A guide to solo female travel in Iraq

Want to travel with Against the Compass to Federal Iraq?
Then join our upcoming EXPEDITION
When? November 12th to 20th
CLICK HERE FOR ALL DETAILS

As an American millennial woman, my visions of Federal Iraq were filled with destruction and barren wasteland deserts.

The violent scenes that filled the TV screens for much of my childhood. Aside from the snow-capped mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, a nearly separate nation in the country’s far north, I figured I probably would not get the opportunity to see Iraq in my lifetime.

But low and behold, in 2021, Federal Iraq opened its borders to tourists from the US, Canada, and most of Europe. So I went.

Traveling in Iraq as a woman isn’t easy. Heck, traveling Federal Iraq in general, isn’t easy. But with a little guidance, it’s perfectly possible. That does not mean Federal Iraq is a good destination for everyone.

Iraq is still raw. A country without a solid backbone of tourist infrastructure to lean on. You’ll have to be a little adventurous and a lot flexible to enjoy the experiences offered. A willingness to “rough it” is preferred.

This guide is based on my first-hand experiences visiting Federal Iraq. It’s meant to help prepare solo female travelers and men too.

I can’t tell you the number of times I was given very poor, but well-meaning advice, by male travelers who had spent a significant amount of time in Iraq. They don’t often notice the norms a woman has to follow. This guide can also help foreign men understand how to better interact with local women.

I loved Iraq. The mosques, ancient history, and adventure are unmatched. But rose-colored glasses help no one. All advice below is simply my honest opinion of solo female travel in Federal Iraq.

This is a guest post written by Geena Truman, A full-time traveler, blogger, and freelance writer with a passion for adventure travel. She loves visiting misunderstood destinations and uncovering hidden gems in well-traveled places. Whether it’s trekking to see exotic wildlife, searching out the best street food in Asia, or traveling the US in her DIY converted 1994 campervan, she’s always searching for new adventures. You can follow her journey on Instagram.  

In this solo female travel guide to Iraq you will find:

Is previous travel experience required?
Is it Safe For Women?
What it’s Like Traveling in Iraq as a Woman
Safety + Cultural Tips for Women in Iraq
What to Wear
Getting Around Iraq as a Woman
Best + Worst Areas for Solo Travel
Pros + Cons of Being a Solo Female
Resources for Solo Female Travelers
More information

Is previous travel experience required?

100%.

Unless you are joining a fully-guided tour, you need extensive independent travel experience. Specifically, in the Middle East.

This is not a beginner-level destination. English is not widely spoken and some regions are not safe for travelers of any kind. Women do not typically travel alone here.

I cannot in good faith, recommend that all solo females are ready to visit Iraq.

Having been to Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt previously, I felt confident in my knowledge of devoutly religious customs, but still, I struggled. The rules and norms for women are not as simple as throwing on a headscarf like elsewhere in the region.

To travel semi-comfortably in Federal Iraq as a solo woman, I would recommend these prerequisites…

  • You have traveled solo many times before.
  • You have visited at least one of the Arab nations alone. (Not just Turkey.)
  • You are adequate at problem-solving when plans go awry.
  • Guns must not make you uncomfortable. 
  • You must be willing to be the only woman in the room.
  • Comfortable or willing to accept that you will almost always be the center of attention no matter where you go.
  • You are willing to set your western ideals aside and follow customs.
  • You must be thick-skinned and able to take some harsh criticism.

This list is by no means meant to scare you away from booking a trip to Iraq. If any of these situations are deal breakers for you, Iraq is probably not a destination that you will enjoy alone.

female travel in Iraq
Geena somewhere in the Marshes

Is it Safe For Women?

I’m a firm believer that anywhere women exist in the world, it’s generally safe enough for women to travel.

At no point did I feel like I was at risk of bodily harm. Pickpocketing and outright mugging are virtually non-existent in this part of the world. I did feel like a spotlight was on me at all times. And if I had diverged from the proper-clothing choices or customs, I feel like it could have provoked a potentially dangerous response.

This is why it is so important to follow the dress code I layout below.

