My friend Kay asks a good question:
Did you ever feel unsafe or endangered in any of the countries visited?
Do you think a sole female traveller would be able to travel as freely?
There are short answers to both of those questions, which I will give you now, after which I will sketch out some reasons apropos of each country, before giving you my concluding thoughts.
Did I ever feel unsafe or endangered or threatened?
Not really, no. Hardly at all. But yes, of course, at points, which I will discuss.
Do I think a sole female traveller would be able to travel as freely?
No. It is feasible, but highly unlikely. Not in these countries.
Let’s discuss that quickly here, as it applies to all of the countries listed below.
As a man, it is my privilege in a Muslim country to walk about, by myself, as I please, with little fear of being accosted or groped or anything of the like.
Sure, I was accosted a bit in bazaars. But when a man grabs me, I can look at him in a way that has him release his grip, because I am bigger and stronger than him.
If I’m not bigger or stronger, and worse comes to worse, I’m able to hurt him severely, and if I need to make an escape, I can run fast and bounce people off me.
Nothing escalated anything near that degree, but these are things one thinks just a couple of weeks into travelling, being the only foreigner in the arse-end of nowhere, and every person who isn’t approaching you is staring at you.
Women do not command respect in these countries, and are often considered little more than chattel. The one time I left my ex-girlfriend alone in Marrakech, she was groped.
Marry the social incapacity and general contempt for women to the physical reality, that most women are not as strong or as fast or as dangerous as men, and you have a recipe for trouble.
“But we Muslims respect our women!” I hear somebody shout.
Yes, I agree, many of you do respect your women, but few of you respect unmarried foreign women, especially if they dress ‘unchaste’ as they have the freedom to at home.
I am not saying being accosted and groped is the reality everywhere, in all countries discussed at all times.
However, if you are really travelling, and exploring outside of the developed world, and meeting people in traditional societies, in small cities and towns and villages, then these situations will occur.
Also, if at some points I felt mildly threatened in these countries – and I am big and strong and respected as a man – then women travelling solo will certainly feel threatened and unsafe. For good reason.
With that said, let’s go through the following countries: Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Iraqi Kurdistan and Lebanon.
Being my first destination, I was more ‘on guard’ in Kyrgyzstan initially, more so than any other country. Just because it was my first destination, I was so green, and the place so foreign.
One friend instructed me to withdraw dollar bills and tuck them in my sock, which didn’t fill me with confidence.
But, as I mentioned in this piece, Kyrgyz hospitality was glorious, and I never felt unsafe in my whole time there.*
Sure, there were instances in clubs and bars, where there is a surfeit of testosterone, and you can smell the latent violence. That’s like anywhere, though, like Guernsey on the weekend. I’ve been assaulted a few times in St Peter Port, but not once in Bishkek.
My friend Dima did tell me there were stabbings in clubs in the last year he spent there, though.
In one suburb in outer Bishkek, I was attacked by some adorable young wannabe boxers, all in good fun, but it is also the kind of place where young males are doing the same thing in earnest come nightfall.
When my friend and I hitchhiked to Karakol, we were advised not to sleep rough in the park, because the youths are drunk and violent. We came across no trouble.
Osh Bazaar, for some weird reason considered one of the top places to visit in Bishkek, is a rough area. Drunks and vagabonds and thieves. All of my experiences here were good, actually. Two drunks with missing teeth covered the price of my cognac in one shop in Osh Bazaar.
*Now, there is one glaring exception as regards safety in Kyrgyzstan, from my standpoint.
I consistently felt unsafe in Kyrgyzstan when being driven by Kyrgyz drivers.
Kyrgyz drivers are both homicidal and suicidal maniacs, daily taking risks on the road that are unimaginable to the Guernsey driver – and they never wear seatbelts.
I genuinely made my peace with God, as I sometimes do on aeroplanes, and sat calmly expecting to be thrown through the windshield and over the precipice of the cliffs we were speeding around more than once. My friend Henry literally yelped for our lives.
One of my Kyrgyz Mums is an anaesthesiologist, and she laments the amount of young people being operated on in Bishkek every day after car crashes, usually young male drivers, often drink and/or drugs involved too.
My friend Oleg and I attended a wedding, drinking vodka and dancing with the celebrants, before they made off in their convoy to the afterparty.
We were invited to go with them, but one of the few sober celebrants said we shouldn’t come, because there will be fighting. Not ‘might be’ fighting, ‘will be’.
I was gifted a knife in Kyrgyzstan by a friendly street vendor, and I kept this on me throughout my time in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, quite uselessly, until it was confiscated by airport security in Tashkent.
Bishkek, the metropole, I would say is a very safe city.
I never had trouble in Bishkek, and I partied until late at night, walking home at all hours, and the only dangers I encountered were potholed pavement.
Now, female travellers.
