Travelling is in my genes. My mother is an avid traveler herself and I grew up with her stories from far away countries. My mother loved the Middle East and traveled frequently to Jordan and Israel. When I was 14, my mother took me on my first backpacking trip to Egypt to teach me how to travel. Once I was old enough I took every opportunity I had to grab my backpack.
When I choose my next destination I actually never think about whether it is a Muslim country or not. My mother passed on her love for the Middle East to me and I am intrigued by unusual places that are rich in history, beautiful architecture, good food and friendly people. Many happen to be countries where Islam is the major religion. It is actually funny that many people ask me whether it is safe to travel as a woman alone to a Muslim country. If I go to any place in Western Europe nobody will ask me how it is to travel as a woman in a Christian country.
It might seem like a strange comparison, but in fact, I experience little difference in preparing a trip to Peru, India, Lebanon, Iran or Morocco. I always read about the local culture, dress code and traditions. It’s not only in Muslim cultures that people don’t appreciate you walking around in your hot pants and bikini top. Religion is also something very personal and just as in my own country there are big differences in how people practice their faith. On top of that, religion intertwines with cultural traditions making every Muslim country a very different experience for me as a solo female traveler.
Mark Twain said that travel is fatal to prejudice and nothing could be truer. If there is one thing I learned from travelling is that ideas we might have about a certain culture are often too simple and that reality can be completely different from what we expect. I grew up in a middle class family in the Netherlands in a white neighborhood. It was only because of my mother’s travels to the Middle East that I had any exposure to the Muslim world. And still, before I started travelling on my own, I had many prejudices about Islam.
In 2005 I traveled for the first time alone outside of Europe. I was going to volunteer for a month in a small orphanage in the south of Morocco. I did my homework and read all about Islam and what to wear in a Muslim country. I thought I was well prepared with my book knowledge. I brought my long skirts, blouses with long sleeves and even a shawl to use as a headscarf. At the airport we were picked up by the father and teenage daughter of our host family. They decided to take us to the beach in Agadir for the first day. The daughter had invited several of her friends as well and they were all very excited about a day at the beach.
I was surprised by the western clothes they were wearing. Only one of her friends was dressed conservatively with a black cloak covering every inch of her body. My surprise only got bigger when at the beach the conservative friend changed into the sexiest bikini while the others were wearing more conservative bathing suits. I did not even bring mine as I did not expect to be able to wear a bathing suit in Morocco. So there I was at the beach in a long skirt and a hot blouse with long sleeves. The girls were just as surprised by my conservative attire as a European woman and they made it obvious they thought my long skirt was old fashioned.
More stereotypes went down the drain that one month. I thought women were oppressed and not allowed to leave the house. It was true that our host mother rarely went out, except for some small groceries or a visit to the hammam. I wouldn’t call her oppressed though. She was the queen of the house and ruled the household with an iron fist. It was her that would yell at her daughters that they were dressed inappropriately and not the father. Her husband might be the king outside the house, but once at home he had little to say. Our host mother was just not that interested in leaving her palace. One day we were invited for a free cooking lesson and her husband was not even allowed to put one foot in the kitchen. He delivered us in front of the door and made sure he was out of the way before the door opened.
Women and men live separate lives with strictly defined roles in society. As a solo female traveler in my thirties, unmarried and without children I stand out. Both in my own country and the places I travel to. Muslim men often don’t really know where to place me. I am obviously not a man, but in their eyes not really a proper woman either. I fall somewhere in between, getting access to both the men’s and the women’s world. A male traveler would never be invited in the kitchen, but I do while at the same time getting a glimpse of how men live as well.
And men are curious about us women. They often ask me questions they would never dare to ask a woman from their own country. This way I ended up giving advice to an Iranian teenager how to woe his new love interest and relationship tips to an Indian men who just got married and wanted to make his new wife happy. Unfortunately there is also the image that Western woman are loose and easy to get. Occasionally there is some unwanted attention from men trying to find out if there is something in it for them. This was much less than I expected tough and it is enough to politely refuse any indecent offers and leave. In fact, most men I talked to were extremely proud and protective about their family. I met much more loving husbands and doting fathers than abusive men or creeps.
If there is one thing Muslim countries do share, despite the huge cultural differences between them, it is hospitality and delicious food. Everywhere I went people were always helpful and friendly. In Iran, if I just looked slightly lost, people stopped to ask if they could help me. My very first morning in Iran, a man stopped, shared the fresh bread he just bought with me, then said welcome to Iran and continued his journey. My trip to Iran was full of such surprises. I received smiles and countless invitations for a cup of tea.
One morning I traveled by shared taxi to a small mountain village in the Alamut valley. The weather was horrible and all I could see from the window was mist and snow. I shared the back of the car with a young couple and their toddler son. The mountain roads were not kind to our stomachs and soon both the mother and son were puking in plastic bags. It’s needless to say that I wasn’t really enjoying my trip to the mountains in Iran so far. When we finally arrived in the village of Gazor Khan I was immediately invited to join the couple to their home. They were visiting their parents and I was immediately placed around a samovar to warm up. I was offered tea and fresh bread with homemade cheese. They insisted I came back that night for dinner and again I was given the most delicious homemade food.
Iran is probably the country with the friendliest people I ever visited, but I experienced the same hospitality in other Muslim countries too. In Morocco I got stuck in a little town when the bus that was supposed to bring me to Tafraoute broke down. A father and his son told me and another tourist to follow them. They brought us to the shared taxi stand at the other side of town. Both of us just spoke a few words of French, but somehow we managed to have a conversation. Near Tafraoute there was a festival that night and they invited us to their house to join. We were fed until we really could not eat anymore. The ladies of the family dressed me in traditional clothes and brought us to a tent where they were making traditional music. The singing and dancing went on till late in the evening. Afterwards they made sure we were brought back safely to our hotel.
So to come back to that question whether it is safe to travel as a woman alone in a Muslim country or not. Yes, it is safe and not only that; it will probably be a great experience that will give you more insight into the daily lives of the people that live there. Even though we celebrate other festivals, pray to another god and follow other cultural traditions our daily lives are not so different from each other after all. As a cultural anthropologist I am trained to study cultural differences, but when I travel I actually find more similarities. Everywhere in the world people want the same things. They want a good education for their children and the best for their friends and family. In the end it is all about love and friendship and sharing our times with the people we like.
Ellis was born in the small town of Hilversum in the Netherlands. From a young age she dreamed about exploring the world beyond her hometown. She was inspired by her mother who loved travelling to the Middle East and took her on her first backpacking trip to Egypt when she was 14. Since then Ellis took every opportunity she had to travel to unusual places, try out different cuisines and learn about other cultures.
Her passion to learn about other people and places in this world led her to study psychology and cultural anthropology. She was idealistic and worked hard to get a job in international development. After several volunteer projects in Eastern Europe and Ghana Ellis found a job in Nepal and in Haiti. Slowly she realized that doing good was not so easy, even as a professional. Now she believes that you can contribute more to a country by visiting it as a tourist and supporting projects along the way. Her first solo backpacking trip was to India. After surviving the madness and chaos there, she believed she could travel anywhere in the world.
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