Solo female travel in Iraq: a guide for adventurous women

Yep, solo female travel in Iraq is possible! I was there for a month, and I survived (and, dare I say, thrived). Here’s my guide with everything you need to know to travel Iraq as a solo woman.

 

You’re going to travel to Iraq?! Alone?!

My latest travel plans were, unsurprisingly, slightly stressful for my family and friends.

Iraq does not evoke ideas of safety and security for most people. Decades of war and violence—caused largely in part by my home country, the United States—destabilized the country and made living both dangerous and difficult for residents and tourists alike.

… but.

These days, Iraq is on the mend, and the security situation has improved. So much that in 2021, the country introduced visas on arrival for citizens of 37 countries.

To some, solo female travel to Iraq may seem a laughable idea. And the idea of an American (gasp!) woman traveling solo was even more terrifying to others. But to me, it was the perfect time to give solo female travel in Iraq a go. Yes, I, American Alex, traveled solo in Iraq for one month on my motorcycle. No, I didn’t die. Yes, it was a blast. No, not that kind of blast.

The question now is… is solo female travel in Iraq safe? Clearly I lived, naturally I learned, and definitely I recommend it to some female travelers. Read on for everything you need to know about solo female travel in Iraq. With motorcycle or without.

Table of Contents: Solo female travel in Iraq

 

Note: This article refers to solo female travel in southern Iraq (Federal Iraq). Iraqi Kurdistan in the north is far more frequented by foreign tourists, and Kurdish culture is also distinct from the Arabic culture in the south. Iraqi Kurdistan is much easier to travel than southern Iraq, for solo female travelers and otherwise. If you’re considering solo female travel in Iraqi Kurdistan… go for it!

 

Solo female travel at the ancient city of Ur, Iraq

Spontaneous photoshoot at the ancient city of Ur, thanks to the local guard who insisted he take photos for me since I was alone.

Solo female travel in Iraq: what was it like?

Though Iraq is certainly doable for many female travelers, I won’t lie: solo female travelers are definitely unusual in Iraq.

Like many countries, being a solo woman has its pros and cons:

Pros of solo female travel in Iraq

The most obvious benefit to solo female travel in Iraq: many people went well out of their way to make sure I was safe and enjoying myself, more than they would for men. And that means quite a lot in a country as hospitable as Iraq!

The notion of a woman traveling alone in Iraq was so mind-boggling that they felt compelled to take care of me because how else would I survive?! (Rhetorical question. I survived.) This made it way easier to find people willing to host me, security officials were often extra helpful for my strange requests, such as camping outside tourist sites, and guesthouse staff often checked in on me and were extra vigilant about protecting my motorcycle overnight.

Another benefit of solo female travel in Iraq is that you’re more trustworthy to locals as a lone woman. Whereas men might be regarded with suspicion, I was more readily invited into homes where women and children were present, and on the rare occasion that I met women on the street, they were more comfortable coming up to speak with me. Something men would miss out on!

Based on stories I heard from solo male travelers, security officials also checked me much less rigorously than they did my male counterparts. They were usually so baffled that I was Alone With Motorcycle that they would just do a quick pass over my passport and then spend the rest of the time taking selfies and asking questions.

Iraqi host exploring the Saddam Hussein palace in Babylon

Exploring one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces with Ayman, a local host I met through Facebook

Cons of solo female travel in Iraq

Naturally, there are downsides to traveling alone as well. Iraq is a very patriarchal country; the streets are primarily a man’s world, and it can be uncomfortable being the only woman on the street. The streets didn’t feel quite as masculine as, say, Pakistan or Bangladesh, but in smaller cities and towns I was definitely one of few women on the street. In some cities, the majority of women wear black chador (long cloak) when outside, so I stood out even more as I only dressed modestly/covered my head.

The masculinity carried on into my social life in Iraq: the vast majority of my interactions were with Iraqi men. I did get to meet some local women, but I had to make a concerted effort to find women other than the shy wives/sisters/daughters of my male hosts. I didn’t have any serious issues with harassment in Iraq, aside from men being slightly too touchy and a good number of casual marriage proposals, but I know other female travelers who did experience more serious sexual assaults.Like any country in the world, we have to keep our guard up when interacting with men.

Useful read: Trust as a female traveler – my creep radar, explained

My intention is not to scare you; just keep these experiences in mind if you’re planning solo female travel to Iraq.

Solo female traveler in costume at a cultural center in Mosul, Iraq

Playing ruler for a day at a cultural center in Mosul. Do I pass?

Is solo female travel in Iraq safe?

In my opinion, I’d say solo female travel in Iraq is safe… but I would only recommend it to more experienced solo female travelers.

