Is it really safe for women to live in places like the U.A.E or Doha? What about if you’re just travelling through… and you’re alone?
If you’ve been with this blog from the very beginning (all three of you!) you’ll know that I lived in Doha, Qatar for three months in 2014. If you’re just tuning in – hello! I’m an ex-expat who has lived in London and Doha. They’re two very different places, that’s for sure.
When I mention Doha to any of my friends and acquaintances who haven’t been there themselves, they’re usually like: “Woooah. What on earth was that like? Did you have to wear an abaya? (That’s the long, billowy black garment that women in places like Qatar and the UAE wear). Was it… safe?!”
Well. Yeah. Incredibly safe. I felt like I was in more danger walking through the mean streets of Sydney, than I ever did in Doha.
That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t take certain precautions in travelling and living there. Many are the same as anywhere else in the world, but there are some factors that deserve consideration.
Keep in mind that Qatar is an Islamic country, where Sharia Law is recognised. There are certain rules and regulations that all citizens – whether they be men or women – are expected to observe and respect.
That being said, Doha is far less conservative than say, its neighbouring country of Saudi Arabia. So, it’s all about perspective, really!
I’m sure you have a few burning questions, so I’m going to do my best to answer them. Overall, I do think it’s safe for women to travel to Doha – certainly to live there, like I did. Here’s why.
What should you wear?
The question on every woman’s lips. What is considered appropriate attire in Doha? Is the abaya a necessary garment?
No. You don’t have to wear the abaya, or even cover up to the extent that you may imagine. As the temperature can get up to the late forties Celsius in the summer months, this is certainly something to be thankful for.
As a rule of thumb, so long as your shoulders aren’t naked and knees out of sight, you’d probably be right to step outside.
My “uniform” in Doha considered of jeans, t-shirts, shorter skirts (such as the circle skirts that were in vogue at the time and I still wear) with tights underneath and three-quarter length leggings with a t-shirt dress. This suited my particular sense of style perfectly fine, but of course you can throw long skirts and maxi-dresses into the mix.
Where do these restrictions apply?
This is generally how women are expected to dress whilst out and about in town, but there’s a few opportunities to bend the rules here and there, which won’t land you in hot water.
I spent my three months in Doha living in a hotel, where I was able to wear whatever I wanted. I could don my bikini to go for a dip in the pool and wear my short shorts to the gym. Most people didn’t give me a second glance, apart from two gentlemen from Kuwait who not very nicely hit on me in the elevator one day, which I don’t rate as my most favourite experience in the city, but it happens.
What about outside city limits? I wore shorts on journeys whenever I headed into the desert, because I was generally with groups of expats who were doing much the same. I didn’t encounter any issues, but remember to do this at your own discretion.If you’re swimming at private beaches that belong to specific hotels, you’ll be fine to wear whatever you want. The same can be said for beaches outside of the city, because odds are there won’t be anyone else there. On the flip side, women aren’t able to strip down at the public beach of Katara. I didn’t go there, because short stints of sunbathing is one of my favourite pleasures in life. BAD, BAD – I know. Remember to slip, slop and slap on that sunscreen, folks!
One item I’d absolutely recommend investing in, is some sort of shawl or scarf. Whilst you are not required to cover your hair, this one item can prove itself invaluable in times of need.
For example, you may want to wear a dress out one night that shows off your shoulders, a seriously under-appreciated part of the human body, I think. Throw your shawl on, wear it outside the house, in the taxi and then stuff it into your bag when you get to the club. Repeat when leaving.
There are plenty of places that sell them in the souq. Vendors will jack the price up for foreigners, so don’t be afraid to haggle it down to something that’s fair for both parties.
Can you go clubbing?
Yes! Expats in Doha loooove drinking – not that you have to booze it up while you’re there. I went on a self-imposed detox, myself. Drinks were pricey and I wanted to save my money for travelling, when I could buy drinks in even more expensive places, like London and Iceland. Because, logic.
You can’t exactly stroll down the street for a bottle of red whenever you fancy it. Residents are entitled to what is effectively a “licence to drink” six months after living in the city. This card allows the holder to purchase alcohol and pork from two stores in the city. These close during Ramadan, so that the lines the week before are of epic proportions.
If you don’t have a card, you can buy drinks at the many hotel bars (I also recommend befriending someone who has a card, as they’ll be a super handy contact to have). You’re also free to wear whatever you want to the clubs on hotel property. I had a bouncer try to throw me out of a club because I wasn’t wearing high heels. Make what you want of that.
What about dating?
I was single when I was living in Doha. It was my first extended stint abroad and well… I was beyond ready to meet boys who weren’t Australian.
It was hard to meet people at first (the more people you meet, the easier it becomes), so I turned to Tinder. If you’re curious about how that went down, click on the link below to read what is currently the most popular article on my blog.
It’s frowned upon for men and women to touch in public, which makes dating really, really weird. I’m a touchy-feely person myself and it was odd to go on several dates with people and not be allowed to make any contact with them (apart from covert games of footsies under the table).
In a way, it was a rather good litmus test for the two possible relationships I could have had. I ran out of conversation with one fellow that I had good chemistry with, where we were left smoking shisha in awkward silence in the souq one night. The other and I could talk for hours over cups of tea, board games and cheese plates (we had weird dates), but our actual attraction was short-lived.
What happens during Ramadan?
The entire city shuts down. I kid you not.
There are a lot of things to do in Doha that actually made it quite a fun city to live in, but none of them were around during Ramadan. All-you-can-eat chilli hot dogs on Tuesday nights at Gordon Ramsay’s Opal Restaurant was cancelled. The clubs are closed. One hotel’s cafe stopped serving their weekly special Lamb Kofta, which was my FAVOURITE DISH. The alcohol store boards up for the month. My hotel put its daily chocolate “happy hour” on hold (this was where they brought out trays of chocolate at 5 o’clock every day that you could eat for free. It was the best thing ever).
Being a Muslim country, the rules of Ramadan apply to all citizens, whether or not they’re fasting. Yes, you can still eat and drink water, but you can’t do it in public. The conservative dress-code is enforced. Most expats tread lightly, putting their heads down and working their way through the month.
Once Eid has been and gone, the city explodes back into life. The clubs open, you can drink water in public and resume stuffing yourself with chilli dogs every Tuesday once again.
For another perspective, here’s what it’s like to backpack through Pakistan during Ramadan.
What about street harassment?
If you’re a woman, there is one fact you’ll have to face up to. There’s a 99% chance you’re going to get harassed in the street and there’s nothing you can do about it.
I’m all about feminism myself, but getting angry and yelling won’t do anything but ruin your day. Doha is considered progressive as far as this region of the world goes, but this is still a patriarchal society. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say.
Truth be told, the harassment I encountered was fairly low key. There were wolf whistles from men on the street. Others drove past in their cars, beeping their horns and yelling stuff that I fortunately didn’t understand, as it was in different languages.
The worst I encountered were those aforementioned fellows in the lift – that scared me, as it happened in my hotel, which I considered a sanctuary from that kind of behaviour. The only time anyone touched me was when I had my bottom groped by both a Polish boy and an Australian (not on the same night, thank goodness). I unleashed hell on them – particularly the Aussie as he was an embarrassment to our country, particularly when he threw up on his own shoes shortly afterwards.
Weirdly, it eventually becomes background noise and you grow used to it (except for the groping). Just another aspect of life in the sandpit.
Have you travelled to Doha? Would you go? Or consider spending a stint there as an expat?
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