I’ve become more and more averse to visiting countries where human rights aren’t upheld universally. So I was ambivalent about visiting Dubai, which I know to have laws and customs that are discriminatory against women, but which also looked pretty fucking cool.
I’m a fairly conscientious traveler, so I believe in respecting local laws and customs, even if they might be personally offensive to me. Most of the time, I rather just not financially contribute to the tourism of a country that doesn’t respect me for any attribute that I was born with and have no control over, including my gender and sexuality. Given that my visit to Dubai was just a stopover and not a vacation in and of itself, I decided to venture into the city.
Misconception vs. Reality
Though United Arab Emirates is all glitzy and modern, some of their laws which derive from Sharia law are not so. Like the fact that women need permission from a male guardian to marry or that homosexuality is punishable by death. Or that women who have reported rape have been charged with having extramarital sex.
Given this knowledge, I expected to walk into a place where I would get disdainful looks on the street because I was a woman alone or because I was wearing the wrong thing. I sort of expected it to be what Sri Lanka ended up being like, a lot of condescending judgy dudes who think they know what’s best.
But I guess if money can’t buy happiness, at least it buys some public civility.
Dubai ended up feeling much safer than any place I’ve visited in recent memory. Whatever fucked up decisions Emirati men make on behalf of women in the courts does not at all translate to how they behave in the streets.
I was picked up by an Uber driver in a car that probably costs more than I make in a year, and the driver was a perfect gentleman. He made some recommendations and seemed delighted at how beautiful I thought his city was.
Walking around, you don’t get a lot of male attention at all. In fact, there are systems in place to keep men away from women altogether, like pink cabs driven by women for female passengers and women-only train cars. In a hoodie and jeans, I was wearing a lot more clothes than some of the other tourists around me, who obviously gave zero fucks about local customs in their shorts and tank tops. But it didn’t really seem to matter that they were so scantily dressed either.
To be clear, as a general rule, women should cover the upper half of arms and legs. And though Dubai is a beachy paradise, you should only use swimwear at the beach or pool.
Best of all, I was delighted that around rush hour, the trains were packed in the downtown area with women obviously leaving their jobs. This makes sense considering that over 73% of women in the United Arab Emirates have a secondary education and 43% are in the labor force. Women have continually expanded their roles in society in recent years, and Emiratis take pride in the fact that they’re the leader in the Middle East in gender equality.
Crime and personal safety
The kinds of petty crimes that would be a threat to most travelers around the world like theft and pickpocketing are basically nonexistent in the United Arab Emirates. Because, chances are, you as a visitor are poorer than everyone living there. They don’t need your used smart phone or whatever dirhams you happen to have on you. Dubai is obviously wealthy and full of obviously wealthy people. This also means that scams meant to squeeze dollars and cents out of you are less likely, though you should obviously exercise normal caution.
Avoiding legal problems
The laws in the UAE are much different from US and European laws, and failure to abide by them can get you deported, thrown in jail, or fined heavily. There’s a reason why everything is so neat and orderly and people don’t behave like savages in public, and that reason is definitely in large part due to the long arm of the law.
Drinking is one particularly tricky activity, because it’s illegal to drink or be drunk in public, though as a non-Muslim tourist, it is tolerated provided you stay in the confines of places that are licensed to serve alcohol, like a hotel or bar. The cops won’t set up a sting to arrest you when you leave a bar, but if you commit any other public offense, and they find that you were drinking, you could be charged with that. Even if you were raped and had been drinking, you’d be liable to be charged with alcohol consumption. As a solo female traveler, I don’t love to drink anyway, but I would definitely have a nice sober time in Dubai.
Another big no-no is extramarital sex and public displays of affection. If you’re looking to meet a cute stranger and make out at the club, I would save Dubai for another time. If you were for any reason caught having sex either publicly or in your hotel room with a person to whom you’re not married, you would also face arrest, jail, or deportation. God forbid you’re caught with someone of the same sex. As much as I think Dubai would be a sexy ass destination for a honeymoon, I would probably be sentenced to death if I went there with my same-sex partner.
Finally, be careful what you post online. Posting and sharing material (like this article probably) that is deemed to be critical of the UAE is punishable by law.
Keeping those precautions in mind, I thought Dubai was a lovely place to visit as a solo female traveler, and I would love to go back.