Where’s Your Husband? A Guide To Female Travel In Bangaldesh
Women traveling alone in Bangladesh are a rare sight, but don’t let that deter you! After six weeks of solo travel (occasionally with friends both male and female) in Bangladesh, here’s my guide to female travel in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is not a place visited by many travelers, let alone women.
A strikingly patriarchal country whose population often harbors medieval views about what women can and cannot do, it can be challenging for women both local and foreign.
I’ll be frank with ya: Bangladesh is not the best place in the world for women in general, let alone [solo] female travelers.
Does that mean you should skip it? Of course not!
What is it like to travel as a woman in Bangladesh?
If you’ve traveled in India, you’ll know what it’s like to be perpetually surrounded by far, far too many men. Men swarm Bangladesh’s streets, and outside of the capital, women are few and far between in public places.
But there’s a big difference between travel in the two countries: India sees far more foreign tourists than Bangladesh does.
Women have traveled India en masse for decades; some solo, some not. They are a part of India’s touristic fabric. Though women traveling India still face problems, it’s not so rare to see girls traveling alone.
Bangladesh, on the other hand, is not used to any foreign tourists, let alone solo women. They’re still figuring out how to cater to the few tourists who do make it… and where foreign women stand in their patriarchal society.
The downside of female travel in Bangladesh
Bad news first, right? While traveling solo in Bangladesh, I had to deal with…
- Endless marriage proposals
- Other proposals and flirtations
- Crowds of people accumulating to stand and stare intensely
- People telling me it was not safe for me to do anything alone
- People telling me I shouldn’t do things because I was a woman
- Men coddling me because I am Incapable Woman
- People insisting I be escorted anywhere and everywhere
It can be exceptionally frustrating. There were days where I wanted to strangle people and remind them that the Dark Ages have ended. (Or have they?) Though most of my Instagram stories were positive—or amused—there were a good amount of rants and rages mixed into the emotional salad.
Traveling in Bangladesh can also be heartbreaking. You’ll encounter women basically confined to their homes. Only see women outside the house when accompanied by a man handler husband or brother or male family member. Watch boys cycle away from school as girls are forced to walk or take rickshaws because “Bengali women do not cycle.”
It can be tough. Steel yourself.
The upside of female travel in Bangladesh
I’m not selling Bangladesh very well yet, I know; hear me out.
Though there are a good number of hurdles to jump through as a woman in Bangladesh, there’s one very important thing that makes it all worth it:
As a whole, the people of Bangladesh are amazing.
For every lecherous creep I encountered, there was another man who respected me as a person, told other men off for being crude, or made sure I was safe and sound without trying to dissuade me from what I was doing.
I befriended men more interested in speaking than getting into my salwar, and exchanged ideas with boys more curious about my country than about what was under my orna.
Even better, being a lone woman was like an instant icebreaker with the local ladies. Whereas male travelers might encounter distance unless accompanied by a woman, I was readily surrounded by women and taken in for tea and love whenever I wandered amongst homes in the villages.
Young girls were delighted to come and talk, and older women wanted to mother me (and figure out why I wasn’t married to a nice American boy already). Being a female in Bangladesh opened up a lot of doors into a world many male travelers would never see.
Bangladesh isn’t an ideal destination for everyone, but I found the warm hearts of its people—and its off the beaten track challenges—to be well worth any hassle I encountered while in the country.
Is Bangladesh safe for [solo] female travelers?
In short: yes, I believe so.
Though you may have to deal with medieval ‘tudes and lecherous dudes, I don’t think you’re putting yourself at any serious risk by traveling in Bangladesh as a woman.
Because of ingrained Islamic notions about respecting women—and despite the issues that arise from them—most men will be polite. You don’t have to worry about disappearing or being raped and ravaged and left on a beach to rot, so long as you use common sense.
(It would be pretty damned difficult to get away with that given there are always people around, no matter how remote the area.)
Is travel in Bangladesh right for me?
Ah, the most important—and nuanced—question.
My thoughts on female travel in Bangladesh are very similar to my recommendations for female travel in Pakistan.