I was speaking to a Kyrgyz lady called Aizura in my first couple of weeks in Kyrgyzstan, who educated me on a Kyrgyz tradition, still very much alive and kicking in the sticks and rudely announcing itself in metropolitan Bishkek from time to time: bride kidnapping.
Medieval, Genghis Khan kind of stuff, only no longer do wannabe grooms gallop through a yurt encampment, they kidnap women and force them into their cars, driving them home and forcing their hand in marriage.
Aizura told me there was a woman kidnapped in this fashion just recently.
Upon refusing his hand in marriage, he decapitated her and then killed himself.
This is an ever-present fear for Kyrgyz women, sadly, but likely not for foreign female travellers. I mention this because it demonstrates the kind of people a woman may find herself dealing with, were she to decide to travel solo to this country.
That being said, I met two young women from India, medical students studying in Bishkek.
One of them told me she loves Kyrgyzstan, because she can walk around freely in the daytime, by herself, and nobody catcalls and gropes her.
Paints a picture of her hometown, eh.
Uzbekistan I found to be safer than Kyrgyzstan, less of a wild and unhinged aspect to its young men. Environments seething with violent, pent-up testosterone, which I encountered often in Kyrgyzstan, I didn’t find in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan was, up until relatively recently, a very insular and very harsh police state.
One of my Kyrgyz Mums said you have to be careful with the Uzbeks. Whereas the Kyrgyz will confront you to your face, the Uzbek will be sweet and smiley, all the while gripping a knife behind their back.
My Uzbek host Zoha said that Uzbekistan is full of cheaters and scammers.
The police are justly infamous for being heavyhanded, but if you are on the right side of them, which I was, there is nothing to fear.
I spent three weeks here and didn’t come across any trouble whatsoever.
Females, however, I think are a different matter.
Uzbekistan is a very conservative country, and, as I discuss more in my answer regarding LGBTQ experience, there has been somewhat of a backwards shift towards Islamic conservatism in recent years.
As in all ex-Soviet states, there is a diaspora of Russians who remain in these countries. One Russian girl to whom I was speaking said she wouldn’t wear this – just a sleeveless top – in public in Tashkent.
Short skirts are out of the question.
It is a shame, but the rules for Muslims are made to apply for non-Muslims, too. There is no law forbidding such dress, but that standard will nonetheless be enforced by the pious.
I went to Stihia Festival in the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, where rules were bent to fit the young and the progressive festival goers, where women could confidently wear short shorts and a more revealing top.
Late one evening, though, a couple of the ladies whom I’d met at the festival stuck a little closer to me, as the Uzbek men became gropey and inappropriate with them. Behaviour that, sadly, often occurs where there is drink, but seems exacerbated in a society that often sees women as playthings or property.
I met some brave, badass women in Uzbekistan, who play the game and dress more conservatively as required, but will shout and slap and make a scene if they have to – not file a lawsuit a decade later.
One thing I find interesting about Muslim societies, for all their problems, is that they are safe and secure in ways that many western societies are not.
Imagine, in London or Manchester or Birmingham or Southampton, selling big knives and guns on a market stall.
As I mentioned in my longer piece on Kurdistan, it is very safe in Erbil, so much so that people trade dangerous and high value goods – knives, guns, watches, jewellery, everything – openly on market stalls. They even trade between dollar and dinar without security present, fat wads of cash unfurled out in the open.
When my flight landed in Iraqi Kurdistan just after midnight, I didn’t manage to secure a taxi I thought reasonably priced, so I walked into town, and ended up hitching a ride with two Kurdish fellows.
Some friends and family expressed surprise and consternation.
My reply is, it is safe.
If it was unsafe, I wouldn’t do it.
For example, you sure as feck wouldn’t catch me doing the same thing in London or Birmingham or Portsmouth at that time of night, not that I would ever choose to go to those God-forsaken places.
Having said all that, I had a night out in Erbil, during which I heard some disturbing things about stabbings and shootings.
Kurds are, aside from friendly and hospitable, a fierce and fiery bunch. The sort to exact revenge over perceived slights. One of my crazy Kurdish friend’s uncles shot another uncle over some familial power feud.
Also, there is the small issue of a war being fought on this territory quite recently.
It has been pretty much safe for two years, though there are areas I was advised not to go, as there is quite a lot of unexploded ordinance.
In my first week, the US Consulate currently under construction was bombed by drones, as some Peshmerga fellows coolly informed me. I wouldn’t have heard that it happened if they didn’t mention it, all blasé, a week later. It barely registers on the radar for them.
All I would add to everything already said in respect of Muslim culture, is that the Kurdish are more respectful and open to female autonomy than other Muslim societies, certainly in Erbil anyway.
More open does not mean ‘open’, though. Women can and do wear modest skirts and sleeveless tops in the capital, Erbil. I wouldn’t recommend doing so out in the sticks, though.
It is noteworthy that Kurdish women have been fighting with the Peshmerga in female-only brigades for nearly half a century.
