Oops – Was That a Social Norm? Sorry Dubai!

Posted on / by Alex Berger

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai

You know that moment when the doors close, the hustle/bustle/rush of getting on to or into somewhere passes and you you look around only to realize you’re not where you should be?  It’s an awkward moment.  One I generally try and avoid but tend to experience often while traveling.  Perhaps this says something about me, though I’ll go ahead and just attribute it to the nature of travel in general.

Dubai is an interesting city.  On the one hand it is saturated with everything new, flashy, and western you can image.  After all, where else can you get your skiing in, then turn around to snag lunch at an American Chinese food chain, before shopping for a Gucci burqa and then catching a cab through the 120 degree heat back to your hotel?   On the other hand the heavy hand of traditional conservative religious culture and theocracy is ever present and visible.

My story starts on the Dubai metro.  A beautiful set of raised facilities which sit perched over the desert sands, are heavily air conditioned and beautifully decorated.  My folks – still sticky from the heat and humidity outside – had just boarded one of the city’s tram cars.  It had been painless enough, though it did take us a moment to figure out that we wanted the general cars, not the 1st class “gold” metro cars or the cars reserved exclusively for women and children.  Slightly delirious from the residual heat we stared out the windows and floated along above the city enjoying the view and keeping our eyes peeled for the Burj Khalifa.  Our destination was the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest, and a sprawling complex located at the foot of the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa.  As we drew closer to it, we noted the stop marked on the metro map associated with the Burj and mustered all our will power to descend into the heat once again.  Disembarking from our subway car we wound down a series of walkways that reminded me more of an airport than a metro, and then were spat out into the summer furnace.

As with many aspects of Dubai, the tram line connecting the Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa to the main metro is under construction. In its place a free bus shuttle was available. So we aimlessly wandered around the small space near the bus stop looking for shade, snapping photos of the Burj, and complaining of the 110+ degree heat and 80+ percent humidity.  And then a small bus arrived. Well, not necessarily a small bus, just one that wasn’t big enough for all the people waiting.

Confident after a year of daily bus riding in Copenhagen, I fell into my automatic routine and lead the way:  Line up at the front of the bus…hope your ticket works…avoid eye contact with the bus driver and then stand with a blank stare on your face trying not to fall on top of anyone as the bus zig-zags its way to your destination.  All of which seemed to work fairly flawlessly.  We got on board, as did the three other tourists who had been standing near us. We were sandwiched in, standing room only, but it was a lot better than walking the mile or so to the Burj in the heat…so, I was hardly in the mood to complain.

…and then I started to look around.  I quickly noticed that there was a bar separating the front 1/3 of the bus from the back 2/3s.   The back 2/3 was – shoulder to shoulder – with men.  The front section on the other hand had three men in it.  My Dad, the other tourist, and myself.  The rest of the space was jam-packed with a mixture of women and children, most of whom were covered head to toe in black.  Then, as I continued to survey just where I’d led us, I quickly realized we were in the family/women and children only section.  To make matters worse, the Emiratees aren’t the world’s tallest people. Which meant that the three of us towered a good foot over all of the women and looked blatantly out of place.


So, there we are with half the women glaring at us, half smiling at us, and all the rest of the men – who are sandwiched  in the main part of the bus – looking at us with a mixture of “if you touch my wife I’ll beat you” and “you’re the a-hole that uses the turning lane to cut traffic jams, aren’t you?”.   Meanwhile, I start to worry we’re about to get fined, or somehow penalized for violating the purity of the women’s cabin.  After all, isn’t one of the cardinal rules in ultra conservative Muslim areas don’t touch the women?   But hey, we’d walked right by the driver who was busy issuing tickets at the time so I suppose it wasn’t ALL our fault.

Luckily the bus pulled into the mall parking lot a few awkward minutes later and we quickly disembarked making a quick exit and getting ourselves lost in the winding mega-maze of shops the locals casually call a mall.  We were no worse for wear, and short of accidentally ruffling a few feathers, hadn’t done too much harm.

So, that’s the story of how I manage the cultural equivalent of walking into the women’s restroom.   When you find yourself in Dubai, just remember that the front entrance to the buses aren’t like buses elsewhere. Make sure to read the signs and enjoy the adventure!


Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.


  • Kate
    October 8, 2012

    Haha, very nice. The trains in India were the same – i generally hopped onto the “general” cars as it was easier than finding the one for women and children. The one time i did join the women, i was somewhat surprised to find that the back half of the car was male, leaving a large group of fellows staring through the bars at me (i also stood out, regardless of my local dress, thanks to height and skin tone)… though really, as a western woman in non-western countries, i’m often torn between which is the lesser of evils – occasional leering from local men or occasional judgmental looks from (often conservative) local women. Women-only lines were nice, though, as they tended to be shorter/faster than the others – not counting for restrooms, of course. Heh… if there was no woman to do a security check on me, i was simply let in with a respectful nod.

    • Alex Berger
      October 11, 2012

      That’s good to know about India! Will have to keep that in mind for future travel.

      Also, sounds like that kinda negates the whole point of security checks, lol.

  • Seattle Dredge
    October 8, 2012

    haha awwwwkward :p
    Glad it turned out fine though!

  • Mike
    October 9, 2012

    Dubai is booming right now. The place has flashy and vibrant city which really attracts many visitors. Regarding on the people there, they are kind and very religious which is very rampant and clearly visible.

  • Shayna
    October 11, 2012

    That’s funny! Another place that has a women’s-only section on the subway is – this surprised me – Rio de Janeiro. You’d think Rio’s culture couldn’t possibly be more different from Dubai’s. But apparently tons of women were getting sexually assaulted on the packed subway, enough that they decided to reserve some cars just for women.

    • Alex Berger
      October 11, 2012

      Wow, really? Definitely surprising. It’s an interesting look at different cultures and their motivations isn’t it?


Leave a Reply