If you’re not an experienced traveler, Bangladesh is not a good place for you to test the waters, especially if you’re a solo female traveler.
Regardless of your gender, the country can be difficult to navigate. The language barrier is large, the country very conservative, and information on traveling in Bangladesh is lacking at best… though I’m trying to change that! You’ll also be hard pressed at times to find other foreign travelers to rely on, should the need arise. Ain’t no party hostels in Bangladesh, ya dig?
Bangladesh is not the next step after your month of backpacking in Bali, and is a far, far cry from your summer Eurotrip. If you’re looking to an introduction to South Asia, I recommend heading to India for a similar experience with much better tourist infrastructure and a thriving traveler community.
However, if you’re a bossy lady ready for a good challenge and a rewarding adventure, Bangladesh is waiting for you!
What to wear in Bangladesh as a woman?
Now that you’re sold, it’s time to get into the practicalities of female travel in Bangladesh.
Female dress codes for women in Bangladesh are similar to those in India, with the caveat that you’ll want to stick to them more rigorously than female travelers do in India. (No strappy maxi dress photos allowed at Bangladeshi mosques, sorry to disappoint.)
Salwar kameez, a pant and shirt combo, is the most comfortable form of dress; you can easily find sets in markets and shops all over Bangladesh. Even better, Bangladeshi women and men alike will really appreciate your efforts to adapt to the local culture if you do don a salwar kameez.
Tip: If beginning your journey in Dhaka, head to New Market for a balls-to-the-walls rainbow shopping extravaganza. You’ll find everything you need there.
When picking your clothes, don’t be afraid to go all out with the colors! Contrary to common notions of stark Muslim-majority countries, women in Bangladesh generally dress colorfully. Even women wearing long black abayas or burqas often sport colorful headscarves.
Salwar kameez or not, when getting dressed each morning, aim to put on:
- Loose long shirt that covers your bum at the very least. Long tunics will suffice, as will loose long dresses. Basically, the less curves you show, the better. Short sleeves or ¾ length sleeves are mostly okay, though in rural areas you won’t really see women in short sleeves aside from the occasional older woman in sari.
- Long pants or a skirt that comes to your ankles. Tight, loose, doesn’t matter, so long as they cover your legs. Leggings are somewhat common in cities, but in rural areas you’ll see more women in skirts, abayas, and loose dresses. Leggings might get you some looks, but I wore them and wasn’t lynched.
- Scarf draped over your chest. Known as orna in Bangla, and dupatta in Hindi, this scarf can make a big difference in the way people perceive you. Women will judge you less if you’re wearing it, and men won’t check out your boobs quite as often when you do. Make sure that it completely covers your breasts—I had both women and men comment and/or fix mine whenever the curves of my chest were visible. Scandalous!
Headscarves aren’t necessary unless you’re entering mosques. However, they can ward off stares or make you less approachable, and most local women wear headscarves while traveling at night.
If you’re feeling a bit uncomfortable—or just want to hide the color of your hair—wrap up for a bit to see if it makes a difference.
An exception to the dress code
Northern Dhaka (Gulshan and Banani) is a very affluent part of the capital city, home to Dhaka’s elite and myriad foreign aid workers. There, pretty much anything goes. I wouldn’t stroll about in hot pants and a crop top, but I saw women in all kinds of other clothes there. You can relax on the dress code and leave your orna at home if staying up north.
Cultural tips and expectations for female travel in Bangladesh
Given how strict Bangladesh’s society is, there are some things you should know before traveling in the country:
You’re going to be treated half as a woman, half as a man. Foreign women transcend the rigid cultural lines between men and women. It’ll be more socially acceptable for you to sit or hang with local men, where a local woman would have to think twice.
According to local culture, a woman’s place is in the home. You’ll see millions of men on the street, but few women.
Women generally do not go anywhere alone; they’re always accompanied by a man or group of other women, or take rickshaws from place to place. Solo female travelers will get a lot of stares for this very reason, and many people will want to escort you when you go anywhere.