As I mentioned in another answer, Lebanon was in live meltdown during my three weeks there. It has been in meltdown for many years, sadly, but it has intensified in the last year, and even more so in recent months.
I heard horrible things during my time there, about shootings and looting, people sinking to every depth of depravity to survive.
People’s livelihoods have, in a few short years, plummeted from comfortable, past hard, down to unbearable. Truly, unbearable, with a next-to-worthless currency and without secure and affordable electricity or medicine or fuel. The country is a mess.
Yet, despite travelling to several areas in the country, I felt always felt safe.
I never saw any overt violence. I saw crowds of men arguing at petrol pumps, the slow-drip indignity finally becoming intolerable, and spilling over to shouting and jostling.
Vandalism was rife. Rock-bottom desperation was taken out on the banks. There were some more artistic protests made in the form of graffiti, which Beirut has a quality share of, helping to give a beautiful contrast to the destruction and destitution around it.
People, despite all going on, were very friendly, and went out of their way to help me. When I was wandering about lost, or on a bus with no clue where I should get off, people would ask where I want to go, and help me to get there.
Lebanese people were wonderful, given the dire situation of their country.
Now, for a solo female traveller?
I think Lebanon is quite safe, maybe more so than our other destinations, as a solo female traveller.
Lebanon is a multi-faith society, professedly secular, and this shows in the ability of foreign female travellers – I met a couple – to get around safely and freely and quite happily, too.
Much of Beirut, especially, is very open. Women can dress how they like, within reason.
It is a civilised country.
For how much longer, I don’t know.
Concluding Remarks: Safety and Female Solo Travel
I travelled for five months, more than three months of which was spent in the above countries, ‘known’ to be unsafe, one which was until recently a war zone, and another currently in socioeconomic meltdown.
Am I just lucky?
In part, yes, I would say so.
But I have no interest in finding trouble. I am not aggressive. I am a hard guy to pick a fight with.
I took precautions. I can’t recall really what precautions those were.
What I mean, really, is that I wasn’t silly.
I connected with locals via CouchSurfing, and spent time with them and their families and friends.
I am not turning up and aimlessly pottering about these countries in various states of inebriation.
Not all the time, anyway.
I did spend a lot of time in vulnerable positions, in the arse-end of nowhere, no clue where I am or where I am going, sometimes on my own.
This is courting potential danger, I guess, but it is also courting the sorts of experiences I feel blessed to have had.
I have a blind and dumb faith in reality and in people, which has burnt me precious few times.
This faith was rewarded by astounding experiences and outstanding hospitality.
Risk equalled reward, I am lucky to say.
It was my unearned privilege as an exotic foreigner to be fawned upon and impressed to the best of my hosts’ ability, and the locals generally, I found.
In fact, I came to unduly expect this hospitality with such assurance that the first time it was absent, I was surprised – when I ran out of money in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Now, concerning female solo travellers.
I met many, in Turkey, Georgia and Lebanon.
I didn’t meet many in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan or Iraqi Kurdistan.
Actually, one in Kyrgyzstan, a couple in Uzbekistan (for the festival), none in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The safety concerns that men should have are more serious for women, like a physical confrontation. Women who know some jujitsu or how to throw a left-hook with a flat palm would be better prepared than many men, mind you.
Whereas I hitchhiked in Kyrgyzstan and Iraq feeling safe – who knows, perhaps unjustly – I don’t think a woman travelling solo could do the same, not safely, not day after day. I just don’t.
I think if a woman wanted to travel solo and experience these countries, they could, but should stay in a hostel at first, make contact with local women via CouchSurfing, hangout with them and take their advice on safe travel within the country before setting off.
Locals know best. Never rock up and wing it.
I hate to write it, but I think it is highly likely if a woman tried to travel exactly as I did over the last 5 months, something bad would befall her. I have met too many people and heard too many stories from these countries to conclude differently.
I said I met women who travelled solo.
These women are kick-ass. Beautiful badasses. The kind of women who can hold their own with groups of men, and will kick and punch if it’s required of them.
Not the kind of women to complain that somebody called them ‘my love’ or to take offence at a male opening a door for them (experiences I had at the University of Brighton).
Those kind of women tend not to have the brass balls it takes to travel solo to countries that are not only dangerous, but actively hostile to the free self-determination of their sex. Men holding the door open for you will be the least of your worries in Iraq, my love.
There is a gap between the general experience of women in these countries and in places like the UK. Women need to be made acutely aware of this before travelling.
Drinking beer and sitting underneath a statue of Manas, I explained the concept of ‘manspreading’ to Aizura, the girl in Kyrgyzstan.
I related how an uninspiring group of feminists at my old university were protesting manspreading, the crime committed by many a male who sits on public transport with his legs apart. (Heaven knows why?)
Aizura laughed, and laughed.
It was nice to amuse a girl who walks the streets in fear of being kidnapped and beheaded.