Safety and Risk: Some Recommendations for Women Solo Travellers in Palestine and Israel

By Miri - 

We have already addressed the topic of general safety and risk when travelling in Palestine and Israel in a number of posts on this blog.
What we have not written about yet, are the specific concerns of women solo travellers, a lacunae that we want to fill now.

We will mainly be dealing with gender based forms of risk and violence, a focus that however does not suggest that this type of problems is more prevalent in Palestine and Israel than in other places.

As someone who has lived and travelled extensively in this place and who has worked a lot with visitors from abroad, I would simply like to share some of the knowledge I have gathered throughout the years.
What follows should not be seen as a code of conduct to be followed strictly; it rather constitutes a set of suggestions and recommendations that may be helpful while travelling the country.

The bias towards Palestinian society in this article does also not suggest that the specific problems that women may encounter during their travel are more likely to happen in Palestinian areas. The focus rather rests on the assumption that most of the readers are of Western backgrounds and may therefore find it easier to understand and deal with the very Western influenced Israeli society, than with the Palestinian one.

While reading this article, please keep in mind that everything depends on where exactly you are travelling and with whom you are interacting, as both Palestinian and Israeli society are extremely heterogeneous.


Introduction

People like to categorise others. Apparently it makes life easier, this complex world we are living in a bit less confusing. Palestinians and Israelis are in no way different. The generic “German” for Israelis will always be associated with the Holocaust, and the British for the Palestinians will probably always be those who were ultimately responsible for the loss of their homeland.

Beyond history and politics, stereotypes of different nationalities are also frequently associated with sexuality and are usually intertwined with certain, obviously racist and sexist depictions of national or regional femininities: East Asian women are submissive, Latin American women are passionate, Northern European women are hypersexual and so on. Most travelling women have probably encountered those stereotypes and are unfortunately also likely to be confronted with them when travelling in Israel and Palestine. 
This obviously does not mean that each and every man they will bump into will have exactly those images in mind.


Some Recommendations

Clothing 

Sign outside the Orthodox neighbourhood Mea Shearim in Jerusalem
As with everything else in this post, the matter of clothing also depends where in the country you are travelling. In big secular cities within the Green Line, such as Tel Aviv or Haifa you can pretty much do as you please. The same is true for most parts of Jerusalem. If you plan to visit a holy site or an Orthodox neighbourhood, you should however make sure that your shoulders, knees and elbows are covered and that your clothing is not too tight. Wearing modest clothing is showing respect to the community you are visiting, and may also constitute a way to prevent assaults.1

The same goes for most parts of the West Bank. In bigger and relatively secular places that are very much exposed to foreign visitors, such as Bethlehem and Ramallah, it won't mind if your neckline is a little bit deeper, but I would generally also suggest to wear modest dress there.

Does that mean that you buy into “female oppression”, or betray the idea of female emancipation? No, to the contrary, from my experience, it is especially Palestinian women who appreciate foreign women for wearing more modest clothing similar to their own. By wearing modest clothing you show respect to Palestinian women and their culture, rather than to their male counterparts. Most likely, it will also facilitate you a much easier access to those women.

Interaction with Men

As already mentioned above, Palestinian men tend to think that especially Western looking women are more inclined to have extra-marital sex (which is still a taboo in more traditional societies), than Palestinian women, and if we are honest, they are probably right to think so. The important question is how they act upon this assumption and how we in turn can react in order to prevent misunderstandings.

Boundaries do vary, many are socio-cultural constructs, others are personal choices and we unfortunately cannot assume that other people always understand them right away. A Palestinian man may thus witness you crossing some of the boundaries that are very firmly established in Palestinian society, such as kissing an unrelated person of the other sex on her/his cheek to greet her/him. The same man may thus think that you are willing to cross further boundaries.

Consequently, if you are interacting with a man you hardly know, try and stick to the local code of conduct so that misinterpretations and misunderstandings can be prevented right away. Here's a small list of things, some of them more obvious than others, you should keep in mind when interacting with strangers: 

  • Try to avoid situations where you end up being the only woman amongst men, or where you are alone with one man that you hardly know.
  • Refrain from physical contact, even if it seems completely normal to you, such as patting a man's arm. Do also not allow a man to touch you, he would not do the same with an unrelated Palestinian woman.
  • Do not give your phone number to men you hardly know.
  • In public transportation try to sit next to women.
  • Avoid to walk alone in less populated areas during the night.

Having said all this, I would like to emphasise that both Israelis and Palestinians are extremely hospitable people and I certainly do not want you to suspect each and everyone you meet of ulterior motives and thereby to miss out on the people's warmth and openness. Especially in Palestinian society it is quite common to invite a stranger for coffee, if you happen to get into a situation and are being invited to a man's home, use your common sense, but you may also prevent any misunderstandings right away by simply asking if the man's wife, sister or mother will be present as well. In case he did have hopes of getting intimate with you, he now most likely understood that you have different intentions.

What to do in case of sexual harassment and/or assault?

Let me begin by stating that sexual harassment and assault are NEVER the victim's fault, no matter how you behaved, what you were wearing etc. and also Israeli and Palestinian culture consider it an intolerable act. As a consequence, one of the best immediate reactions is to raise attention to the situation you are in: yell. Here's a list of things you can shout in Arabic or Hebrew, but if you feel more comfortable to yell in your own language that will be fine as well:

Arabic:

la - no
khalas – enough
aib aleek – shame on you
ihtiraam halak – respect yourself
ana zey uhtak – I'm like your sister

Hebrew:

lo – no
dai - stop
tafseek – stop

In a public space, yelling at the perpetrator should be enough to scare him away or to have other people intervene. If you do find that it doesn't help, react as if you would in any other cultural context, and in addition to drawing attention to you, try and defend yourself physically.
In the case that you may be subjected to any form of sexual violence, do not hesitate and seek help, there are plenty of counselling centres in Palestine and Israel that offer psychological but also legal support. If the assault happened in a Palestinian area, you may want to contact the Women's Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling, if it took place in a Jewish Israeli area, you can contact the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel


Conclusion

Palestinian women enjoy the beach during Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan
Yes, sometimes it may be more risky and more tough to be a woman travelling alone, but there are actually also many advantages to it.
The separation between public and private, (which oftentimes is translated into the male versus the female sphere of society) in more traditional societies, be it Muslim, Jewish, or Christian or simply Middle Eastern or Mediterranean, is not as rigorous as old school anthropologist and reactionaries would like to make us believe.

With a few exceptions, a woman will have access to most places that men can access, but if you look closely enough, you will realise that as a woman you are able to get insights into society that remain inaccessible to men. So go on and look for those places, join the local women and visit a Hamaam on woman's day, or try and find out about a women's centre (pretty much every Palestinian village has one and they are abundant in the towns and cities). Do not be shy, get in touch and talk to them and you will figure out that while they may be relatively less visible in public, they do not live secluded lives at all.

So, whatever people will tell you, travelling solo as a woman is a lot of fun and there is not just treachery and danger waiting out for you beyond the borders of your neighbourhood. If you use your common sense and travel intelligently and responsibly, you most likely will be as safe as in your hood. In addition, I have always found it useful to show this attitude, to stand tall and to walk confidently.

Bonne voyage, ladies!

There is also another special article addressing general safety and risk concerns - at this link

1 I am not referring to gender-based assaults here. In Orthodox neighbourhoods such as Mea Shearim, residents feel offended if visitors are not following their rules and sometimes also attack them physically.

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1 comment:

  1. Hey really nice post, this is actually the kind of insight that travellers Swetha Jain to Istanbul need. But on none of my travel trips have I ever come across some raw info like this post.!

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