This is one topic we could not have written about without the help of some single female travelers who have traveled extensively in the region. This forum thread continues to collect advice: yours is welcome too if you have more tips for other women.
About rape and sexual assault
In recent years, the Silk Road has become much more popular as a destination. Especially younger, less experienced travelers have started traveling the Silk Road much more.
Probably as a consequence, we are hearing more stories about rape and sexual assault. If you are an inexperienced female traveler reading this: don’t trust local men. Not in Central Asia, not in the Caucasus, definitely not in Iran or Pakistan. And follow the tips below, they are written by experienced female solo travelers.
We are gathering stories. You can read and share in our sexual assault forum thread.
You are married
1 thing that every experienced single woman traveler told me: wear a ring. You are married. The inevitable question after you state this fact is: why are you traveling alone? Have an answer ready. Some women prefer to say they are engaged, because it makes it easier to explain why you are traveling alone. But, if you are engaged, you cannot have children yet.
Dreaming up 2 children increases your status dramatically. As an unmarried woman, you are at the level of a local prostitute – up for grabs. Married or engaged – men generally respect that. But as a mother, you suddenly have status. It’s like a poor man vs a man with a nice job, big house and big car. More respect.
Invent a husband and children. It’s the first question you will be asked and is critical information in many cultures for assessing your status. Practice your fiction-development skills. Admitting you are single will lead to confusion, scorn, and unwanted advances.
Do as other women do
Copy the behavior of local women: If they don’t engage with men they are not related to, you don’t either (If they do, you can too). Your eye contact, smile, and open attitude will almost certainly be interpreted in a way that may make you uncomfortable.
Also, dress like local women. Yes, it’s hot and uncomfortable but so many problems can be avoided by leaving the shorts and tank top at home. Depending on the country, put on a headscarf and watch your problems disappear. Don’t go out at night alone or to bars alone if local women don’t do that. If the only local women out at night/in a bar are prostitutes, don’t be shocked if you’re treated like one.
Your impulse is to be nice and friendly — smile, engage, make friends. Resist it. Deploy resting bitchface. In Pakistan, local women treat men they must deal with in shops, public transport etc with utter and complete disdain, verging on contempt. Cross those social boundaries at your peril. Be your sunny self with other women, however, and watch the magic happen.
It’s awful to say this, but don’t squander your status (inherent to being a foreigner and enhanced by being married, with children and/or middle-aged) by expecting/demanding equal treatment. Use status to your advantage. Sit at the front of the bus (if that’s what local women do), refuse to sit next to men on plane or train (maybe you’ll get an upgrade), stand in the Unaccompanied Ladies lines (which move faster). Pay a little extra to sit in private lounges at the airport. If you’re about to be searched, demand a female searcher (there probably won’t be one so they’ll throw up their hands and let you go).
Ignore men, make female friends
Make female friends: especially in shared taxis and buses. They can help you if things go south (but only if you behave in ways that are recognizable to them). Invest in friendships with women, and you will see a side of life denied to foreign men.
Otherwise, the usual (and unfortunately necessary) safety rules apply:
- Don’t go out alone at night
- Dress conservatively
- Don’t be overly friendly toward men
- Try to avoid isolated areas.
- Don’t give your phone number to strangers. It’s better to take their numbers.
You’ll find yourself in a few sketchy situations regardless of how careful you are, and you will frequently be approached by men, from friendly to creepy. Beware of men who are drinking!
Knowing the local language is a definite plus. If being harassed, you easily intimidate men by answering in Russian or local language.
Traveling as a single female does not come recommended for really young/inexperienced travellers, but for everyone else, keep your wits about you, trust your gut instinct and you should be fine.
A more Western/Russian approach to man-woman relationships in the cities; not as conservative as the rest of the region. Almaty is the only place in the region we would really give the thumbs up for women to go out without worries.
Police tends to be friendlier to women. Certain homestays can be run by creeps, we’ve had several reports of places in Bishkek as well as one in Sary Tash where women were harassed.
You will get harassed, on a daily basis. Dushanbe is super safe, but men WILL catcall you, all the time. And ask you to marry them, or call you a whore. But 98% of the time, it’s only talking, they’re just trying to show off to their friends.
Age plays a huge role, as harassment of women seems to fade away in the late twenties and early thirties. Young and petite women seem to have the most harassment, along with East Asian women. Groups of young men have been known to touch women even when they were accompanied, so having a partner is not 100% effective (but still pretty effective).
