How To Deal With Foreign Cultures As A Female Traveler
The following is a guest post by Emma of The Thelma And Louise Club. Read about it below!
Traveling the world as a female means navigating all the usual obstacles and differences encountered by every traveler, with a pile of extra ones heaped on top. If you’re not careful, you can end up at best bemused, at worst in prison.
It’s A Different World Out There
Did you know, for example, that in rural areas of Morocco the only women that allow themselves to be seen smoking or drinking in a bar are usually prostitutes? Or that Iranian hotel managers are within their rights to ask to see a marriage certificate before allowing a couple to share a double hotel room? It’s also well worth noting that women’s magazines are forbidden in Iran.
Thanks to Michelle Palmer who, along with her partner, was jailed, fined and deported after having sex on Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach in 2008, most of us are aware that the UAE is tough on public indecency and sex outside marriage.
Obviously, sex on the beach is also strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia, which employs one of the world’s strictest versions of Sharia law, but did you know that women are forbidden to drive themselves too? So as well as carrying a scarf to cover your head at all times, you’ll need to line up a male driver when you visit.
Use Cultural Sensitivity
It (almost) goes without saying: you’ll get the best out of your trip if you display some cultural sensitivity and respect local customs and beliefs, whether you agree with them or not. After all, the differences are part of what makes travel so great.
When you’re at the mercy of the kindness of strangers, it makes sense to play by their rules, as one of Thelma & Louise Club’s members did when she had her own run-in with local customs on a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan
“As the journey back took us through Taliban territory the driver stopped at one point and waved a bunch of white material at me, which was clearly a burqa. I installed the apparel over my head fully understanding the driver’s concern about being seen with a western woman in his vehicle. Indeed, I wasn’t going to argue given I needed him to get me back to Kabul.”
8 ways to deal with local customs as a female traveler
1. It pays to research local customs thoroughly before you go.
Take the time to understand a region’s traditions and beliefs and you could save yourself an uncomfortable dose of culture shock, the symptoms of which include general unease, irritability, a sense of dislocation and, worst of all, a lack of a sense of humor. Once you arrive, copy the behaviors of local women. Observe what they wear, areas they do and don’t go, etc. Because no one else knows the local norms better than they do.
2. Wear a wedding ring, even if you’re not married.
It’s difficult for some cultures to understand a woman travelling by herself, as it can reflect badly on her and her family. For extra believability, carry a photo of your ‘husband’ (remember that Brad Pitt is probably recognized across the world so best leave that fantasy at home). You’ll also avoid the pity felt for unmarried women in some cultures, meaning you’ll be able to find common ground to bond over more quickly.
3. To avoid arousing suspicion as a lone female traveler
To stay safer in regions where travelling as a solo female is deemed riskier use only your first initial and surname when checking in to hotels. And avoid using a title such as Ms, Mrs or Miss.
4. Cover up.
Know what parts of your body you can respectfully reveal, and which will cause offence in certain situations. Dressing modestly can also minimize hassle. For example, always cover your hair in a mosque. While it’s ok to wear a bikini on the beach in Goa, you should cover your shoulders and thighs elsewhere in India. In any public space in Iran, cover your head with a headscarf and wear trousers or a floor-length skirt underneath a mid-thigh-length tunic or coat.
5. Respect areas that are segregated for men and for women.
For example, in some local buses in rural India. And if in doubt, don’t initiate any physical contact with the opposite sex, even handshakes – it’s inappropriate for women to initiate contact in some parts of the world.
6. Travel with other women whenever possible.
Whether you join a community such as the Thelma & Louise Club that connects female travelers, or do something as simple as striking up a conversation with the woman sat next to you on the bus.
7. Take condoms and tampons or sanitary towels with you.
These items may be unavailable in some areas.
8. Expect to receive negative and positive comments on your appearance.
From women as well as men. If your appearance is a novelty, you may feel like you’ve suddenly, unwittingly become public property. A bit how a pregnant woman might feel when strangers touch her bulging belly!
By following these guidelines, you’re opening yourself up to more interactions with local people. And likely saving yourself a heap of hassle. Who wants to spend time battling entrenched prejudices and justifying yourself when you could be chatting with new people and exploring the world?
But perhaps the more interesting question is how far would you go to adapt your own principles to the local customs, especially when you don’t agree with them…