Most restaurants have obscured seating areas for women and family to use. You can use these to escape stares, or just have a bit of peace and quiet while eating if you so choose.
Unaccompanied women sit at the front of the local buses. It’s not an official rule, though most of the time people will make space for you to sit.
Women sit next to other women when possible. Men try to avoid sitting next to women they don’t know.
Women don’t shake men’s hands… unless they offer you theirs first. Some men don’t want to touch women for religious reasons, and it’s not common overall. Don’t worry, you’re not missing anything—I forgot this all the time, and received the spectacularly limp handshakes on a regular basis.
Seeing a women smoke is not a common sight. If you smoke, prepare to blow minds. However, many men offered me cigarettes while in the country.
Women put on headscarves during the azaan, call to prayer, even when at home. You won’t be expected to, though.
Women ride sidesaddle on motorbikes (and definitely do not drive them). I say you have to draw the line somewhere—riding sidesaddle is just plain uncomfortable, and if you’ve found a motorbike to drive around (relatively easy), go for it!
Many people value daughters less than sons. Twisted, but true. A tangible example: I had many people offer up their daughters to me to take to the United States. Few offered up their sons. Brace yourself.
If you’re unmarried, prepare to field questions about Bangladeshi boys. The number of times I had people try to convince me that Bangladeshi boys are “all very nice” and would make excellent husbands…
Potential challenges for female travelers in Bangladesh
Aside from men being creepy and people thinking you’re incapable of doing anything, there are two other potential challenges to traveling as a woman in Bangladesh I want to talk about.
Women not allowed at budget hotels
The most important. Though I personally never encountered this issue, I have female friends who did.
Sometimes budget hotel owners won’t let lone women stay in their hotels. They claim “security” is not good enough, or that the girl needs a local guide. More likely than not they simply don’t want the responsibility of a lone woman on their hands, but whatever the case, know that this could be an issue and always have several hotels earmarked.
Having security forces up in your business in remote areas
This I did encounter while traveling to Hatiya and Nijhum Dwip, two remote islands in the south. An English woman told me she experienced the same in Rangpur in the north.
In my case, local police were distraught to find a foreign woman traveling alone in the area. They tried to force an escort on me, or at least have me check in with them every time I went anywhere. They also obstructed my attempts to get a bicycle on Hatiya, bah.
If this happens, be firm about not needing an escort—ain’t nobody gonna talk to you if you’re followed by an armed guard all day.
After giving my officer the slip too many times and sparking some tempers, I ended up compromising. The police checked up on me at least once a day (most of whom were nice, though one was creepy and touchy), policemen sometimes occupied the room next to mine, and I registered my details at the station. In the end, they were mostly kind and helpful and I got lots of free food out of it.
Have patience, and remember they mean well.
Female safety tips for Bangladesh
Common sense and a trust in your instincts are the best protection you can have. However, since I just talked you out of having a security escort 24/7 (really, it’s BS), here are some tips to keep you safe and sound:
Dress modestly. It makes a difference, trust me.
Don’t go out far in the dark/at night unless you’re with others. Sad that it’s necessary, but that’s the reality in many places in the world. If alone, I only went out for food after dark, and never strayed too far. Markets and big shopping areas (such as New Market in Dhaka) were an exception—you’ll see loads of women shopping at night!
Don’t tell people exactly where you’re staying. Unless, of course, you really trust them, or they need to know to pick you up. If asked, just say you forget the name of the hotel, or tell them the general area.
Beware of young men. They’re the horniest, and I found them to be the most problematic. Not all are untrustworthy, though, so use your instincts.
Be cautious with selfies. You’ll be requested to take a million and one selfies. Many are innocent, but some boys will use them as a way to get physically closer to you and possibly touch you. Don’t be afraid to say no—it would be way out of line for a Bangladeshi boy to ask a local girl he didn’t know for a selfie, and the same logic should apply to foreign women.
Don’t give your “Facebook ID” to people you don’t know well. You’ll end up getting about 10 million messages, video calls, and friend requests from friends of friends. I know this from (too much) experience. Tell people you don’t use Facebook if you don’t want to friend them.