General advice for Tajikistan: No cleavage showing, avoid short skirts or shorts. Avoid walking in Dushanbe by night alone. And just ignore the men catcalling you. You do not owe local men a conversation. Local women don’t even acknowledge their existence, and this is the response they expect.
If you want to sample the nightlife in Dushanbe, avoid the dodgy nightclubs: they are 95% men and 5% prostitutes. Don’t go unaccompanied.
Long travel times with late night arrivals can be a problem. Have a plan in case you arrive in Dushanbe or Khorog at 4am. If you have no language skills, the plan will likely involve being severely ripped off by a fake taxi driver, or possibly pick accommodation that’s walking distance from a drop-off point. But walking in Dushanbe at 4am is just as sketchy as taking a fake taxi. Maybe call your hostel/guesthouse and tell them the licence plate of the car while the driver is listening?
Police give women an easy time. Tashkent has a bad macho vibe, constant stares. As with Tajikistan, nightlife is male-dominated.
Seeing the Darvaza gas crater on a transit visa budget can be sketchy, so make sure you are accompanied if you do not feel secure.
Men are respectful around accompanied women. As a single woman traveling, many men are not respectful. You will meet men telling or showing you they want to have sex with you. The chance of rape is considerable if you are out on your own in out-of-the-way places. Especially single female cyclists should think twice before coming here. We have heard one too many horror stories not to take this threat seriously.
Here is a view from Merle (young, blond) from The Netherlands:
‘Say yes’ is what Lonely Planet recommends you to do when you are being invited into an Iranian home. Go get that tea, go sleep on the living room floor. Get to know the real Iran.
In essence, I agree. Iran is known for it’s hospitable people who are very helpful and kind and will cook you the best tahdig you’ve ever tasted in your life.
However, it’s complicated and not as easy as the Lonely Planet authors wants to portray. Especially when you are a woman.
When you are traveling in Iran with a male companion, expect to be mostly ignored by men. Females approach females and men will approach men. That’s the general rule. This entails that when you are sitting down in a cafe and a man approaches you as a couple, he will only address your male companion, also when the questions directly involve you.
Things take a whole other turn when your male companion leaves or was never there in the first place. Being mostly ignored when you are with a male companion is one thing, but being stuck in a taxi as a woman by yourself with a ‚helpful’ Iranian man, is another.
Question such as: ‚Girls get naked on the beaches in Europe, right?’ or ‚Do you have pictures of yourself in bikini’s?’ are not rare. Moreover, I received comments about the way that I look in a very uncomfortable way and I got invited to people’s (mostly young men’s) homes when using public transport.
Using couchsurfing (very popular in Iran) could also lead to strange, mostly sexual advances. To avoid unwanted attention, some specific advice for female travelers in Iran: Wear a wedding ring and make up a nice story about your husband and your lovely little 2-year-old (pictures help!), don’t mistake awkward questions about your marital status with friendliness and be careful with giving out your mobile phone number, if you don’t want to get called 15 times in 1 hour (true story!).
The fact that I’m mentioning the above obviously does not mean that Iran should be scrapped from your bucket list immediately if you happen to be a woman. I enjoyed my time there very much and I had many lovely experiences staying with families as the result of saying ‚yes’ to a friendly invite.
Conservative and Muslim, Azerbaijan is an obvious hotbed of sexual harassment similar to the rest of the region.
Trains: Fun and usually safe! Choose ‘platskart’. Platskart is the cheapest sleeper option, where you are tucked into a wagon filled with about 50 people. The alternate 4-bed ‘kupe’ could seem like a comfortable and more private option, but there is no female-only kupe and the door closes. Not so comfortable if it’s you, 3 men and a bottle of vodka. If money is not an issue, you can also get a lyux, which contains only 2 beds, and book the second bed as well to have the whole room to yourself.
Shared taxis: Usually very safe (in terms of being a single lady, not road safety..). Just keep your distance. For the female lone city traveller who is not too keen on waving down cars on the street as the local custom prescribes: there are plenty of cheap legal taxi companies, as well as Uber, Yandex and Snapp ride-hailing apps.
Caspian Sea ferry: Bond with the other women on the boat. Arrival time in the port can be in the middle of the night, so it’s good to have a plan if possible.
The availability of pads and tampons outside of major cities is not guaranteed. Low-quality pads may be available in the village shop, but definitely no tampons. You might want to bring wet wipes for those times you don’t have running water.
More safety tips and thank you
A big thanks to Mia, Edda, Christy, Dena, Nina, Merle, Juli and others for their help!