So you’re thinking about traveling to Sudan? Good for you! Sudan is a fascinating country. It has its fair share of challenges to be sure, and is not currently an easy place to live for many residents. But the country also has much to offer the thoughtful visitor.
Sudan is a conservative Islamic country, at least by standards of the African continent and certainly by the standards of most visitors from westernized countries. This has some advantages for travelers, like an admirable culture of hospitality, and a very low crime rate.
But it also comes with some conundrums, especially for women: what should travelers wear in Sudan to be respectful of the local culture and avoid attracting unwanted attention?
At the very beginning of 2020 I rode my bicycle through the northern part of Sudan, from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum, traveling solo. For context, since we tend to have different experiences depending on who we are and how we look, I’m a white American woman in my thirties.
Through my interactions with Sudanese people and a few European expatriates I met along the way, I learned a lot about what travelers should wear while visiting Sudan. I also left with plenty of unanswered questions. Some things will stay a mystery to me even after a month of traveling through the region, but that’s just how it goes when we open ourselves up to unfamiliar cultures.
As with anywhere in the world, those who travel independently, solo, and off the beaten path would be smart to show extra sensitivity. By contrast, those who travel in guided groups on the tourist trail can (though not necessarily should) deviate more from local norms.
In this post I’ll give clear recommendations for what both women and men should wear when traveling in Sudan. I’ll also dive into some details and examples to try and explain the more nuanced version. If I’ve done my job, by the end you’ll understand the spectrum of reasonable dress and where you might want to be on it, and also understand a bit more about the culture and politics of this very interesting country.
Quick Primer on Religious and Political Context
Stick with me for a few paragraphs of interesting history and history-in-the-making. I promise you’ll be glad to know this when you’re in Sudan.
The population of Sudan is estimated to be 97% Muslim, meaning followers of the religion of Islam. Islam has been prominent in Sudan since Arabs from the north conquered Egypt in the 600’s AD and the kingdom spread south to Sudan. But, as with any religion there are many flavors and subsects of Islam, some more strict and conservative than others. And there is a difference between a religion that’s simply followed by many and a religion that is mandated by the government.
The current conservative version of Islam that we associate with Sudan dates from when former president al-Bashir seized power back in 1989. He did away with political parties and established a Sharia-inspired legal code aligned with a fairly extreme version of Islam. This included regulations that made it illegal for women to leave home with their hair uncovered, wear pants, sell things on the street, dance, move about freely without a male guardian, or for anyone to drink alcohol in Sudan.
When we think of Sudan as a conservative Islamic country, at least its most recent iteration, we are picturing the result of al-Bashir’s regime.
But, things are changing! In 2019 al-Bashir was overthrown by a demand for civilian rule. Economic struggles and political complexity have challenged the revolution, but progress has slowly been made.
In late 2019 the transitional government repealed the Sharia-inspired “family law” that oppressed women in many ways. In 2020 the government criminalized the widespread and brutal practice of female genital mutilation, a largely symbolic act but a step in the right direction nonetheless. And in September of 2020, Sudan’s transitional government and rebel groups formally signed an agreement to separate religion from state! This officially ends three decades of Islamic law in Sudan and unseats Islam as the “official state region.”
So, what does this mean for travelers? Honestly, for now, not much. The vast majority of the population is still Muslim, and decades of social norms are not going to disappear overnight. For the time being, I think visitors should observe the same strict dress codes unless / until we notice signs of a cultural shift. It’s possible that further down the road, Sudan will shift toward a more typically “African” approach to Islam, an approach which holds these religious norms more lightly. West Africa, for example, is home to large populations of both Christians and Muslims who coexist easily and keep their religion separate from their government.
For the Sudanese, positive change is in the air, and now officially in the government. This is a fascinating time to visit, or to follow from afar. If you can find a local who’s willing and able to talk with you about their political situation, definitely take the opportunity to learn.
Now, on to the practical stuff!
What to Wear in Sudan for Women
If you’re looking for a quick recommendation, mine is similar to what you may have seen in other places. Women traveling in Sudan should wear:
- Long loose skirt or long loose-fitting pants reaching to at least mid-calf
- Loose shirt with reasonably high neckline and sleeves that reach past the elbow
Length can be a bit of a gray area. Are 3/4 length pants ok? What about elbow-length sleeves? My recommendation, especially for younger women traveling alone who want to avoid hassle, is to go full-length: cover everything down to your ankles and wrists.
On a guided trip or within Khartoum only, calf-length pants and elbow length sleeves are probably fine. At the very least, always cover your knees and shoulders.
Pants are hardly ever worn by Sudanese women, but they seem to be tolerated on foreigners. A long skirt would be ideal, but if you prefer pants make sure they’re loose-fitting. Definitely avoid leggings, which would be seen as quite inappropriate.
My impression is that it’s more important to cover skin on your arms and legs than to wear a headscarf. You can certainly do both if you want to be safe, but a headscarf – though a more obvious symbol of Muslim culture – will not make up for the general scandalousness of showing too much skin. More on headscarves below.
