Women Backpacking in the Middle East and Arab World
Contrary to popular belief, it is not that dangerous and improper for women to backpack in the Middle East, at least not in every Middle Eastern country. What we can say for sure and will be universally valid throughout the Arab world is that every single Muslim will observe the Ramadan from August 1 until August 30. During this period, Muslims fast and pray, so every traveler should keep this in mind.
A typical tourist trail is Jordan to Jerusalem to Egypt via Eilat. Terrorism is a concern, so you should avoid crowded areas and make your route with consideration to times of tension. You can visit the old city of Jerusalem, Eilat, the Dead Sea (if you have a cut you did not know about, you will find out now), Tiberias, and Tel Aviv. This is a safe and pleasant route. Keep in mind that hostels are relatively inexpensive in Tel Aviv, costing about $20 a night, but you won’t get an air-conditioned room. Hotel rooms are in the range $120 – $200, but you came backpacking after all. Safety should not be an issue for female backpackers, and you can safely walk at night in the seaside areas. One safety tip – avoid ultra-orthodox neighborhoods if wearing a top and shorts. You can dress any way you like in other parts of the city.
Iran is a traveler’s gem by all accounts, and the perceived perils are extremely overrated. It is a beautiful country which has plenty to offer its visitors. You will meet some of the most welcoming and hospitable people ever here, who are open-minded, tolerant, and will be more than happy to help you. The highlights here include Esfahan, Masule, Yazd, and Chogo Zambil, among others. Women will have to cover their head in the photos you submit for the visa application. Most of your ears, hair, and chest should be covered. It is not necessary to wear a head scarf on your passport’s photo. If you are a Muslim or have a Muslim name, you will have no problem getting a visa. Again, Iran is quite a safe country, but there are some religious laws in effect. It is illegal to take pictures of government buildings, for example. The weather is remarkably unstable, varying from very hot to very cold and wet to dry all on one day.
With this in mind, pack mostly summer clothes, but do throw a few sweaters in your backpack to wear at night. You should always wear long tops that cover your arms and rear. Pants are better than a long skirt, and it is OK to show wrists and ankles. You can wear sandals, but they are not common. The dress code for women varies depending on your location within Iran. Religious centers like Qom are rather conservative, while the ski slopes and the north of Tehran are more relaxed. The country is safe, but despite that, do not travel alone.
Jordan is not that interesting for travelers; Petra is really the only thing to see. Female travelers should have someone with them and cover up, because they always get stared at.
In Lebanon, it is generally all right for women to travel alone. You will probably get hit on a lot, which is what they say for Turkey as well, but if you cover up and avoid direct eye contact you will be OK. In Syria, female travelers should dress very conservatively. Make sure you buy a headscarf, because it will always be more expensive to borrow them from mosques.