I think in most instances, countries become dangerous for women when we do not follow the cultural norms.

That being said, Iraq is not considered a “safe” country. ISIS, may or may not, still exist in the far-reaching corners of the desert. But you won’t be traveling in these areas. You’ll be in the cities. Surrounded by tourist attractions and bustling local life.

Here foreign women are allowed much of the same leisure as men

Local women stay home. Tourist women, can mingle in the tea shops and push through crowded street markets.

The more Iraqi men are exposed to foreign women, the better this will get.

For now, when we are a new and exciting spectacle, we get treated with more kindness and acceptance than local women do.

What it’s Like Traveling in Iraq as a Woman

Read: Syria travel guide

I found that in major cities like Baghdad and Mosul, I was warmly welcomed.

Locals seemed to be more accustomed to tourists and therefore, more willing to strike up a conversation and treat you a little less like a pariah. You’ll probably take a million selfies with Iraqis of all ages.

As I ventured further south, however, the reception was less warm.

Draped in a headscarf and wearing lots of long-sleeved billowing dresses, despite the suffocating heat, you will almost always be the only woman on the street. You might find yourself eating in a separate section of the restaurant from the men. You may not be permitted to enter certain mosques.

It’s not typical for women to explore on their own. You’ll often be told by locals that a certain street isn’t safe, you shouldn’t be out after dark, or even the city you’re in isn’t safe for women.

Overall, I found this to be an exaggeration. Iraqis are still re-adjusting to this period of safety and stability inside their borders. If you stick to the “popular” tourist destinations, you’ll be fine.

The Mesopotamian Marshes

Safety + Cultural Tips for Women in Iraq

Whether we like it or not, traveling as a woman in the Arab world comes with a completely different set of rules. Dictating everything from dress code to your intersex greetings.

Solo female travelers are a fiercely independent bunch. We aren’t accustomed to the submissive role women are required to play in many societies, but as respectful and conscientious travelers, we must conform to cultural norms as much as humanly possible.

Let’s start with some general tips for women traveling in Iraq.

1. Research the current places you are allowed to visit in the country.

Iraq is in a constant state of fluctuation. Just a few months before my trip, foreign visitors weren’t allowed anywhere near Samarra.

Then, suddenly, rules changed, and we could visit freely. Iraq changes every day. Stay up to date on where you are allowed to go and when.

2. Don’t visit during Eid or Ramadan.

It might seem like a great, immersive travel experience, but the reality is a letdown.

I stayed through both and found the added difficulty of finding food when the entire world around you was fasting a frustrating daily hurdle.

Also, Eid celebrations can get out of control. The small town I was in on the final day of Eid erupted in celebratory machine-gun fire that lasted all evening. I wasn’t worried I would be intentionally shot, but those bullets aimed skyward have to come down somewhere.

Eid is also oddly enough, the time when female travelers experience the most sexual harassment on the streets. I didn’t witness this firsthand (in Iraq), but several other people I met did.

3. Never leave your hotel without your passport.

This applies to all travelers. Federal Iraq is filled with military and police checkpoints. You’ll probably be stopped 2-3 times a day minimum and asked to present your passport. It’s just to check that you entered the country legally, nothing to worry about.

4. Trust your instincts always.

This is the #1 rule for all solo female travel, and Iraq is no different.

You should be wary of giving out your social media or WhatsApp info to everyone you meet. I still get middle-of-the-night phone calls from persistent Iraqi men with promiscuous intentions.

5. But do take advantage of the famous Iraqi hospitality.

You’ll likely be invited to at least one dinner at someone’s home, invited to tea, or offered a free place to sleep. Couchsurfing is extremely popular in this region of the world. If you get a good feeling from someone, don’t be afraid to take them up on the offer.

6. If you are being harassed, don’t be afraid to make a scene.

People around you will come to your aid. Confrontation among men is common enough to see in Iraq and is typically how social problems are handled. The man will probably be surprised to be told off by a woman but also far less likely to do it again in the future.

7. You will be asked thousands of times where your husband and/or children are.

When it comes to the existence of a husband, I found it easier to lie.

