What Female Travelers Should Wear in Muslim Countries

Arab couple walking around a mall.

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If less is more in most fashion circles, dressing in traditionally Muslim countries is just the reverse—cover up. This the word from travel experts around the world, who offer wise advice pointing out things that are frowned upon, if not downright forbidden.

Dressing Dos and Don'ts

Melissa Vinitsky, who traveled to and lived in Cairo and wrote Women & Islam: Tales from the Road, says decorum is the word of the day:

"With Muslim women largely behind the scenes and out of reach, a foreign woman, even modestly dressed, stands out like a bikini-clad girl skiing down the slopes in midwinter. On top of that, many Arab men, influenced by American movies and TV, subscribe to the common belief that Western women are easy."

Covering your arms and legs with loose clothing is always advised when you are in public. If you are staying in a large hotel with many westerners it will be acceptable to wear your ordinary clothes there.

Many female travelers recommend covering your hair in Islamic countries to avoid getting unwanted attention from men. In mosques, this is not a question of choice—for women, whether local or traveler, it's a must. Female travelers, regardless of their own religious persuasion, should always cover their hair entirely in mosques. This video tutorial on how to wear a hijab, or headscarf, makes it look simple. All you need is a large square scarf.

Wearing the traditional dress, of course, is not a requirement, so don't bother to pack a veil or burka. But many women sojourners are interested in learning more about typical Muslim clothing and may choose to dress accordingly during their travels. The most common women's garments include:

  • Chador or Burka:  A long, loose robe that covers the entire body and head. It is often combined with a veil worn across the face with a small slit for the wearer's eyes.
  • Kamiz: A pair of loose trousers and a tunic.
  • Hijab: A veil or scarf which usually covers the head and chest.

Dress Codes for Different Muslim Countries

While there are general rules about dressing in Muslim countries as a whole, you may find that customs vary depending on where you visit. You can find out the recommended dress for every country at Journeywoman, a website dedicated to crowdsourcing helpful clothing tips for women when they travel. 

If you're traveling specifically to Iran, you will want to consult the dress code information from the website Iranian Visa. The Islamic dress code for women takes effect when your airplane crosses into Iranian airspace, according to the site.

Islamic codes of behavior and dress are strictly enforced. In a public place, women must cover their heads with a headscarf, wear a long skirt or loose trousers, and a long-sleeved tunic or coat that reaches to the knee.

In Dubai, westerners dress as they wish when at resorts but wear modest clothing when out in public. Dubai is a place where you'll see fashionably dressed women from many countries so fashion accessories such as a designer handbag is a nice addition to your modest wardrobe.

Tips From Experienced Female Travelers

While the consensus is that modesty is generally the best policy, consider how to best dress for the climate and culture. One experienced traveler notes that "not only is it important to be modest, but loose clothing is more comfortable in the heat." You may also want to consider how easily your clothing choices will help you adhere to common customs. For instance, in a country where is it custom to remove your shoes upon entering a home, you may want to wear sandals or slip-on shoes.

Of course, dressing to be respectful and for your own safety is a must. According to many female travelers, not only will you find that locals will be appreciative of your more modest choices, but they may save you from unwanted attention in the form of looks and lewd comments.

The Bottom Line

If you observe local customs and traditions when traveling to Muslim countries, you'll wind up feeling more comfortable physically and socially. If you only pack one extra item, make sure it's a scarf for covering your head or shoulders as the need arises. In Islamic cities, as anywhere else in the world, if you respect others, you're more likely to earn their respect in return.