The reason I say this is because Iraq is a conservative Islamic country, and it can be overwhelming if you’re not comfortable with the culture or with navigating worlds of men. Some points to consider when deciding if you’re comfortable with solo female travel in Iraq:

  • There are a lot of security checkpoints in Iraq, and the officers are all men. You will be regularly scrutinized by groups of men, and you need to be polite even if they’re creepy; they have the power to stop you from traveling onward.
  • There is potential for unpleasant misunderstandings if you’re not culturally sensitive. In many places in Iraq, it’s not normal for women to travel around unattended or extensively interact with men they’re not related to. Acting or dressing in an inappropriate way (whether you realize it or not) could cause men to think you’re interested in them and they might make unwanted advances on you.
  • You will have to dress modestly in smaller towns in south Iraq. That means longer pants/skirts/dresses. In many mosques and shrines, you will be required to wear chador, a cloak covering your head and body, inside complexes. In the religious cities of Najaf and Karbala, it’s mandatory to wear a chador when in the city centers, too.
  • The vast majority of the people you interact with will be men, unless you can speak Arabic. English is not common in Iraq, especially outside of the big cities, and men are much more likely to be educated enough to speak English.
Solo female travelers in south Iraq

I ran into these female travelers from Kuwait and Iraq several times over the course of a few days. Iraq ain’t so big after all!

Is solo female travel in Iraq a good idea for me?

If you have experience traveling in patriarchal and/or Islamic countries, for example, Jordan or Egypt, Iraq will likely not be a huge culture shock. Iraq is more open and liberal than its neighbor, Saudi Arabia. Harassment will likely be less in Iraq than in more popular Middle Eastern countries; Iraqis are more excited to have foreign tourists in their country (for now) and will be more respectful as a result.

However, Iraq is less touristed and thus more logistically complicated to travel than countries like Jordan, so be prepared to work a bit harder to travel independently. I found it similar to Pakistan in terms of the need to manage checkpoints, lack of tourist information, and “flexibility” of rules—if you’re used to dealing with these sorts of things, especially as a solo female traveler, Iraq will be fine for you.

If anything I’ve mentioned so far makes you a bit nervous, don’t fret; it’s also possible to visit Iraq on a guided tour or with a local guide! There are plenty of organized trips available in the country; I recommend joining one of them if you’re not yet comfortable with the idea of solo female travel in Iraq.

Solo female traveler in abaya at the Grand Mosque of Kufa in Iraq

Rockin’ my abaya (from Saudi) at the Grand Mosque of Kufa, near Najaf.

Are there many solo female travelers in Iraq? How can I meet other solo female travelers in Iraq?

More and more travelers are visiting Iraq now, but most of them are men or couples. There are a handful of solo women traveling in Iraq, but they’re not the norm and are usually relatively well-traveled before coming to Iraq.

If you’re hoping to find other women to team up with in Iraq, don’t fret! Though we’re a rare breed, there are a good number of women venturing to Iraq these days, and many of them are happy to team up with fellow female travelers. I recommend posting about your trip in the Iraqi Travelers’ Café Facebook group to find other women, local or foreign, to meet during your trip.

Solo female travel in the Chibayish marshes of southern Iraq

Ridin’ solo in the Mesopotamian Marshes

Safety tips for solo female travel in Iraq

So you’ve decided to give solo female travel in Iraq a go? Heck yes!

What matters most is being flexible enough to go with whatever Iraq throws at you… but, of course, there are always some basics to keep in mind when on the road in Iraq. Here are a few safety tips I picked up during my month of solo female travel in Iraq:

  • Dress modestly. In Iraq, that means making sure knees and shoulders are covered. Avoid showing too much cleavage. I carried a scarf with me to cover my head if needed in more conservative areas or religious places.
  • Get a local SIM card just in case. I had a Zain SIM and it worked well all throughout Iraq. Download Google Translate and the offline version of Arabic, too; it’ll help you a lot in day to day interactions.
  • Ask locals if it’s safe for women to walk around at night. In some places it’s perfectly fine, in others not. Locals know best.
  • When in doubt, stick with local families or women. Women are always happy to help a sister out, even if there is a bit of a language barrier. If a man is offering to host you, make it a point to ask if he lives with his family. I personally wouldn’t stay with an unmarried man.
  • Keep the number of a local person who you can call if needed. Could be a helpful local traveler or guesthouse owner, for example. You might need to call someone at checkpoints if they don’t want to let you through, or are concerned about a woman traveling alone.
  • Don’t give out your personal information, ex. Whatsapp number or Facebook profile, to random men. They will ask; that doesn’t mean you have to give it to them. “I don’t want to” is the only justification you need. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if they bug you constantly once they have it.
  • You can try telling men that you’re married to keep them at bay… but make sure you have something to show to back up your story. I told people I was married sometimes, but unless I showed a picture of my “husband”, they often didn’t believe me or take me seriously. No need to have a ring, just keep photos ready.
  • Tell people you can trust where you’re going each day. Iraq is safer these days, but you never know when something might happen, and it’s good to make sure at least one person is keeping track of your whereabouts.
  • Sit behind the driver in taxis, not next to them (even if they ask you). Sitting directly behind them is safer; it means they can’t reach you easily.
Solo female traveler relaxing on a rooftop of carpets in Mosul, Iraq