An unmarried woman traveling alone would be too much for many Iraqi men to comprehend.

Saying you have a husband back at the hotel (or at home) also helps keep you safe. Women in Iraq have kids early. If you’re childless, by the time you leave the country, you’ll have countless people praying for your fertility.

8. Download these essential apps to keep you safe.

I highly recommend getting a SIM card when you land at the Baghdad airport.

  • Careem. This is the Iraq Uber. The cheapest (and safest) transportation option in all major cities.
  • Maps.Me. This is my go-to offline map. Be sure to download the Iraq map ahead of time.
  • ArabiCalc. This makes haggling a breeze. Arabic numbers are different than English.
  • Google Translate. This makes life easier. You can download Arabic so that it works offline as well.

9. Always grab your hotel’s business card before you leave.

I can’t tell you how many times the taxi had to physically call my hotel for directions. Even when you have GPS.

10. Always assume you can’t touch the opposite sex.

Breaking the habit of hugs and handshakes is difficult for some visitors. But in Iraq, a simple nod of acknowledgment and smile is the typical greeting between men and women. I think the safest bet is to always let the locals go first. If they offer a hand, feel free to shake it. Brush up on local customs before you go.

Geena from Beyond the Bucket list

What to Wear

Dress code is, unfortunately, a huge part of traveling in Iraq as a woman. None of this is mandated within the country of course, but you’ll feel more comfortable. Make sure you come prepared with (or prepared to buy) these items.

Headscarf or Abaya

The abaya is the typical garb for Iraqi women, and you should use it in the most conservative destinations. Karbala and Najaf are holy cities.

During Muslim holidays, you’re required to wear an abaya to enter those city borders. Otherwise, you’ll just need it to enter the shrines and mosques themselves. In all other circumstances, a simply wrapped headscarf is more than enough.

In fact, in large cities like Baghdad and Mosul, you don’t even need to wear a headscarf if you don’t want to.

Long dresses/skirts instead of pants.

Flowy long pants are acceptable. Dresses with shoulders covered and long skirts are better. I would stay far away from jeans or leggings.

T-Shirts, Long Sleeves, 3/4 Sleeves.

Depending on the time of year, Iraq is hot. Really hot, not to mention dusty. But you still need to dress modestly.

Mosque + Holy City Etiquette

You are going to visit loads of holy sites while in Iraq. These were some of the most beautiful man-made structures I’ve ever seen in my life.

Obviously, you need to have your hair covered. A headscarf is the absolute bare minimum. You should also wear long skirts and long sleeves, preferably with socks, but that is excusable at most mosques.

A woman’s presence in any mosque should be quiet and reserved. It’s also frowned upon (and in many places prohibited), for non-muslim foreigners to visit a mosque during one of the 5 daily prayers. It should be a private moment for worshippers uninterrupted by tourists.

Mosques and shrines inside the holy cities have even stricter rules. Men and women are required to go through separate entrances where they will be inspected before admittance. Women must wear a full abaya carefully tucked so not a stray strand of hair shows.

You must also wear socks. No nail polish, not a swipe of make-up (including chapstick), no camera, no phone banks, and no make-up in your purse. After checking your shoes in, you’ll follow the crowd of women to the inspection site, where you’ll be patted down by black abaya-clad volunteers who ensure you’re up to the mosque entry standards.

During holidays, the holy shrines are separated for men and women.

Geena from Beyond the Bucket List

Getting Around Iraq as a Woman

Cities in Iraq aren’t set up for walking and, if safety is a concern, I highly recommend utilizing the app Careem I mentioned above.

Between cities, you have several options. Public minibus, shared taxi, or private taxi.

Considering you can get anywhere in Iraq in about 6-7 hours maximum, all are relatively affordable. The minibusses are the most budget-friendly.

Is public transport safe for women in Iraq?

Uneqivacably yes. It’s probably the place I was most able to socialize with Iraqi women.

What’s with all the security checkpoints?

As I’m sure you’ll notice rather quickly, Iraq is packed with military and police checkpoints.

