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Women Travellers

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.
  • It's safe to take taxis, stay alone in hotels (although you may want to avoid the fleabag hotels in Deira and Bur Dubai) and walk around on your own in most areas.
  • However, you are likely to receive unwanted male attention and long, lewd stares on public beaches.

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 Western women 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 the cultures are 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.