Is the Middle East safe for women? Thoughts from a sexual assault survivor

One of the most common questions I see about travel is whether it is safe for women to travel alone, particularly to countries in the Middle East and North Africa that have different standards for women’s rights.

And I’m consistently torn about how to discuss it, because it’s a question that is grounded in negative stereotyping, and yet incredibly important to ask ourselves.

Women face far more danger and many more difficulties than their male peers do when on the road, in some countries more than others. Doing ample research before arriving in a new place is simply best practice for women trying to see the world.

The truth is that, while I am a major advocate for dispelling the myth of the Middle East and North Africa being inherently violent and unsafe, not everybody is equipped to visit these countries, especially long term.

At this point, I’d like to air the part of my perspective that many of you came here to read. I really wish I could write this post without getting into this, but when Jacky and I started this project, we made a promise to ourselves that we would always be up front with our readers about our travels, experiences and outcomes. So right off the bat, I’d like to come out and say that I, Reyna, am a survivor of sexual assault. I say this because it means I know a thing or two about the importance of taking your safety into account when you travel and avoiding the circumstances that could lead to bodily harm. It also means that when I travel, I am particularly conscious of the potential dangers around me for fear of repeating the past.

I’m no stranger to dialogues on women’s experiences of fear and danger, both at home and abroad.

There are plenty of articles out there about coping strategies, ways to lessen street harassment, the classic “wear a wedding ring” advice, but little insight into how people should be making the important and ultimately life altering decisions of where to travel. That’s what this piece should be: a roadmap to deciding for yourself whether the Middle East and North Africa are safe travel destinations for you.

That being said, there are some things that every woman should think about before packing her bags. (skip to the bottom for the tl;dr and the final verdict)

Dispelling Myths

To start this process, let’s get a few major myths out of the way. The Middle East and North Africa are not objectively more unsafe than other places. You are not significantly more likely to be kidnapped or assaulted, nobody is trying to buy you for camels and make you their wife. The men are not inherently more sexually aggressive and actually, the United Nations reports higher rates of non-partner sexual violence in Europe than the Middle East and North Africa So in a statistical sense, you’re no more likely to get hurt in these countries than in Europe or other Western travel destinations.

But this doesn’t mean you will feel just as safe.

Every country has different rules that govern women’s bodies and the spaces they occupy and for many women from Western countries coming to the Middle East and North Africa, this can be a jarring transition.

Whether it’s new rules for covering your body to adapting to different levels of harassment, the stress of assimilating to a new set of rights and regulations can be overwhelming.

Which brings me to the next point…

Reevaluating the meaning of safety

The problem I see with most of the advice given online is that it misunderstands the meaning of safety. When evaluating safety, most people think of the potential for bodily harm. They question whether they might be assaulted, kidnapped, or otherwise harmed. But these things aren’t always the core of the issue.

I have seen women have some of the most personally destructive travel experiences of their lives without ever once being the victim of a crime.

This is because safety is also a question of whether somebody will come out of an experience as mentally and emotionally healthy as they were before they left.

What many people forget about visiting new places is that although your support networks might remain intact, culture is inherently inescapable. Living under new rules, accepting more limited levels of freedom, and coming to accept that these pieces of life are normal for women in your new country are all difficult.

Host families and local friends may have difficulty understanding the exact nature of your frustrations, because they have never lived life any other way. It can become isolating and cause a great deal of personal stress which, when it continues for a long period of time, can become incredibly harmful to your well-being.

Whether or not you are equipped to deal with these stressors for the duration of your planned trip is, ultimately, a personal decision that no online article can make for you.

Nonetheless, I know you didn’t come here just to be told to make up your own mind. So here are a few thoughts on evaluating which countries might feel most safe to you. Bear in mind that this can serve as a roadmap, but isn’t a true checklist for making this very personal choice.

Things to explore before you travel

If you’ve ever been through a sexual trauma, this step is essential, but even if you haven’t, you should recognize that you do have stress “triggers”, even if they aren’t related to a history of trauma. Doing this work with yourself is an essential part of planning a comfortable trip.

  • Start with what you know: We all have quirks and preferences, and everyone has pet peeves that are likely to set them over the edge. Think about the things you should already know about yourself, like how comfortable you are with physical touch or navigating crowds. Do you get lost easily? Does that stress you out? Really think about the logistics of life in the country you’re trying to visit and compare them to the ways you like to live. Remember that things that cause you only some discomfort when you picture them might become big issues once they become inescapable.
  • Determine your definition of intimate space: Intimate space is the space around our body that we consider to be ours, and that we get upset if people enter uninvited. Everybody has a different definition of how much space is enough, and knowing what yours is plays an essential role in determining where you’re going to feel safe. First, people like myself who have very wide perimeters of intimate space should be aware that going to places that are more crowded or where casual physical touch is a part of the culture will be inherently more stressful. Second, in order to lessen the stress people feel, everyone should understand how much space they need so they can watch out for themselves and try to take that space when they need it.
  • Consider the coping mechanisms available to you: A big part of the stress I felt in Morocco was that most of my main coping mechanisms were no longer available to me. I wasn’t really able to go swimming or work out to get rid of my pent up anxiety. There wasn’t a lot of true private space to escape into. This exacerbated a lot of my issues and ultimately made what was a small issue of assimilation into a deeper point of frustration.
  • Think about blending: A big part of blending in is your natural appearance. For instance, as a 5’11 blonde haired blue eyes woman, I don’t really have much hope of looking like one of the locals anywhere but Germany. But your physical features aren’t the only thing that make you stand out. Blending in is also about the clothes you wear, the way you carry yourself. Are you a fashionista who considers clothing a big part of your identity? You might struggle more than others to wear the shapeless, muted clothing that tends to divert extra attention. Think carefully about the parts of your life and your identity that you’re willing to sacrifice to avoid extra attention.
  • Check out my article on understanding street harassment. It will give a great context for what to expect in Morocco specifically, and a general explanation of the different cultural drivers of street harassment.

Asking these types of questions will help you prepare to visit any country with a drastically different culture.

So what’s the verdict?

Countries in the Middle East and North Africa can cause a lot of stress to women. Basically, it boils down to this:

  • The Middle East and North Africa are not objectively more unsafe for female travelers, but this doesn’t mean you won’t feel more unsafe
  • Your mental health and safety plays just as big a role in this decision as your physical health and safety
  • No one can tell you for certain whether these are the right travel destinations for you, but doing the work to establish the ways they might affect you is a great start.

At the end of the day, there are countless women who live their lives in these countries every day, and many women having incredibly positive experiences visiting them. No one can tell you what sort of experience you will have, and while these places might be more stressful, the myth that these countries are inherently more unsafe for women to visit needs to be dispelled. Make this decision based on your comfort with adapting to a new way of life, not fear of physical harm.

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2 thoughts on “Is the Middle East safe for women? Thoughts from a sexual assault survivor

Add yours

  1. Great post. You’re right – emotional safety is just as critical as physical safety, and what matters is how you feel, not statistics. Thank you so much for posting this. Much love – speak766

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