The conservative cultures of the Middle East can make this part of the world one of the most challenging for Westerners to pack for. If you’re American and have never been immersed in a place with such drastically different values and customs, it can be tough to know exactly what is appropriate and how to plan within your existing wardrobe. Truthfully, it will vary from country to country, as some are much more conservative than others, but of the countries Western tourists are more likely to visit, some general tips and advice apply.
As a blond American woman, I was certainly a little apprehensive when planning what I’d wear on my trip to Jordan and Egypt a few years ago. Standing at my closet, looking at my clothes and struggling to think of new, more conservative outfit combinations, I thought to myself, “But I already dress fairly modestly for the United States!” And as a trained, skilled artist who has an appreciation for the beauty of the human form, I felt perplexed at the idea that showing knees or shoulders would offend someone. But I was thinking in the mindset of someone who grew up in American culture and had traveled extensively to areas where the cultural norms for dress weren’t very different from my own. I had to step away from that and remember: More important than my own opinion is the act of showing respect for the culture I’m visiting.
The whole point of traveling is to experience something different from your usual way of life. If you’re not opening your eyes to new ways of viewing the world, what is the point of leaving home? I believe in the power of travel to help us all better understand one another and create a more peaceful dialogue between cultures. So even if you don’t agree with the religious or cultural reasons behind modest dress, it’s still important to follow these customs and cover up. It shows that you respect local cultures even if you don’t practice the same behavior at home. This is the hallmark of an experienced, wise traveler.
Once I remembered and accepted this, I settled into the idea that I would be making some slightly different clothing choices than I was used to and got to planning. As I began exploring stylish hijabi fashion on Pinterest and Instagram, there was plenty to inspire my packing choices (and even inspire a little style envy). Here’s what I learned and recommend to female travelers headed to conservative parts of the world:
You may not need to wear a hijab or cover your hair.
I’d read online that this wasn’t expected of Western female tourists in the countries I was visiting (Jordan and Egypt), and I found this generally to be true. I stood out without a hijab, of course, but I figured I would anyway, so the additional effort to wear one wasn’t worth it in my case (not to mention I had no idea how to pin it back correctly so it would stay on!). It is absolutely worth researching this topic specific to the country you’re visiting before you leave, but my understanding is that this practice is considered religious in nature and the natives are well aware that not everyone is Muslim. I especially found Jordanians to be particularly tolerant; I even saw a few women in Amman without a hijab.
Bring a scarf everywhere you go.
I love scarves and already use them frequently when traveling as a way to add a dash of color to outfits that are otherwise very neutral (a packing trick to make sure as many clothing items coordinate as possible). However, they’re even more important in Muslim cultures for functional purposes. If you want to enter a religious site, for example, you will need to cover your hair — so for those not opting to wear a hijab, you’ll be glad you have a scarf. It’s also helpful just for covering up in general if you’ve found that the shirt you chose actually shows a bit more décolletage than you thought.
Linen is your friend.
Light, airy fabrics help keep you cool while covering your legs and arms. I bought a pair of linen pants from Victoria’s Secret that worked very well in the hot climate and became a staple of my outfits, particularly on days when I did a lot of climbing and exploring. Be sure the fabric is dark enough that it won’t be too see-through.
Embrace the maxi skirt.
The fact that maxi skirts and dresses are in style in the U.S. helps a lot here — you might already own a few. I wore maxi skirts anytime I wasn’t in linen pants. If you bring a maxi dress, be sure to pack a cardigan of some kind, as most maxi dresses I’ve seen tend to be sleeveless and low-cut. In general, you’ll need to wear long skirts and pants that cover your knees and even your ankles.
Pack lots of button-down shirts.
Another staple of many American women’s closets is the button-down shirt. Bring a few light, airy and loose-fitting button-down shirts with sleeves that reach your wrists — though I often rolled mine up just a bit for comfort, particularly when exploring Egyptian ruins and climbing around Petra, or when I was surrounded by other tourists and very few locals. Pack safety pins, too, to prevent gaps between buttons from displaying a bit more than you planned.
Make sure your clothing isn’t too tight.
You don’t need to wear a tent, but relaxed and comfortable-fitting clothing is a must and will be preferable anyway due to the heat.
Guys: You’re not exempt!
Though they’re less likely to face the same level of scrutiny, men do need to dress somewhat differently in the Middle East than they do at home. Wear long pants at all times, even when it’s hot. In some cases you won’t offend by wearing shorts, but you certainly won’t blend in. Americans are fairly unique in that shorts are considered common attire for grown men — in many parts of the world, even Europe, shorts are more commonly seen on children. If you want to enter a religious site, you’ll need long pants anyway, so it’s just easier to plan to wear them every day. When it came to shirts, I saw men in short sleeves frequently. However, if you’re going to be outside a lot, you may want to cover your arms just to avoid a sunburn. Again, linen is a great choice.
It’s very likely that you’ll stand out as a Western tourist in places like the Middle East — there’s simply no avoiding it. This means the opportunity to show respect by dressing appropriately is even greater. By following local customs, you’ll leave a positive impression of yourself and your home country, and you’ll be more comfortable because of it.
Photo credit: Megan Van Groll