The Middle East is a beautiful part of the world, but it has its own set of cultural and social customs and rules that, as a female traveler, you learn to play by.
Each country has different rules based on the level of conservatism practised by the country, but depending on the people you meet and the social situation you encounter, it can be easy to find yourself accidently committing a social faux-pas, or worse, insulting your new friends.
While it’s best to research the social etiquette of the individual country before traveling, here are a few tips that apply to women traveling across most of the Middle East:
1. Wait for the Man to make the First Move
In Western culture, it is a general rule of thumb to shake hands with people when you first meet. However in the Middle East, it goes against social custom to touch any woman who is not a family relative. Although this social norm is changing amongst younger generations, you will find that many older gentlemen and the more conservative still follow this rule. If you find yourself in a situation where you are meeting new people, it is best to make indirect eye contact, say hello, and wait for the man to offer his hand. Whilst this might come across as insulting or patronising to women, it is supposed to be a sign of respect for your personal boundaries and a symbol of politeness.
2. Sit to it
When having a meal or social gathering with several people, it is common in the Middle East to sit on the floor and share food. Whilst doing this however, it is important to make sure your feet are not pointing at anyone, and that the soles of your feet are not on display either. Touching shoes with another person is also deemed offensive. As feet are generally considered unclean in the Middle East, having your feet on display towards someone is taken as an insult. It is best to take your shoes off before sitting down, and remember to sit cross-legged.
3. Blowing Smoke
Whilst most Western women wouldn’t think twice about lighting a cigarette in public, women are deterred from smoking of any kind in nearly all Middle Eastern countries. Generally, bad connotations are attributed to women who smoke. Although in the more liberal cities women won’t have to worry as much, it is still widely frowned upon in the more conservative areas. This rule might seem unfair given the prevalent smoking culture amongst men in the Middle East, but if you want to avoid unwanted attention it is best to have that cheeky cigarette out of sight of strangers.
4. Tea Time
Tea and coffee drinking is a major part of socialising in the Middle East. You are likely to be offered tea by your hosts and may even find yourself being offered some by enthusiastic retailers when out shopping. Although it is okay to initially refuse, offering tea is a sign of hospitality and continuing to refuse is seen as offensive. Accept the glass whether you want it or not, and take a few sips out of politeness. If you do not want another glass, keep a little tea or coffee at the bottom- holding an empty glass is seen as an insult to their hospitality. If your host is pouring drinks for everyone and you do not want a refill, it is polite in countries like Jordan or the Qatar, or within Bedouin culture, to place your palm over the top or to shake your glass a few times to signal you want to place it on the cleaning tray. Not doing so will only end up with your glass being refilled!
5. No Still Means No
You will find many friendly, hospitable people in the Middle East and probably come home with tons of stories to tell your friends. However, you may find that some men misinterpret the more liberal approach to sex in Western media to mean that all Western women must be ‘easy’, and you might find yourself on the receiving end of unwanted advances.
If polite but firm refusals do not work, the best thing to do is kick up a fuss. Nearly all will shrink away from the unwanted attention, and as a rule of thumb they shouldn’t act any different towards a Western woman than towards a local woman. Although it can be easy to let go of your own social norms when exploring another culture, don’t let all caution fly to the wind. Just remember: don’t do anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable with in your own country.