

Important to note: Always research the laws and customs specific to each destination prior to departure. The degree of caution female travelers should take often depends on the extent to which Sharia law is implemented. The following are meant as general guidelines female travelers can take to help ensure smoother trips.

• To avoid drawing unwanted attention, travelers should dress more modestly then they might in Western countries.
• Loose clothing that covers the shoulders and knees is required. While some countries don’t require non-Muslim women to cover hair, doing so can prevent unwanted attention.
• When in Mosques or holy places, women are required to cover their hair. Head scarves will often be provided before entering.
• Some countries, such as Iran, require a strict dress code for Muslim and non-Muslim women alike. It is best to consult country rules before travel. Regardless, failing to dress modestly can lead to lewd comments and catcalls from men. Women with blonde hair stand out particularly and could encounter negative attention. Blonde women might want to take extra safety precautions and cover their hair to avoid drawing attention.

Traveling Alone
• In many Muslim countries, it is considered highly unusual (or even illegal) for females to travel solo without male accompaniment. Doing so will encounter curiosity and numerous invitations to homes by other females in order to provide protection and company.
• In some Muslim countries, such as Iran, women do not go out in public. Therefore, women might encounter stares and comments when out alone. Female travelers should take precautions they would take anywhere else: do not go off alone with men, keep a low profile, and respect local customs.
• In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, female travelers must be met at the airport by a male companion. Female travelers should be aware of all entrance and exit requirements if traveling alone and make proper arrangements in advance.
• Many solo female travelers report having good experiences overall in Muslim countries. However, in countries that practice Sharia law, it is best to be accompanied by a fellow male traveler.

Be Aware of Local Customs
• Gender roles are strictly defined, and women are expected to be deferential to men. It is common for men in Islamic countries to only address women through male companions.
• Women and men often eat separately and even travel separately on public transportation. Many men will avoid touching women at all, even refusing to shake hands. It is important to be aware and respectful of these customs in order to avoid drawing attention.
• In many Muslim countries, making eye contact with a man will be interpreted as a sign of interest. Try to avoid eye contact with men if possible. Many women find that wearing a wedding ring (real or fake) or traveling with a male companion wards off potential interest.
• Public displays of affection are not socially acceptable and even outlawed in some places. Female travelers should avoid holding hands, kissing, and hugging members of the opposite gender when out in public.

Hotel Safety
• Travelers should research female-friendly hotels in well lit, busy areas.
• When possible, travelers should call the hotel in advance to inquire about safety procedures. In addition, they should research the area around the hotel before booking.
• When in the hotel room, female travelers should always keep doors and windows locked and window blinds down. They should also ensure hotel security can easily be reached in an emergency. Travelers should not give out their room numbers to anyone.
• It is generally frowned upon for single women to bring men back to hotel rooms (even if just friends), and in some countries it is illegal.
• It is a good idea for travelers to get the hotel manager’s contact information to use as a potential resource when outside the hotel premises.

Transportation Safety
• Public transportation is often separated by gender. If not separate, women should sit or stand in the front near the driver and avoid eye contact with male passengers.
• If taking taxis, female travelers should only book taxis in advance through a hotel or travel service. Taxis should not be hailed on the street. They should also avoid speaking to or sitting up front with the driver. This can be misinterpreted as a sign of interest.
• Rideshare services are popular in some countries such as Saudi Arabia. These services can be a good option because the name and number of the driver are provided in advance. Women should use the same precautions as in a taxi. If possible, women should try to travel by rideshare or taxi with another trusted male companion.

LGBT Safety
• Same sex relations are generally not accepted in Muslim countries. Many countries outlaw same sex relationships and practices. Even in Muslim countries where homosexuality is not outlawed, travelers could encounter overt homophobia and hostility.
• Travelers should be mindful of homophobic attitudes and what is considered socially and legally acceptable.
• Penalties for homosexuality in Muslim countries can range from a fine to jail time. These penalties can also apply to foreigners.

With appropriate precautions, there is no reason female travelers can’t have a successful and rewarding visit to a Muslim country. Organizations can best prepare their female travelers through proactive education and ensuring appropriate emergency protocols are in place.

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