Women travelers to various parts of 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.
In 2018, Intrepid Travel developed a new line of women-only expeditions in Morocco, Iran, and Jordan that broke 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. Now, the adventure company is expanding these hugely successful expeditions to other parts of the world.
“These trips 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.
“Women in certain areas have very restricted rights due to cultural pressure and access to education impacting their ability to work and be financially independent,” Bencheikh says. (In 2017, fewer than 4 percent of tour guides in Morocco were women.) “Female guides from [these] communities are either seen as heroes by some locals, or doing what others consider a ‘man’s job.’”
Bencheikh realized that in Morocco’s rural (and largely conservative) areas, organizing women-only groups led by female guides could facilitate unique and powerful connections between travelers and the local communities.
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. Many of these experiences occur in private spaces that would be impossible for travelers to Morocco to access in mixed-gender groups.
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 interact with Iranian women in particular settings. “[On these trips] 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 allow local women to spend time with strong females from around the world, connecting with and learning more about each other on a real level.”
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 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.
And in Jordan, a Middle Eastern destination that’s growing increasingly popular with travelers, there are a wealth of cultural experiences to be had 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.
More female-only trips on the horizon
Intrepid Travel continues to be committed to gender equality and female empowerment: The company is on track to double its number of female tour leaders globally by 2020, and this March, in honor of International Women’s Day, the company expanded its range of Women’s Expeditions to include new tours in Kenya, Nepal, India, and Turkey.
On Kenya Women’s Expedition, travelers will be led across the northern part of the country by East Africa’s first female overland truck driver. Itinerary highlights include talks with some of Kenya’s female wildlife rangers to learn about the challenges they face in a male-dominated industry, plus a visit to a women-only village founded as a sanctuary for survivors of sexual violence and forced marriage. (October 12-21, 2019)
An all-female mountaineering crew leads a five-day trek in the Himalayas as part of the Nepal Women’s Expedition, which also includes a visit to an NGO working to abolish chhaupadi (a common social practice that discriminates against women in menstruation), a homestay at a female-run village near Chitwan National Park, and the chance to take part in the Hartalika Teej Festival, a three-day women-only Hindu celebration. (August 10-22, 2020)
The India Women’s Expedition takes groups to a female-only arts and crafts festival in Rajasthan, on a tour of Jaipur with a nonprofit that trains local women to be financially independent rickshaw drivers, and to a café run solely by female acid attack survivors who’ll share their stories of perseverance and strength. (March 20-31, 2020)
And on the Turkey Women’s Expedition, travelers will spend an afternoon with female refugees from Syria at an earring-making workshop, enjoy a traditional meal in a Cappadocian cave prepared by a woman at the forefront of the area’s local tourism, and spend the day at sea with a female skipper before visiting a sunken city off of Turkey’s coast. (September 8-19 and October 6-17, 2019)
According to Intrepid Travel’s global product manager Jenny Gray, the new tours follow an “incredible response” to the launch of the adventure company’s first three Women’s Expeditions in 2018. (The trips are among the most popular in Intrepid’s 30-year history.)
The importance of this cross-cultural exchange is not to be underestimated: “Local women that take part in these trips also learn from their Western visitors,” Bencheikh says. “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 give them another perspective of what a woman can achieve if she is empowered and has access to education.”
She adds, “Hopefully, it will also open their children to possibilities they never had before,” referencing the fact that income from these trips remains with the guides and local female hosts.
“This year, we’ve discovered even more extraordinary stories of female empowerment,” Gray says. “The #MeToo era is making its mark on travel—our female travelers want to hear the stories and struggles of women around the globe. These remarkable expeditions give travelers [that] chance.”
For more information about these expeditions and to learn how transgender and nonbinary travelers can be accommodated, contact Intrepid Travel’s bookings team.
This article originally appeared online in September 2018; it was updated on March 7, 2019, to include current information.
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