Download Uber to get around Dhaka. If you’re not comfortable taking rickshaws or autos, Uber is available in the capital, and is a good choice for traveling at night or finding your way back when lost.
Stick to places with people. Think markets, busy trains, buses, etc. If there are people around you can count on someone coming to your aid if something happens. If you’re alone… well, that’s another story.
Feel free to say you’re married or have a boyfriend. People will be baffled as to why he’s not with you, but it’s easier for them to believe he’s somewhere else than to think you don’t have one at all. It’ll also keep the horny boys at bay.
Useful Bangla words for female travelers
Knowing a bit of Bangla goes a long way, as English isn’t particularly common. Here are some words I heard over and over and over again while traveling Bangladesh. Some of the more useful ones for girls are:
- Appa: Sister. Used as a form of address.
- Bhai: Brother. People will want to know why yours isn’t accompanying you.
- Bachha: Baby. Bachha nehi means no baby. Prepare for disappoint if you use it!
- Eka: Alone
- Jao: Go away. If too many men have gathered to stare at you—or they’re just being annoying—don’t be afraid to shout jao!
- Ma: Mother
- Shami: Husband. People will want to know where yours is. If you’re single, whip out the shami nehi! Prepare for people to play matchmaker if you use this one…
Resources for female travel in Bangladesh
Though my blog is obviously the bestest resource in the world (jokes), here are some other places you can find help and information about female travel in Bangladesh:
- Bradt travel guide to Bangladesh: Accepted as the best and most comprehensive general travel guide to Bangladesh, and has a section on female travel. Having a paper guide never hurts!
- Solo Women Travellers of Bangladesh: A Facebook group for badass Bengali bitches. The focus is mostly on international travel outside of Bangladesh, however if you let people know you’re a foreigner coming to Bangladesh, you’re sure to find some travelin’ ladies willing to show you around.
- Couchsurfing: Always a good bet when looking to meet people or find help in a new country. There are some female hosts, and remember that not all men are evil and/or creepy 😉
- TOB Helpline: An offshoot of Travelers of Bangladesh, one of the country’s biggest travel-oriented groups. While the main group is for sharing write ups about your travel experiences, this is where people can ask questions. Mostly in Bangla, but if you post in English, you’ll find help. Beware, you may receive a million and one friend requests and offers for help if you do. Don’t accept friend requests of anyone who didn’t help you.
- Teacake Travels: One of my favorite solo female travel blogs, Alice is a kickass lady who visited Bangladesh several years ago. Her realtalk write up captures the feeling perfectly, and gives a good perspective on how it is to travel the country as an obvious white foreign woman, something I escaped because I can pass as Bengali.
- Soul Travel Blog: Ellie is a blogger friend of mine who also recently traveled to Bangladesh on her own. Her write up on female travel in the country presents another perspective from Alice’s and my own, as she encountered some obstacles when trying to travel solo through Bangladesh.
A final note on solo female travel in Bangladesh
Now that you’re overly stuffed with information—good preparation for traveling Bangladesh, as you can count on being overly stuffed with food more often than not—let me leave you with one final thought:
Bangladesh is going to challenge you and your existence as a woman, and it can be both rewarding and infuriating.
Though you may disagree with some aspects of the culture in the country, remember: you are a visitor in Bangladesh. It is not your place to change their culture. Change comes from within—the most you should aim for is to be an ambassador for women in your own country.
Instead of wearing shorts on the street, dress modestly, but explain to people that in your country you can wear what you want and men will still respect you (in theory).
Make an effort to interact with women around you, especially when men are disregarding them in conversations.
Tell others how you or your mother or your sisters work for a living, that not all women are housewives in your country.
Challenge notions gently and with grace; otherwise, you’ll be written off as some crazy AF foreign freak, rather than a woman to respect and learn from.
It’ll be a serious exercise in patience and composure, but I promise you: Bangladesh is worth it.
Yay transparency! There are affiliate links in this post. If you buy something I recommended, I’ll make a bit of money at no extra cost to you, which I will probably spend on a room with a hot shower… or ice cream.