By LC Hunter
12 July 2016 – Over the last few years, Doha has made monumental efforts to cement its place on the world stage.
The capital of Qatar – the world’s richest country – is expanding at an unbelievable rate, giving the city an ever-changing skyline. With the rights secured for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and a long list of other cultural and sporting events in the pipeline, tourism is set to boom.
A few years ago I spent several months living and working in Doha. I’d never been to the Middle East before and wasn’t sure what to expect. It didn’t take long to understand how best to navigate the city and how to look after myself, as a woman.
First, a bit of background. Qatar has a clearly defined social hierarchy. As a Western woman, you can expect to settle somewhere towards the middle of this hierarchy.
People of Arab descent are given the greatest respect and privileges, followed by Western men living as ex-pats in the country, and then women of the same background.
Many Filipinos populate service industries and work in hotels, beauty parlors, and shops around town while labor is made up of South Asian migrant workers who live outside town and are bused in daily to help glue the city together.
Between 11 am-2 pm it is too hot to work. With nowhere to go, they nap wherever they can find shade, mostly under trees lining the roads in the city center.
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Women’s safety in Doha
I can’t think of a single moment in which I felt my safety compromised in Doha.
I did have a few flares of temper as a result of comments or treatment due to my gender – being told to cover up, for example, or being criticized for entering a hotel club without wearing high heels. These kinds of contradictions make me see red. That said, I never felt being a woman put me directly in harm’s way, though in truth I did take extra precautions, just in case.
After all, Qatar is the country in which a 22-year-old Dutch woman was drugged and raped and then arrested on a charge of adultery. I’d heard rumors of a girl at my workplace being thrown into jail overnight for kissing a boy on the lips outside a club. Worse, another girl was incarcerated with her just for being present.
The Qataris have their own views about relationships with the opposite sex and as is often the case in this region, a man’s version of events will always override a woman’s.
But worries about safety? No.
To drink or not to drink in Doha?
While you may not be able to stroll out for a glass of red in the evening, Doha is not what you would consider a dry city.
Residents are given what is effectively a “license to drink” – a card that permits them to buy alcohol and pork from one of only two stores in the city. The week before Ramadan lines is of epic proportions, as shops and hotel bars close up for the entire month.
Travelers without a special license can always head to one of the many (exorbitantly priced) hotel bars for a drink.
Despite the availability, I decided my three months in the country would be a fitting time to detox from alcohol. So aside from a single hotel party, I didn’t drink. This was good for my health, helped me keep my wits about me, and saved me money.
Getting around Doha
Although the city is quite walkable during the winter months, summer is a different story.
Many ex-pats rent cars, but I was too chicken to do so. The Qataris are ferocious on the road so I thought it best to leave the driving to the experts.
Taxis in Doha are a perfectly acceptable form of transportation. I flagged many down on my own and never felt unsafe. Be wary, as many of them don’t run their meters, so they can charge whatever they fancy at the end of the trip.
Ask drivers straight away if they’ll turn on the meter. If they refuse, let them drive off. Another taxi will appear – the city is full of them.
Doha’s main hub is easy to walk and a free bus does circuits around the city center. That said, I didn’t walk home at night alone and was always accompanied by a male colleague. I might have been fine on my own but preferred to play it safe. (If you don’t feel like walking around or trying public transportation, there are plenty of day-tours in Doha that’ll keep you cool in the summer heat.)
How to dress in Doha
I’d call the dress code in Doha “conservative-casual” for Western women. Locals will often wear burqas or hijabs, but ex-pats are not expected to completely cover their bodies or hair. I was able to wear most of my current winter wardrobe out and about, as long as the clothes covered my shoulders and trousers or skirts cut down to my knees. I left my midriff tops and short-sleeved shirts at home.
While there, I wore jeans, gypsy pants, and long skirts. Maxi-dresses would work well if worn with a shawl. My wardrobe included many baggy T-shirt dresses, with leggings underneath. Leggings worn with normal tees are frowned upon – leaflets are handed out, declaring that “leggings are not pants”.
I wore shorts on odd occasions when going into the desert and got nothing more than a few stares. It’s only in the month of Ramadan that the clothing policy is properly enforced, with a group of officials we called the “fashion police” ensuring that the local customs are properly observed during this sacred, religious time.
It never hurts to have a shawl around, in case you need to quickly cover-up. If you don’t have one at home, you can always pick one up at the nearby souq, or outdoor market. Be sure to haggle your way to an acceptable price.
And yes, you can go swimming. Many hotels have private beaches or pools where you can wear as much (or as little) as you like. The teeniest bikinis are common in these foreign-only enclaves.
Dealing with street harassment in Doha
Verbal harassment in Doha is commonplace and inevitable. If you’re a blonde Caucasian, it can become pretty overwhelming. As an olive-skinned brunette, I still received a significant share of it.
Most of it was relatively minor: men honking their car horns, yelling out the window, or wolf-whistling as you walked past. I glared back, but there was little point in responding.
Except once, when two men from a nearby country propositioned me in my hotel lift. I was heading back from the gym wearing my workout gear and covered in sweat. When I refused to go along, they whistled at me as I left the elevator. I turned around and confronted them, to which they answered “What? What?” as the lift doors closed. I was angry that my hotel, a safe place, had been violated.
I look back on my time in Doha fondly. The city is full of cultural surprises and surrounded by the rugged Qatari desert.
As long as you cover up where appropriate and keep your wits about you, travel to this corner of the world can be endlessly interesting and intriguing.
This guest post is by Australian ex-pat LC Hunter, who writes about plastic-free travel and muses about ex-pat life on her blog, Birdgehls.