On my recent posts about Yemen travel safety, many of you sent me questions about what it would be like for women traveling in Yemen. Since I can’t answer firsthand due to my anatomy, I asked your most common questions to Tina Zorman, my contact at Eternal Yemen who arranged my trip there.
Originally from Slovenia, Zorman came to Yemen as a female tourist guide in 2003. She fell in love with the country at first sight and later met her husband Waleed there. They currently live in Sana’a with their 2 kids, while running the tour and travel operator, Eternal Yemen.
How different would it be for a woman traveling in Yemen than a man?
The female traveler can travel just like the male one, but girls will get a much stronger cultural experience then a man. While a male traveler can discover only the male part of society and its tradition, the female traveler can experience both the male and female world. Girls can participate at men’s qat chewing gatherings, smoke Yemeni water pipe (“madda”) with them, plus have active discussions. After that, she can visit the ladies’ part of the house, chat and dance with Yemeni girls. As a foreign girl, you will be invited to any wedding that will take place during your visit, as it would be an honor for the bride’s family. While the men will typically only see eyes of Yemeni women, female travelers will be amazed by the open, strong character of Yemeni woman; including all the colors, fashion, jewelry, make up and how much time they dedicate to themselves.
In terms of traveling, all the travel destination are accessible equally for both sexes. There are no restrictions for female travelers, for example that she could not stay unaccompanied in the hotel or similar. There is also no law about covering your hair – it’s simply your decision.
Could a solo female traveler simply show up in Yemen and get around easily?
Here again, there’s no difference for ladies or men. The first question is how the visa would be obtained. If the female/male traveler gets a visa independently (i.e. without help of a local tour operator) in their own country – as is possible in Japan and Australia – then travelers can come to Yemen. Once they obtain their travel permits, they can go out of Sana’a. Getting a travel permit requires showing the authorities an exact program of your itinerary. (This is also for safety – in case of any trouble, the tourist police would know exactly where the travelers were on a particular day.)
If a Yemeni tour operator arranges an invitation letter or visa for you, then you are obliged to travel with that organization during your entire stay in Yemen. The tour operator would then take care of the any necessary travel permits, etc.
Would they need a guide and what if they traveled without one?
This is partly answered in previous question: it depends how the Yemeni visa was arranged. There were cases of abuses in the past where Yemeni tour operators arranged visas for tourists, and then the tourists traveled independently around Yemen. Occasionally those tourists came into trouble (kidnapping or travel accident), resulting in the manager of the agency being put in jail for some days.
So, when visas are arranged independently, a female traveler can travel on her own around the safe parts of the country. That means at the moment: western Yemen and Soqotra [also spelled Socotra] Island. Soqotra has no public transportation and you need to rent a driver and optionally, a guide.
Are drivers and guides always men? How can a female traveler find a reputable company to work with?
Yes, Eternal Yemen is a professional and reputable company 😀
The drivers are always men. The guides are usually men, but I’m guiding myself as well (occasionally) and we cooperate with a good Yemeni female guide. So, in case the ladies would like, they could have a female guide in Sana’a and surrounding areas. I cannot promise a female Yemeni guide that could work in Soqotra or the Ta’izz region, but I can do it (having traveled across the country nearly 80 times).
Our company selects the drivers carefully. There are many people that would like to work with us, but we don’t accept them, because of the way of they work, or particular characteristic that doesn’t suit my criteria. Sometimes I joke that we are one of the few Yemeni agencies that doesn’t accept clients by body language…our guides and drivers are proper, so all female travelers are in very good and safe hands.
What are the differences in attitude toward foreign women on Socotra, compared to mainland Yemen?
Generally, Socotris are much more reserved. When I’ve visited Socotra for the first time, in 2004, there was no man that would shake my hand. I think our driver was the only one who actually had a look at my eyes – others wouldn’t even stop for a moment while passing. I felt invisible at the time, but I understood it. Now things have changed a lot, but still, Socotri drivers would perhaps be less talkative (which doesn’t mean less kind) then Yemeni colleagues.
They are both very respective toward female travelers. Socotri drivers are very protective toward Socotri woman, so they are really careful that you wouldn’t take a photo of Socotri women (even if far away). But when they will feel it’s possible, they’ll suggest a foreign women to approach Socotri women and chat with them (still, no photos are allowed).
Otherwise, it’s just a different type of travel on the mainland and Socotra. As the nature of Socotra differs from the mainland, so also the character of the drivers differs.
How should female travelers prepare for a trip to Yemen or Socotra?
There is a lot of practical information about traveling in Yemen on our website. There, tourists can get a look at what’s important to know before coming here, what not to forget, etc. Otherwise no real preparation is necessary, no required vaccination, and the visa process when traveling with a travel operator is easy. It’s helpful if visitors are a bit fit so they can enjoy in some light walking/trekking that really contributes to the quality of the journey. Some background reading about Islam and Islamic culture may also prove helpful, so visitors can understand the country (and all the tradition here) better and reduce culture shock during the first days in Yemen.
Finally, do you have any other general advice for women who might be interested in traveling to Yemen?
Although there is no law about the dress code here, it’s really recommended to show a bit of knowledge and respect to the local culture. You don’t need to dress in Yemeni balto (long, black dress), but taking a long gipsy skirt with you is just better than tight jeans. Girls can just take some old Indian or hippy style tunics, shirts, skirts and they will be fine. Or you can wear tight sleeveless shirt, but over a light men’s cotton shirt – you can be creative. Wearing the headscarf is also an option and just recommended to have it as the strong sun is your biggest enemy here! You can be creative in how you will wear your scarf – everything is allowed and everything will make locals happier than nothing.
If you still decide to be dressed like in the west, nothing will happen to you, but you will be called different things from local kids, while adults will simply think that you are offering your body to them. But they will not hurt or attack you.
Contact: you can speak to any man, you can joke with them and laugh. Keep some body distance, when you’re too close, they can understand it wrong. Again, they can think that you are offering yourself to them. If you feel that any man’s hand stays too long on your hand or on your arm or otherwise, just gave him a bad look and he will understand it immediately. If you even say a bad word in your language, it might cause others to push him away.
Generally: be kind, but not too kind – you put where the limits will be. Generally, Yemenis are not pushy and not annoying. They are simply too occupied with their qat and respect women a lot. But better to have some precautions.
Some Yemeni Faux Pas To Be Aware Of
- Do not wink, as Yemenis understand this as an invitation for having sex.
- If you make a sign with your hand to call somebody, do not do it with your index finger turned upwards. Do so with your whole hand turned downwards.
- After a shower if you go to the street with your hair still wet, Yemenis will assume that you’ve just had sex with someone. So, if your hair is still wet, better to cover it lightly with a headscarf.
Thank you very much Tina for taking the time to give us all a better understanding of what women can expect when traveling to Yemen. You can find out more about traveling to Yemen and begin planning a trip there with Tina’s company, Eternal Yemen, whom I personally recommend.
[Also, all photos in this post, except the first and fifth, are courtesy Tina Zorman.]