I clutched my passport nervously as I waited in the customs line at the Cairo International Airport. I stood alone, my eyes searching the beige Egyptian terminal around me for anything familiar looking. When my turn came to have my passport stamped, I grinned enthusiastically at the male customs agent, hoping to calm my nerves by showing outward confidence.
The agent paused, looked at me, and smirked. When I met his gaze, I realized with a sinking feeling that I had done something wrong. I snatched my passport and hustled to where my father stood waiting, wishing to avoid the agent's stare. When I turned to look behind me, he was still facing my direction, his lips frozen in that beautifully crafted smirk.
Despite the challenges that affect travel to the Middle East, destinations in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates are growing in popularity for both men and women. Youth in particular are choosing to travel to the Middle East for their college study abroad programs.
According to a report published by the Institute of International Education in February of 2010, the number of American students traveling to Arabic-speaking countries for study abroad has increased dramatically, from 562 in 2002 to 3,399 in 2007.
With the increasing number of young American females traveling to the Middle East, the question remains: How should women best navigate cultures that have completely different perspectives of a woman's role in society?
When a Smile or a Laugh Can Go Too Far
In 2007, Katherine Lonsdorf, a 24 year-old Occidental College graduate, studied for a year in Jordan. In the second week of her trip, Lonsdorf was abducted by her cab driver and brutally beaten outside Amman's city limits. With her face broken in three places and blood running from her head, Lonsdorf eventually managed to escape the cab and get help. She wrote about her experiences in "An Unexpected Trip," an essay published on the Travel Channel's affiliate Worldhum.
Lonsdorf was determined not to let her singular experience influence her entire stay in Jordan. She continued to live in the area for ten more months, a time she characterized as "full of fabulous and life-changing events." Even so, she admits to there being some challenges for women traveling in the region.
" I'm definitely not bemoaning the difficulties of being a white blonde girl, but I do think how you are treated depends on how foreign you look in a foreign place."
Ultimately, Lonsdorf thinks her experience was a "freak accident" with no way to know what sparked the attack. However, she does believe that she could have acted more responsibly. Lonsdorf guesses that, besides her physical appearance, her behavior may have put her at a higher risk in the taxi. In her article, she mentions that she may have smiled too much, or made too much eye contact with her driver.
"The way that I acted in the cab made it so obvious that I was so new and so foreign... As I got better at living in that country, I didn't get messed around with as much. I knew how to act around men."
Lonsdorf believes that it is important for women traveling in the Middle East to be proactive in preparing for their journey. For example, learning a few words of the local language is a good way to be more inconspicuous and less of a target. "Do your research. I think being an unprepared, unaware traveler makes you more of a target, and also makes you have a less good time," she advises.
Lonsdorf has traveled back to the Middle East since her year of living in Jordan. She hopes that her experience does not discourage from women visiting the region, but instead makes them more aware of the challenges that they might face. She concludes that, "Traveling in general is so mind opening and wonderful, especially in a place like Jordan where you probably don't know much about it. My experience taught me more than all of my four years of college combined."
Fitting in or Floundering
Catherine Baylin, the Executive Director of Marhaba, weighs in on the issue of safety in the Middle East. Her own extensive travels to the region, as well as those of her students every summer, have taught her how to travel smarter and more successfully.
Balyin believes that there are certain physical characteristics that are more likely to provoke unwanted attention from others. Specifically, she mentioned that her students who were blonde, tall, or with a particularly feminine figure would most frequently get called out on the street. Baylin suggests that, besides dressing conservatively and tying one's hair back, a certain level of "cultural and language fluency" can help negate unwanted attention.
"It's not necessarily speaking Arabic, but it's about approaching situations with a certain humility," she said. "People who had the worst experiences were those who made a spectacle of themselves, regardless of gender."
Baylin prepares Marhaba students by holding a seminar on sexual harassment during the program's orientation. The seminar is aimed towards both men and women and discusses some of the challenges that may arise during the trip. Having such preparation helps the group become more understanding and more supportive of each other during their travel.
In her own experience, Baylin believes that traveling alone to the region would be "awful," and she fully promotes the success of a group dynamic. Both men and women can benefit from each other's support, and furthermore, she stresses the importance of having a network while traveling anywhere internationally.
"It's going to be hard if you are by yourself and do not know the language. It's not related to gender--people are just going to try to take advantage of tourists. You need to know people; you shouldn't just show up."
The moral of this story is...
Safety is a vital aspect of travel, regardless of destination or gender. How comfortable a female is while abroad depends on a convergence of factors, including location, personal demeanor, appearance, and whether an individual is traveling in a group or by herself. It is important when having discussions about gender and travel to avoid making generalizations about the men in these countries; every culture is different and every individual within that culture behaves autonomously. Although there are challenges in exploring the Middle East, gender should not be an obstacle to exploring one of the most vibrant and unique regions of the Earth.
- Read the New York Times article, "For American Students, Life Lessons in the Mideast" to learn more about the increase of students abroad in the Middle East.
- Visit Worldhum to read the firsthand account "An Unexpected Trip" and learn how to better protect yourself in a new environment.
Thinking of studying abroad in the Middle East?
Photo Credit: Loic Lagarde.