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WOMEN TRAVELLERS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
My usual advice is "Behave intelligently and dress correctly and you should have no great problem".
Intelligent behaviour : no need to snub everybody who smiles at you, but don't allow any touching whatsoever, however accidental it might seem. Say, as mildly as seems necessary, "don't do that (again)". If you pass it over it is going to happen again, probably more intrusively. You are likely to receive a number of invitations for various purposes: be careful what you accept, and take the obvious precautions! I absolutely don't tell you to refuse them all [I live in Paris, after all!] but remember that what is "normal friendly behaviour" in the West can be interpreted in the ME as "looking for" sex. On the whole, the Jordanians are the most laid back about this, you can sit and chat with them quite happily, while in the same circumstances Syrians automatically suppose that you will be agreeable to lying down! However, I strongly advise you NOT to accept any invitation from one or even a couple of guys unless you are at least a couple of women and have agreed a strategy among yourselves first! Don't go to any out of the way places, even in the daytime, in less than quite a large group.
DO NOT, IN ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, ACCEPT AN INVITATION TO A DARK AND LONELY PLACE FROM SOMEBODY YOU HAVE JUST MET! Yes, I know it seems obvious, but I have heard of just this happening, and the woman was surprised and shocked at the man's subsequent behaviour!
I am not telling you to keep strictly to yourself. It would be a pity to stay in your hotel room in the evening without going out or speaking to anybody. Part of the experience of travelling, after all, is meeting people from the country where you are. Most villages/towns/tourist sites have somewhere where people gather in the evenings. Nearly always you can join a group of locals with no problem as long as you "behave intelligently" when the group breaks up. This is rarely resented, on the contrary, most men approve of it, however much they might regret it! (I am not talking about Egypt, which is a strong exception to this rule, except perhaps in the Sinai, where the guys seem to be noticeably more polite.) Obviously you don't allow anybody to offer you more than a glass of tea in these circumstances, and it is a good general rule never to accept an offer of alcohol in any form from anybody at all, even from somebody in the hotel where you are staying . If you feel like drinking a beer when the others are doing so, then pay for it yourself. It is, however, almost impossible to refuse tea, and it is very cheap so your conscience there is clear.
A corollary to my first piece of advice on this page: if somebody does start annoying you, then let him see immediately that you are annoyed. It is much better to show annoyance immediately than to let it go on until you lose your temper or until a situation gets out of control. Invariably once a man sees that you don't appreciate whatever he is saying/doing he will cut it out, or at the very least back pedal considerably. If you let it continue, you will be unhappy and he is likely to be surprised and shocked at your attitude when he probably thought that he was making an impression. If he gets angry, then he gets angry, it is much better from your point of view for him to get angry than for you to do so. You don't need to shout, just say something like "I really don't like this sort of talk, please stop it and stop it now! Otherwise go away!" You may well be surprised at the effect that this has.
Correct dress : it is important to cover your knees (a calf length skirt or loose trousers) and the tops of your arms (a tee shirt or something with cap sleeves is fine). Obviously no bare midriffs, and no tank or halter tops or shorts. You don't need to cover your head - except from the sun. You can relax this rule a bit at the main tourist sites like Petra, but don't relax it too far. Just remember that wherever you are, the more you show, the more you are going to get looked over. It would be utterly stupid to resent any leers if you are scantily dressed BY LOCAL STANDARDS and remember always that these are not necessarily the same as your own! I think I don't need to say that the beach, especially a private beach, is quite different.
Blending in : you are going to stand out anyway. Watch the way the Arab women walk in public and you will see that it is quite different from you. Don't worry, behaviour is the most important. Don't hesitate to denounce (loudly!) any undue familiarities, they will almost certainly stop immediately. Don't worry about hurting anybody's feelings by a refusal, the guys know what is correct behaviour better than you do, and will not normally resent it, however disappointed they might be personally!
You might like to know that on a bus, Arab women refuse to sit next to a strange man, even if this means that the man has to remain standing! In fact, in these cases, almost always people shuffle around to make room; probably a couple will split up, the woman to sit next to the woman and the man with the other man. If you are in any doubt at all, you can perfectly well do the same thing. People will be surprised at a "tourist" doing this, but will accept it.
Many women without male escort might hesitate a bit to visit Wadi Rum. The idea of "sleeping under the stars" is wonderful, but the idea of sleeping almost alone with strange Bedouin is less attractive. In the Wadi Rum section I have given the names of some men in whom you can have complete confidence. I quote here : "Women travelling alone will be perfectly safe with all of the men I have named. These are guys who would not dream of hassling female tourists who are, as they see it, in their care. A note here : if any other local should join the party and start annoying you, don't try to "humour him", just ask your guide to tell him to get lost. The guide may hesitate to interfere until it is clear that you are unhappy with the situation. Once he realises that, he will deal with the man immediately, and more effectively than you can!
I continue to receive emails on the "Is
it safe to sleep in the desert?" theme. My invariable" reply is
On the whole yes, but you need to use common sense
and elementary prudence - which does not include distrusting everybody! If you
are with other tourists there should be no problem. If you are sleeping in
somebody's desert camp, there should be no problem.
Do NOT accept any invitation for a private bivouac, this is tantamount to writing a blank cheque...
I will add one word of warning, however delicate the subject matter! You will almost certainly link up with fellow travellers, perhaps on several occasions. Be a bit careful here. One is tempted to suppose that all foreigners are out to screw you (in whatever sense) and that your own compatriots are trustworthy. This is, unfortunately, not necessarily true. There are numerous stories about people having been ripped off, exploited, robbed and even raped by other travellers. I am not telling you to be wary about everybody, but to treat people in the same way that you would have if you met them at home, and don't hand over your wallet trustingly to somebody you have just encountered simply because he/she is from the same country as yourself! For instance, if you decide to share your room to save money, don't leave anything tempting lying around when you are momentarily absent, in the bathroom for instance.
Certainly in Jordan do not hesitate to complain to the tourist police if you should meet with any special hassle. They all speak very good English and they will listen to you politely, will take pains to make things easy for you and will act immediately on any complaint. You will not be expected to do more than sign a paper. In fairness to other women, you SHOULD complain about any bad behaviour.
To sum up, behave intelligently, and you should not have any problem. Relax and enjoy yourself. Most people in the Middle East are wonderful and this should be a great experience.