Women will encounter few problems travelling around the UAE by themselves. Harassment (both vocal and physical) is rare, though not nonexistent. It's safe to walk around late at night by yourself in most areas, take taxis and public transport and to stay in budget hotels as a solo woman. You will often be asked about why you're travelling by yourself and where your family is. If you're single and childless and don't feel like fielding a barrage of questions about why this is, you can always make up an imaginary husband to satisfy the questioner.
Dispelling the Myths
Many women imagine that travel to the Gulf cities and within the UAE is much more difficult than it is. Some key facts:
- You don’t have to wear a burka, headscarf or veil.
- You won’t be constantly harassed.
- In taxis, it's normal for a woman to sit in the back of the taxi. On public buses, solo females usually sit towards the front. Also on buses, it's not normal for an unrelated man to take a free seat next to a woman.
- Public beaches are one of the few places where you are likely to receive unwanted male attention – generally just long, lewd stares.
Attitudes Towards Women
Some of the biggest misunderstandings between Middle Easterners and people from other parts of the world occur over the issue of women. Half-truths and stereotypes exist on both sides: foreigners sometimes assume that all Middle Eastern women are veiled, repressed victims, while some locals see foreign women, particularly Western ones, as sex-obsessed and immoral.
Traditionally the role of a woman in this region is to be a mother and matron of the household, while the man is the financial provider. However, as with any society, the reality is far more nuanced. There are thousands of middle- and upper-middle-class professional women in the UAE, who, like their counterparts elsewhere in the world, juggle work and family responsibilities.
The issue of sex is where the differences between cultures can be particularly apparent. Premarital sex (or indeed any sex outside marriage) is taboo, although, as with anything forbidden, it still happens. Emirati women are expected to be virgins when they marry, and a family’s reputation can rest upon this point. The presence of foreign women provides, in the eyes of some Arab men, a chance to get around these norms with ease and without consequences – hence the occasional hassle foreign women experience.
What to Wear
Even though you’ll see plenty of female tourists wearing skimpy shorts and tank tops in shopping malls and other public places (especially in Dubai), you should not assume that it’s acceptable to do so. While as hosts they’re too polite to say anything, most Emiratis find this disrespectful. Despite the UAE's relative liberalism, you are in a country that holds its traditions dear and it's prudent not to parade a different set of values. A bit of common sense (such as covering up to and from a beach party or when taking a taxi to a nightclub) helps keep the peace.
Generally speaking, dressing ‘modestly’ has the following advantages: it attracts less attention to you; you will get a warmer welcome from locals (who greatly appreciate your willingness to respect their customs); and it’ll prove more comfortable in the heat. Dressing modestly means covering your shoulders, knees and neckline. Baggy shirts and loose cotton trousers or below-the-knee skirts will not only keep you cool but will also protect your skin from the sun. Areas outside Dubai and Abu Dhabi are often more conservative, though that's not always the case.