Cultural differences have always proven to be a difficult issue when travelling, as a failure to respect the cultures of the country that you are heading to, or a lack of awareness of its laws and expectations, could be disastrous in a number of ways.
One country that has repeatedly hit the news for such issues is the United Arab Emirates. Although most travel to the UAE is without incident every year, there have also been a number of stories of misperceptions of women as well as myths about the exact situations that they will face.
Despite what many expect, you are not expected to wear a burka, headscarf or veil when you travel, and sexual harassment is not pervasive throughout society. It is true, however, that there remains a number of cultural misunderstandings that exist in the UAE over women; both UAE residents and visiting foreigners have in the past been guilty of stereotyping or misinterpreting. It is also true that there are still those in the UAE who misjudge the attitudes and role of Western women in society, as well as foreigners who are guilty of stereotyping the role of women in Dubai.
While such perceptions may detract from the appeal of travelling to a new country such as the UAE for the first time, it is possible to clue yourself up on any potential issues before leaving. The Travel Advice pages maintained by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are a useful starting point to find out about any overriding concerns that you should take into account, and more specific information can be found on online travel forums and by talking to travel experts and agencies.
The advice given by many is that, despite the UAE being one of the more liberal Middle Eastern countries, unwanted attention in some form is inevitable and will be something with which women (especially solo travellers) will have to tolerate. Dressing modestly, saying that you are married when asked, or wearing a wedding ring are all actions that can make travelling as a woman easier and stave off any unwanted attention. Dressing modestly will also help when it comes to being accepted by locals, who while often too polite to criticise, will appreciate your desire to respect their customs.
As with any destination, however, travelling still can have its risks. There have been reports of women being followed by men in cars or being mistaken for prostitutes, regardless of how they look or are dressed. Take caution, especially when travelling alone – avoiding direct eye contact with men, sitting in the women’s section of public transport, not sitting in the front of taxis with male drivers and asking a woman first if you need help, such as getting around, can all help reduce the risks.
Perhaps one of the best deterrents for any unwanted attention while in the UAE is to act confidently. While a new destination can be unnerving, getting clued up in advance will greatly help with this.