What to Wear in a Muslim Country
Having spent some time this year in Morocco, Turkey and Egypt, I have been asked several times about what women should wear when visiting a Muslim country. These Islamic countries have a range of cities, some more secular than others. However, overall, the Islamic dress code for females is quite conservative. While tourists are not required to wear a hijab (head covering) while out in public, conservative dress is expected. Muslim attire for females often means from the neck to the feet are completely covered. So, what should you pack to wear in a Muslim country?
There are more than 1.8B Muslims in the world today from Indonesia to Algeria and Morocco to Bangladesh. When traveling to these countries, it is important to be mindful of your attire and respect the local culture. While most allow tourists freedom to move, if you don’t adhere to the local customs, you will STAND OUT. As a female this brings unwanted attention and can draw you into risky situations.
Having been to the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East, I have also seen very conservative societies. Dubai, while full of wealth, is a very conservative Muslim city, with many women wearing full burka – only designer sunglasses and shoes allude to the vast capitalist market. Other Islamic countries, like Turkey or Bangladesh, are considered secular, but still remain more reserved in their attire than American cities.
What does that mean for you? As you plan your wardrobe, I recommend these four basic elements:
1. Head Scarf
You should always keep a head scarf with you. While not required to wear in all public places, many women find it easier to wear to avoid unwanted eyes in Muslim countries. Females are required to use a head scarf when entering mosque or other religious buildings, so always be prepared. Please note: a bandana is not enough, as a women’s entire head, including hair and shoulders must be covered. Choose a lightweight scarf that can wrap completely around your head, leaving only your face exposed.
2. Long pants, flowy skirts and loose-fitting pants
I love these Old Navy joggers. They come in multiple colors and are quick drying, making them perfect for sweaty days and quick sink washes as you travel. You can also opt for a maxi dress. Just remember that covering your ankles is important, so if your dress or socks don’t do it, you will likely need to wear pants under your dress. I generally veer toward loose pants instead of maxis because… hello sweaty legs and chafing!
3. Long sleeve tunic or coat
At the very minimum, tops must cover your shoulders and upper arms. A long sleeve safari shirt is perfect for travel days and can easily be layered with tanks and jackets to transition in various settings. When you are in tourist spots, you can roll up the sleeves to cool off and pull them down easily for entering mosque or sacred buildings. These from Amazon also offer some UV protection. I can’t find the original ones I purchased from Banana Republic as the safari fashion that was “so trendy” in 2020 has gone.
4. Hiking Boots
While these are not a necessity for traveling in Muslim countries, I just love the lightweight factor of these boots. The Palladium Pampa Travel Lite have great grip and aren’t too thick, which means your feet stay cooler in the heat. They also make a waterproof version of this boot now. A good hiking shoe keeps your feet dust-free and stable in countries with cobblestone streets. They also fold over meaning less space in the suitcase!
Tips for Men:
In Islamic countries, men’s dress code is not as strict as females. Generally speaking, short sleeve shirts are allowed, as long as the upper arm and shoulders are completely covered. However, no shorts are allowed in mosques or religious buildings. As such, I strongly suggest men to only wear long pants when traveling in Muslim countries. You won’t see any local men wearing shorts, even in the height of the summer heat. Loose hiking pants, such as these from REI or Amazon allow for maximum breathability. When acceptable (in your hotel or by the water), the convertible pants can be made shorts. Just remember, only shorts in specific environments (i.e., on a Nile cruise with only tourists or by your hotel’s poolside).
Muslim Vocabulary for Female Attire
While it is not necessary for tourists to wear traditional garments, I think it’s helpful to understand the different elements in Islamic clothing for women. Females generally wear the following:
Burka or Chador – a long loose robe that covers the body from head to toe. It is often combined with a veil worn across the face with just a slit for the eyes. Unlike abaya, the chador is usually not fastened in the front. A burka is usually a full covering, with no slit for eyes (often worn in Iran).
Abaya – a burka should not be confused with an abaya, which is a cloak also worn from the top of the head to the toes. It goes over a tunic and is usually fastened. It can be combined with a headscarf (hijab)
Kamiz – a pair of loose trousers and a tunic
Hijab – a scarf or veil that covers the head and sometimes chest; can also be called a shaylah or tarhah depending on the country.
Hope this helps answer the questions of what to wear when traveling to a Muslim country! Islamic culture is definitely more conservative then secular American, so always err on the side of modesty when dressing for the day. Low-cut tops or short dresses will always gather wandering eyes and impact your experience in the country. Modesty is the key!