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Intrepid’s new Women’s Expeditions reveal sides of daily life that tourists don’t usually see in Iran, Jordan, and Morocco.

Women travelers to the Middle East quickly become familiar with gender separation in certain elements of the culture—from hammam baths to mosques to transportation. The experience for female tourists can feel restrictive and make them wonder if they’re missing out on something the men get to do. But while Westerners often prefer to travel in mixed-gender groups, there’s a benefit for women traveling through this part of the world with only other women: the opportunity to see a part of the culture rarely visible to most.

Intrepid Travel has developed a new line of women-only expeditions in Morocco, Iran, and Jordan that are breaking the barriers of traditional tourism in these destinations. Guided by female tour leaders—of which there are few in the region—these Women’s Expeditions not only encourage female empowerment, but also showcase the customs and lives of local women, offering a deeper understanding of women’s culture in each Middle Eastern nation.

“These trips will help women travelers understand local traditions and the routine of local women in countries where it can be challenging to be a woman,” says Zina Bencheikh, general manager of Marrakech Peak DMC, the Intrepid Group’s operator in Europe and Morocco.

The Women’s Expedition in Morocco reveals the ins and outs of life for Berber women.
Bencheikh began the discussion about the possibility of these trips a year ago, when fewer than 4 percent of guides in Morocco were women. “Women in these areas have very restricted rights due to cultural pressure and access to education impacting their ability to work and be financially independent. The women mountain guides are often from [these] communities and are either seen as heroes by some locals, or doing what others consider a ‘man’s job.’”

In seeking more acceptance for women in guide positions, Bencheikh realized that restricting trips to only women led by a female guide would create a unique connection between women travelers and the local communities. “The Moroccan program is operated in rural Morocco, specifically in the Atlas Mountains, which is very remote and mostly a Berber-speaking region,” she says. “I realized the Intrepid Group couldn’t develop the women-only trips with male involvement [guides] as the local hosts wouldn’t open their doors if males were present. These are very conservative areas.”

On the Morocco Women’s Expedition, travelers visit the city of Marrakech, break bread with Berber families in their private homes, experience a traditional hammam with local women, see how an artist co-op is empowering female rug weavers in small villages, and witness the beauty of the remote Mgoun Valley.

Travelers learn the secrets of Persian cooking on the Iran Women’s Expedition.
Similarly, in Iran, because women and men are still separated in some aspects of daily life, female-only tours are a necessity for those who want to experience every detail of the daily life of an Iranian woman. “[On these trips] local women in Iran are able to share their everyday life and culture with visitors, which is not something that has regularly been available to tourists who travel in mixed-gender groups visiting the country,” says Nadia Badiee, Intrepid Travel’s local leader in Iran. “These tours [also] allow [local] women to spend time with strong females from around the world, connecting with each other on a real level and learning more about each other through authentic experiences.”

On the Iran Women’s Expedition, travelers step inside the hidden world of an Iranian beauty salon, wander through a female-only park, take a yoga class with local women, and travel by public transport in the women’s carriage of the metro. They’ll also immerse themselves in the rural nomadic life of the Qashqai people with a female-hosted homestay, meet young women entrepreneurs who have started their own Persian cooking class and food tours, and cook and learn recipes that generations of Iranian women have kept well-guarded.

Jordan, increasingly popular with travelers, has a wealth of experiences beyond popular Petra. The Jordan Women’s Expedition itinerary includes overnighting in Wadi Rum with a lesson in the ancient art of henna from traditional Bedouin ladies; discovering how kohl has been used, not just as a beauty product, but also to protect eyes from the harsh desert sands; enjoying an afternoon at a women’s-only beach at the Dead Sea; learning the art of Arabic cooking in a local home; and spending time with a female shepherd.

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According to Bencheikh, the importance of cross-cultural exchange is not to be underestimated: “Local women that take part in these trips also learn from their Western visitors. It opens their world to see well-educated, self-independent women, married or not, with or without kids, like them but totally different. I believe it will also give them another perspective of what a woman can achieve if she is empowered and has access to education.

“Hopefully, it will also open their children to possibilities they never had before,” says Bencheikh, referencing the fact that income from these trips remains with the guides and local female hosts.

While Intrepid Travel is commited to women’s equality and female empowerment even beyond the new line of Women’s Expeditions (the company aims to double its number of female tour leaders globally by 2020), at an industry level, progress is slow for female guides in these regions. Nevertheless, both Bencheikh and Badiee are hopeful. “In the past five years, there’s been an increase in women getting involved in the tourism industry in Iran,” says Badiee. “I’m optimistic that in the future, even more women will become involved, definitely in part thanks to these women-only tours.”

Intrepid Travel Women’s Expeditions are currently being offered for 2018 and 2019 departure dates. Sorry, no men allowed.

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