Examples of Women’s Clothing in Sudan
What I wore in Sudan: long loose-fitting pants and a long-sleeve shirt that covered my upper chest. I was traveling solo by bicycle through areas that see few tourists, so I was already breaking quite a few norms and wanted to play it safe. My only regret: my clothes were dark colors because that’s what I had. Light colors would have been better in the scorching desert sun.
What I saw other foreign women wearing in Sudan: I had the pleasure of connecting with some European archaeologists during my trip. Within their compounds and work sites, and around Khartoum, some of them wore calf-length pants and short-sleeve shirts. A few of them wore long pants and long sleeves. I never saw them wear headscarves.
What I saw local women wearing in Sudan: Outside of Khartoum I saw only a single Sudanese woman not wearing a headscarf in public, and all were wearing some version of a long, loose skirt. At an archaeological compound some of the local women from Khartoum wore pants(!), but I suspect this was influenced by the presence of so many western expats. In Khartoum sometimes local women removed their headscarves at restaurants and cafes frequented by expatriates and wealthy locals. I don’t think I saw a single knee or shoulder among locals – of any gender, religion, or race – during my entire time in Sudan and Egypt.
Should Female Travelers Wear Headscarves in Sudan?
Short answer: it depends. I definitely recommend that women bring a scarf or two to Sudan. I bought a couple pretty ones from Amazon (this one and this one) and was very happy with them. They are useful, if nothing else, for covering up in the desert heat and handling the occasional sandstorm. And, as someone who generally doesn’t emphasize femininity very much, I was surprised to realize I thought they were pretty! Among the lovely women of Sudan and their beautiful feminine dress, I appreciated my scarves in a new way.
But what about cultural appropriateness?
Outside of Khartoum and other areas frequented by foreigners, I usually wore a headscarf whenever I wasn’t wearing my bicycle helmet. I took extra care to wear it among groups of only men, such as when camping at highway rest stops.
Did it matter? Thanks to my horrible Arabic and the rarity of English speakers in Sudan, I’ll never really know. One man who spoke a bit of English complimented my efforts, saying I was “like Sudan woman,” but otherwise it was hard to tell if anyone even noticed. Twice I was propositioned for sex while wearing a headscarf, so clearly it’s not the obvious “I’m a proper lady” signal I had hoped it might be.
Sometimes I went without my scarf in more metropolitan areas like Atbara and Khartoum, and people were as kind and friendly as ever.
My impression, though I will never know for sure, is that a tourist in a headscarf is seen as making a clumsy (but hopefully endearing) effort to fit in. Headscarves are considered a requirement for Muslims only, and for those of us who are obviously not Muslim, I suspect there is little concern for whether we wear them. When you consider that we foreign women are doing all kinds of other weird and highly inappropriate things – wearing pants, traveling alone, and in my case riding a bicycle! – the visibility of our hair is probably the least of the locals’ concerns.
As for local women, almost every woman wears a headscarf of some type in public. You’ll notice differences in style and degree of modesty as you move through different regions. If you’re lucky enough to be invited into a private home, you may see local women with their hair uncovered amongst their family, looking surprisingly modern and familiar all of a sudden. Yes, they are women just like us under all that extra cloth. Most of the Sudanese dress code applies only to public life.
If we’re going to dabble in Muslim head coverings as non-Muslims, it seems polite to educate ourselves about the different types, names, and purposes. Here is a great resource.
Headscarves in Sudan Versus Egypt
If you’ll also be traveling in Sudan’s northern neighbor Egypt, you might be curious how the headscarf issue compares. My opinion: a headscarf is a nice touch in the rural areas of Sudan, and also in rural areas of Egypt if you’re exploring off the tourist trail.
In Khartoum and “touristy areas” (relatively speaking) of Sudan a headscarf is fine but not necessary. In the touristy areas of Egypt however, wearing a headscarf seems almost like playing dress-up. Especially if, as I unfortunately saw in Luxor, one is also wearing a tank top and shorts and busy taking Instagram selfies. In this context it almost seems more culturally sensitive to not wear a headscarf.
I want to be clear: personally, I don’t think it’s right for a religion or society to so strictly dictate how women dress and behave. I wish more of the world (any of the world?) viewed women’s bodies as our own, and what we wear as no one else’s business.
However, travel is not right time to try and make a statement about this. When we choose to travel, we choose to immerse ourselves in a different culture. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable and that’s part of why we do it. I believe it’s our responsibility as travelers to dress in a way that feels polite to the locals we impose our presence upon. We are not going to change their minds anyway.
What to Wear in Sudan for Men
While men have it easier than women when it comes to travel in conservative countries, there are still cultural norms to consider. Islamic culture gives men more freedom, but still expects them to dress modestly and act appropriately.