Expect them about every hour down the highway, sometimes more. Although guns can be rather intimidating, just know that the presence of this security makes Iraq safer. As a foreign woman, you’ll almost always stand out.

This means you’ll be asked to get out, present your passport, and tell them where you are going and why. You should have the name of a hotel in mind even if you haven’t yet booked it because they get perplexed at the “winging it” travel style.

Best + Worst Areas for Solo Travel in Iraq

Want to travel with Against the Compass to Federal Iraq?
Then join our upcoming EXPEDITION
When? November 12th to 20th
CLICK HERE FOR ALL DETAILS

Let’s look at the cities I recommend visiting as a solo female traveler in Federal Iraq.

  • Baghdad
  • Samarra
  • Mosul
  • Karbala
  • Babylon
  • Najaf
  • Nasiriyah (Iraqi Marshes)

The absolute easiest and best places to visit in the country solo are Baghdad, Babylon, and Mosul.

In Babylon, when I reached the security checkpoint at the entrance, the police called the on-site minister of cultural tourism who then proceeded to give me a completely free private tour of the grounds.

I got the impression this kind of reception is commonplace for solo female visitors. At least for now, while tourism is low.

The most difficult places to visit alone are Karbala and Najaf because they have the most sacred religious sites and therefore, the most rules for women. They also have the most devout inhabitants. The moment my abaya slipped, revealing even a sliver of hair, I was promptly reminded to cover up.

Nasiriyah is also difficult to travel solo because Southern Iraq seems to be much less hospitable to foreign visitors. But because the famous Mesopotamian Marshes are in this region, it’s a must-see. If you have any interest in staying overnight in the marshes, you’ll need to book with a tour operator anyways.

Pros + Cons of Being a Solo Female in Federal Iraq

Pros

  1. You can spend time with the women in the kitchen. This is a slice of Iraqi life you wouldn’t be able to experience as a man.
  2. You also get to exist as a man. Foreign women are allowed to do things like hang out in male-dominated tea shops, smoke, drink, and all other things that local women don’t get to do.
  3. You’re a novelty and a favorite to take photos with.
  4. You get a lot more help than solo men. Locals are quick to come to the aid of the damsel in distress if you look lost or confused.

Cons

  1. There are times you must wear an abaya. While I don’t mind a headscarf, I find the full outfit both oppressive and distracting. I hate focusing on not stepping on my gown and making sure not a slit of hair comes loose instead of the beautiful scenery around me.
  2. You’re a novelty and a favorite to take photos with. Sometimes this is just too much. At the book market in Baghdad, I got swarmed by young men all wanting selfies. Overstimulation. And sometimes, they don’t have the most innocent of intentions.
  3. All eyes are on you all the time. Whether they looked at you in disgust or curiosity, it became exhausting to simply be outside.

Read: A Guide to traveling in Iraq

Somewhere in Iraq

Resources for Solo Female Travelers in Iraq

The good news is there are lots of people to help you navigate your way through the country.

Me, for example. I’m more than happy to plan your trip for the Iraqi Kurdistan Road Trip and give helpful advice along the way. Come say hi at Beyond the Bucketlist.

Iraqi Traveller’s Cafe

This Facebook group is the best resource for real-time information about travel in Iraq. It’s made up of both fellow travelers and locals. You’ll probably grab tea with at least one member.

Join an Against the Compass Expedition.

Federal Iraq is one of the destinations Joan arranges group tours for.

And if you’re here right now, I can assume you enjoy his adventurous style.

Check out his upcoming group Federal Iraq EXPEDITION on November 12th-20th.

If you’ve gotten this far and are still excited about the prospect of a solo trip to Iraq, then this is the trip for you. I can’t in good conscience tell everyone that they are ready for a destination as difficult as Iraq. But I can say that I think even an underprepared traveler will leave the country no worse for wear. The people are kind and courteous. Not dangerous. Most days locals went out of their way to help me feel welcome. Iraq changed me. I left the country with a renewed thirst for adventure and a better understanding of the Arab world. I can only hope that you’ll experience the same.

More information for solo female travel in Iraq

Female Travel Related Guides

More travel guides to neighboring countries:


Joan Torres

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