Following The Rules

Tamara Kosta doesn't usually wear her wedding ring at home in London. But when she's in Oman her conjugal band sends an important message. "Most people in Europe wouldn't notice a wedding ring, but in a traditional society it can make a real difference," says the Lebanese-born shoe designer, who has traveled widely throughout the U.A.E. and Oman. "There are a different set of rules here."

A trip to the Middle East can present some significant challenges for women. "What is viewed as the norm in Western society can be seen quite differently in the Gulf," adds Kosta. "Even an enthusiastic chat can be interpreted the wrong way. You have to remember that these men's wives are covered from head to toe. Try and keep discreet—even at times aloof. It's almost like taking your femininity away, or at least toning it right down. Remember, it's not St-Tropez."

Apart from some supermodern enclaves like Dubai, most of the Middle East is governed by a strict Islamic code that dictates modesty for women. Lone female travelers are unusual in Arabic culture, where the patriarchal family plays a strong role. Some countries, like Bahrain, have specific visa requirements for single women, who are typically viewed with suspicion.

To be sure, travel in the Gulf is relatively safe—personal-crime rates there are among the lowest in the world—and men tend to be respectful toward women. But single women can still elicit unwanted attention. "Men here see such astonishing liberal images of Western women," says Rebecca Stephenson, a British language student in Cairo who has traveled throughout the Middle East. "You are going to get some hassle. Sometimes it's more of a cultural misunderstanding than anything else. My advice is to ignore them. Be firm, of course, but don't engage too much. A hiss or a heckle might make you feel furious but it's best to ignore it rather than get militant; you'll only become more embroiled in an argument."

Jessica Moxam, a British architect living in Doha, agrees. "It might not sit too well with feminists, but I often find that being slightly more submissive than I would be at home helps," she says. "Now, when I travel with my husband I often let him deal with people I don't want to talk to."

To ensure that women travelers have a safe and rewarding trip, experts advise following a few basic guidelines:

DON ' T wear short skirts or vest tops. Wear loose-fitting clothes and be sure to cover knees, arms and shoulders. Avoid see-through garments.

DO travel light; the less luggage you have the more mobile and independent you'll be.

DON ' T flirt with Gulf men. It might be innocent but can easily be interpreted as something else.

DO learn some Arabic, however minimal. A firm "no" ("lah") or "go away" ("emshi") can go a long way.

DON'T drink too much. Apart from leaving women vulnerable, drunkenness in public is illegal in most Gulf states—including the U.A.E.—and carries a jail sentence.

DO avoid too much eye contact. In some Gulf states, staring directly at a man is considered flirtatious. Dark glasses can reduce harassment, but be sure to take them off when you speak to people directly. In many cultures, hiding the eyes can be seen as rude.

DO read up on the cultural codes of the country you're visiting. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, it is illegal for women to drive, vote or travel independently without permission from a husband, brother or father. Saudi law stipulates that all women—including foreigners—must wear an abaya.

DON'T get in the front seat of a taxi. You will give the driver the wrong idea.

DO walk with purpose and try to ignore any comments you might hear.

DO try to travel in pairs.

DON'T wander around on your own at night. Always tell a friend, hotel or tour group where you're going.

DO wear a wedding ring. Whether or not you're married, sporting a wedding band can temper male advances. If asked, single women are advised to claim to be married.