Men traveling in Sudan should wear:
- Loose pants, full length or 3/4 length
- Shirt with full length or mid-length sleeves
It’s my impression that men can get away with showing slightly more arm and leg than women can, so 3/4 length knickers and a short sleeve shirt might be comfortable for male travelers. I even saw a few male expatriates and travelers wearing shorts that showed their knees! Scandalous! 🙂 They looked a bit silly but otherwise didn’t seem to have any problems.
Most Sudanese men wear long robes, or at the very least, long loose pants. Though we usually think of women when considering Muslim dress, the men have their own modest dress code to follow. In metropolitan areas like Khartoum, some men wear western styles like jeans and button-up shirts.
You will never see a Sudanese man in shorts. It’s considered immodest, and my impression is that it may also be seen as immature – as in East Africa where only young boys wear shorts – but I don’t know for sure. Sudanese seem to tolerate shorts on foreign male visitors though, as they tolerate pants on foreign women.
Interactions with Local Women
Male travelers have their own cultural issues to navigate. Though it might feel sexist to western men, you should be cautious about addressing local women directly. In areas like Khartoum it’s more acceptable for women to interact with men, but in rural areas it could be unseemly. Best to address the men nearby if possible, and take cues from women’s reactions to see if they are comfortable interacting with you. If being introduced to a woman, don’t offer your hand to shake; wait to see if she does first.
Unwanted Attention: Notes for Women
Be aware that foreign women, particularly white women, are generally viewed as sexually ravenous and loose by a surprisingly large portion of the world’s men. If you haven’t encountered this in your travels yet, it may come as a surprise to be blatantly propositioned for sex, perhaps while wearing your most modest clothes, covered in sweat and dust, and conveying absolutely zero romantic interest.
You may feel frustrated that you’ve tried to dress appropriately and yet the message is not being received. What’s going on?
Think about it this way: most of these men rarely see “western” women except in Hollywood films. And porn. Can you really blame them for having unrealistic expectations?
How you handle these propositions is up to you. I’ve tried everything from angry lectures to humorous banter, depending on context. It happened twice in Sudan, and I firmly declined, and that was that. Unfortunately one incident happened in the middle of the night and involved a man trying to come into my tent, which was stressful for me, though he quickly went away when I made a fuss.
Know that these requests are very straightforward and not generally a physical threat, though you might perceive them as such because they would be so abnormal in your home culture. Especially in Sudan, violent crime is extremely rare.
If you are traveling as a couple, expect that local men will address your male partner instead of you. If traveling solo, most local men will have no problem addressing you directly, and you will be treated almost like an “honorary man.” We solo female travelers enjoy the best of both worlds in this sense, because we can interact with local women in ways foreign men cannot, and we are also generally treated with respect by local men.
Now that we’ve covered the practical recommendations, here are a few related points to consider.
Sudan is Hot
Like, really hot. We’re talking about the Sahara Desert here. If at all possible, try to combine cultural sensitivity with comfort by choosing lightweight, light-colored clothing that is forgiving to sweat stains.
Khartoum is Different
How you dress in Sudan will partly depend on where you’ll be. The capital city of Khartoum feels almost like a different country from the rural north. Amidst the fast food restaurants and air conditioned buildings, you’ll also find lots of women out on the streets unaccompanied by men. Many wear more western clothes with headscarves pushed slightly back, revealing a few inches of hair. You might even spot a couple women driving cars and removing their headscarves while meeting friends for lunch. I met a number of confident, progressive young women in Khartoum attending university and preparing for careers.
In the north, however, it can feel like all the women are hidden away in their homes. When they do appear on the streets they seem reserved and uncomfortable. In these places, foreign women will likely feel comfortable wearing more conservative clothes. Foreign men will want to be more cautious about interacting with local women in rural areas.
Non-Binary and LGBTQ+ Folks
Sudan’s conservative culture doesn’t tolerate anything except the standard, cis, binary, heterosexual model. If you don’t fit that mold and want to travel in Sudan, you’ll have to keep some things to yourself.
It’s worth noting, though, that your physical appearance is unlikely to signal much to the locals. I’m a fairly standard-looking woman – no one would be unsure of my gender or identity at home – but in Sudan I was asked “boy or woman?” by people who could not square my combination of feminine form with male clothing and freedom of movement.
I hope this post has given you a better idea of what to pack for your trip to Sudan, and also a peek into the country’s culture and history. If you happen to know Sudan well or have a different impression after your trip, please leave a comment below and share your experience. I was just a visitor with hardly any Arabic language skills, so I was barely able to scratch the surface.
This is a detailed post, but don’t worry, Sudan is forgiving. During my weeks of bicycling through the country, hospitality and friendliness dominated my experience. I may as well have been an alien from another planet, so culturally distant was I from most Sudanese. Yet they met my eyes and smiled, waved, stopped their cars in the middle of the road to shake my hand and say “welcome,” and invited me in for tea. In my clumsy way I tried to be a respectful visitor, though I’m sure I fell short many times.
If you’re visiting Sudan, definitely check out this list of 14 places to visit throughout the country. For more detail on what it’s like to ride a bicycle through Sudan, see my trip notes and this article at Adventure Cycling.
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