Packing Tips for Female Travelers in Conservative Countries
The Middle East is a region filled with ancient culture, incredible architecture, and delicious food—all things we love to explore when we’re traveling. But as a respectful traveler, it’s important to keep in mind local customs and traditions. In some conservative countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, respect translates directly to wardrobe—especially for women. Locals and visitors are expected to dress modestly in public, eschewing skin-bearing clothing like tank tops and shorts. Sometimes it's required by law to cover up, especially at religious sites, where women have to cover their hair, shoulders, and knees. An unfortunate note is that it's hot in the Middle East—and in other conservative countries where modest dress is the norm, like India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Morocco—which means covering up can be uncomfortable. The good news is there’s usually a more relaxed dress code at resorts, meaning it’s acceptable to wear clothing like bathing suits and shorts at the hotel. We've assembled a packing list to help you navigate the often unwritten rules when it comes to dress codes for women in conservative countries.
It’s 100-percent imperative to pack a scarf or shawl for visiting a conservative country. The versatile wardrobe staple is perfect for covering your shoulders and elbows, especially when visiting a house of worship. When required, your hair can also be covered with a scarf. At the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, women must adhere to a strict dress code of long-sleeve tops, long pants or floor-length skirts, and headscarves. Your clothing also cannot cling tightly to the body. If one piece of your outfit doesn’t meet standards, you’ll be given a black abaya to wear (and you might be given one anyway even if you do meet all the rules). If you’re not into the idea of wearing shared clothing, use your scarf as a head wrap underneath the abaya, too, for a layer of protection. This oversized soft wrap from Macy's is our go-to as a convertible scarf/shawl for our travels.
Bold Midi Dress
Midi dresses, which fall somewhere between the knee and the ankle, provide the perfect combination of modesty and chicness, which make them a perfect choice for a trip to a conservative country. For more coverage, you can go with the midi's cousin, the maxi dress, which falls at the ankle or floor, but we’re proponents of the midi’s slightly shorter length so your hem doesn’t drag in the dirt or trip you going upstairs. Even if you’re in a conservative country, you don’t have to play it conservative with color, which is why we picked this bold orange dress from ASOS. The keyhole neck detail adds interest without showing too much skin. Just be sure to pick a dress in a lightweight fabric if you’re going someplace hot, hot, hot (we’re looking at you Dubai).
Wide-Leg Linen Pants
Wearing pants in the heat might not sound like the most appealing idea, but they’re certainly practical for more adventurous excursions, say, sandboarding down a dune in Dubai or climbing the tunnel inside the Great Pyramid of Giza. Plus, if you’re in the desert, pants are ideal for transitioning from daytime into the evening, when temperatures can plummet. As we’ll repeat ourselves multiple times on this list, pick a looser cut and a lighter fabric, like these wide-leg linen pants from Vince Camuto that are easy and breezy.
Relaxed Linen Button Down Shirt
Every suitcase must have a button-down shirt that you can to two things. 1. Be used to cover up arms and shoulders when you need to be dressed modestly. 2. Have sleeves long enough to tie around your waist when you don’t (obviously wear an opaque camisole or tank top underneath if you go with this option). This white button-down by Everlane fits the bill in a variety of circumstances. If you’re trekking through a rain forest in Malaysia, Sudan, or even Uganda, where modest dress is recommended, you'll be happy to keep covered against bugs and sun. If you’re sightseeing in a city like Cairo, Marrakech, or Mumbai, the structured piece provides for a more polished look. Tuck it into your wide-leg pants, or keep it loose over a pair of leggings—see more on the latter below.
A good pair of travel leggings is great for multiple occasions, whether that’s relaxing in comfort in your plane cabin or hotel room, or hitting the hotel's gym. Leggings are also good for layering with oversized shirts or tunics. Just keep in mind that tight-fitting clothing might not be appropriate everywhere, like at mosques, and you definitely want to make sure your top completely covers your bottom. Athleta makes some cult-favorite work-out gear, including dozens of styles of leggings. We love the Salutation Stash Pocket Tight thanks to the pocket—a very welcome addition to any article of clothing. But seriously, it’s a great spot to stash a hotel key if you’re running to the gym or breakfast buffet, and if you put a caftan over the top of your leggings, the pocket will be completely hidden and secure.
If you're bored with midi and maxi dress options, it's time to up your fashion game with a caftan. Not only are they featured heavily on the Instagram feeds of fashion models and reality stars, but they’re also incredibly practical daywear for hot-weather locales—which is why women in many conservative countries, particularly in the Middle East, have been wearing them for millennia. Find a color and pattern that works best for you—we’re partial to this floral Anthropologie number that nods to colorful mosaic tiles and has an appropriately long duster hem.
Another option to pair with leggings is a swingy tunic top. Comfort is key, so pick a lightweight material—or maybe a soft, stretchy fabric like this tunic from Modcloth. The loose fit will keep you feeling breezy, and also hide any imperfections underneath. While you can certainly wear something like this while you’re out and about during the day, these shirts also make for great travel clothes given their softness. It comes in eight flattering shades, so pack a few in different colors!
While sandals might make the most sense temperature-wise, there’s dust and uneven terrain to consider, so it’s a good idea to consider packing lightweight closed-toed shoes if you plan on doing a bit of walking. Plus, some houses of worship, like churches in Latin America might require you to cover your toes. In most mosques, however, you’ll be required to take your shoes off entirely. (Some Muslim women cover their feet, but this isn’t typically expected of tourists.) Buy a pair like these classic TOMS, which are super lightweight for packing, plus comfortable to walk in and come in a variety of fun colors and patterns. We’re also fans of their humanitarian policies—they donate a pair for every pair purchased.
Sunglasses are an obvious item to pack for just about anywhere. But there’s another thing to consider in conservative countries: eye contact. While it’s usually considered friendly to look people in the eye in the United States, that’s not always the case in conservative countries. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, there are rules about eye contact between opposite sexes (it’s typically avoided for religious reasons). Foreigners aren’t necessarily expected to follow this custom to a T, but wearing sunglasses in public might be an easier way to avoid accidental eye contact. If you want to make a statement, grab some bold white frames, like this cat-eye pair. Though, if you don’t want to make an investment on your eyewear, it’s not a bad idea to have a few cheap pairs on hand, since sunglasses are notoriously easy to lose.