Chilling out on a rooftop in Mosul

Things to know about solo female travel in Iraq

But if you’ve made it this far—well done, you—here are a few more things to keep in mind in regards to solo female travel in Iraq:

Women’s sections

In many places in Iraq, from shrines to restaurants, there will be separate sections for men and women/families. No one will stop you if you’re really determined to sit in the men’s section (it’s often more open with better views) but typically, the women or family section will be in the back or behind privacy walls/curtains.

Where to sit

As in other Islamic countries, typically women sit next to other women or men they’re related to on public transport and in public places. If you’re getting into, say, a shared taxi, make it a point to try to sit next to other women. People will usually rearrange to make this possible.

Finding toilets

Finding a private place to pee can be a bit complicated in Iraq at times; infrastructure is limited in places. However, mosques are always a good bet if you’re looking for a toilet—look for the women’s section of the mosque.

Sharing hotel rooms in Iraq

Hotels in Iraq can be expensive; it makes sense that you might want to split rooms with other travelers while in Iraq!

Sharing rooms with other women, local or foreign, isn’t a problem. However, you can’t share hotel rooms with Iraqi men unless you can prove that you’re married. Sharing hotel rooms with foreign male tourists is usually okay; it might be an issue in Najaf or Karbala.

Travelers exploring ruins of Mosul, Iraq

Exploring the ruins of Mosul’s old city with Mohammed, a traveler I met through Facebook

Useful resources for solo female travel in Iraq

Traveling to Iraq soon? These will all come in handy for your solo female travel in Iraq:

  • Careem: Ride sharing app (like Uber) that is commonly used in Iraqi cities.
  • Google Translate: Essential for day-to-day interactions if you don’t speak Arabic; English isn’t commonly spoken in Iraq.
  • Couchsurfing: Useful platform for finding local hosts and meeting local people in new places. Make sure to check men’s references thoroughly (if they have references from solo women, that’s a good sign!) and prioritize men who live with their families if you’re worried about safety.
  • Whatsapp: The most commonly used messaging app in Iraq.
  • Snapchat and Instagram: The most popular social media platforms in Iraq; people will definitely ask you for yours!
  • Iraqi Travelers Café: The best Facebook group for travel in Iraq; you can find answers to almost any question there, and it’s a great place to find other travelers to meet up with.
Solo female traveler on a motorcycle in Ur, Iraq

Trying to look adventurous at the ziggurat in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur

Solo female motorcycle travel in Iraq

Aha, the fun part! (In my opinion, anyway.)

Putting this at the end because most female travelers aren’t on motorcycles, so this only applies to a select few. You can read my motorcycle guide to Iraq for more practical details.

To put it bluntly: female bikers in Iraq are not a thing. In Iraq, women do not ride motorcycles. I asked everyone everywhere, and learned of only one female biker in the country (and she’s based in liberal Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan in the north).

To say people were shocked to see me on bike is an understatement; I had many excellent interactions where people’s mouths were literally hanging open in amazement when I removed my helmet. Foreign bikers are already a spectacle in the country; I was like a one-woman circus everywhere I went in southern Iraq.

In my experience, however, this turned out to be a positive experience. Checkpoint officials were so amazed to see me that they never checked me particularly thoroughly. Police officers were much more attentive to my motorcycle’s safety; one officer in Nasiriyah personally watched my bike on the street all night for me. People showered me with gifts, tea, food, and everything in between. Strangers paid for my petrol without saying a word. I was invited to stay in countless homes by people I met at petrol stations.

The endless selfies got a bit annoying on occasion, but in those moments, I just breathed and reminded myself that I needed to be patient; how often do locals meet women on motorcycles?

I thoroughly enjoyed solo biking through Iraq, and if you’re a steely solo woman looking for an unusual and off-the-beaten-track biking destination, Iraq is definitely worth a bit of wandering.

Alex Reynolds profile picture

Alex Reynolds

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

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One thought on “Solo female travel in Iraq: a guide for adventurous women

    Stacy says:

    WOW. Thank you so much for sharing all of this! I’m SOLD! I’ve traveled pretty extensively in the Middle East, but this will be my first long solo trip there, and the one concern I have is….is it going to be crazy expensive for me to travel alone here for 2.5 weeks?

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