Female Travelers: How to Dress in More Conservative Countries

When we travel to new places we generally like to be as prepared as possible. I know I do. My checklist always includes monitoring the local weather forecast, familiarizing myself with local dishes and delicacies, and of course, researching the sh*t out of all the rad sites I will visit once there. But perhaps one of my greatest concerns surrounds what I should wear while abroad. After all, appropriate dress can make or break your trip. It sure would be a shame to travel all the way to Country X and not be wearing the proper attire. 

I have traveled to several countries that have a more conservative dress style than say, the United States. I was drawn to these countries - Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tanzania, Botswana, Zimbabwe - because of the richness in culture, the unbelievably gorgeous and archaic history, and the famed hospitality. When it came to packing for these trips, though, it was much more difficult than when I visited Canada or New Zealand or Greece. This was partially because I wasn't as familiar with the culture, but it was also a lot of misunderstanding surrounding what was and was not appropriate to wear in these countries. Sad as it is, the visceral images and erroneous statements I'd been bombarded with through the media over the past decade had absolutely affected my perception of people and places around the world. It would have been impossible to have escaped those despicable, generalized blanket statements unscathed. This was part of what drew me to travel to the aforementioned countries to begin with. I wanted to dismantle these stereotypes and take my learnings back home with me to share with family and friends. 

My first trip to Africa was in 2014. I studied abroad for four months in the North African country of Morocco, despite protestations from family and friends. Pre-departure, I vividly recall packing being an ordeal. How could I balance the heat of the summer (when I landed in Marrakech it was 106 degrees Fahrenheit) with wearing something that wasn't revealing or offensive? I absolutely did not want to offend anyone by wearing clothing that would be perceived as inappropriate in any way, but the task seemed daunting. I just wasn't sure where to begin. 

Since that first trip to Africa in 2014 I have returned three times. I have also visited regions in the Middle East. Though I am by no means an expert packer, I feel I have an obligation to impart some of the knowledge I've acquired in these travels to those who've similar concerns. So without further ado, here are some of my packing tips for female travelers planning to visit destinations with a more conservative dress style. I hope you find it helpful!

TOPS

If you’re visiting a more conservative country you will want to be mindful of how much skin you're showing. Obviously you can dress as you please, but in order to be respectful of those in your host country and to detract from any unwanted advances / attention, you will want to implement this suggestion. As far as tops go, you will most likely want to cover your shoulders. It may be hot, so you might be tempted to wear a low-cut singlet, but instead of doing that,  consider wearing a light-colored t-shirt. If your t-shirt dips a little low, pair it with a light scarf, especially if your top shows any cleavage. I also found that if you wear singlets or dresses that expose your shoulders a great way to cover them is to drape a scarf or light shawl over them. 

Sample packing list (tops):

- t-shirts (x3)

- cardigan or shawl (x1 or 2)

- long-sleeve (x1 -- depending on duration of stay)

- sweater (x1)

- scarves (x2); you will likely want to purchase scarves abroad as they are quite beautiful, inexpensive, and also an excellent souvenir. 

 

BOTTOMS

As far as bottoms go, avoid anything that cuts off above the knee. No short skirts or dresses. Also remember that clothing should be a little looser than what you might wear at home. Not only will you receive less of that unwanted attention, but you will also be more comfortable in loose-fitted clothing. Especially in those warmer months. Also, if you would like to wear skinny jeans or leggings I would say that it is OK. But, you should wear a longer top or dress over them. 

Sample packing list (bottoms):

- loose-fitted capris (x2)

- long skirts (x2)

- loose-fitted pants (x2)

- shorts (x1); in some instances it will be much more acceptable to wear shorts. For instance, if you are swimming in an oasis in Oman and no one is around, sure, wear your shorts! Or bikini. Just use your discretion here. 

- dresses (x2) 

SWIMWEAR AND DRESSES

Swimwear is always great to pack along whether you think you are going to swim or not. After all, you will want to have a suit if an opportunity presents itself! I feel that in instances where swimming is involved, you'll just need to use your best judgement about what is or isn't acceptable to wear. Also, consider how comfortable or uncomfortable you might be in whatever suit you brought along. For me, I am uncomfortable in a bikini regardless of where I am, so I always opt for a one piece and a pair of swim shorts. That's just what works for me. In many instances, though, you are fine to wear a standard bikini. When in doubt, ask your guide. A local. Or simply observe. 

With dresses, as long as it isn't super short or tight you should be okay. I love dresses because you can pair them with other things and layer really easily. I always think it makes sense to pack at least one dress (you can purchase another on the road if you like). 

Overall, don't let packing for travel in more conservative countries intimidate you. Do some research and make sure you aren't just packing along sixteen miniskirts and you should be just fine. 

If you think I've missed something, or have any questions, let me know in the comments. :) Happy travels!