One of the first questions I receive when someone learns I have recently traveled to Iraq is usually, "Do you wear a burka? Did they make you wear a head covering?"
What I have learned is that the real question they are asking is, "Do you feel safe?"
The answer to that is that I feel about as safe as you can feel as a woman anywhere... it requires a massive amount of blind faith to feel safe, anywhere.
Practical answers are important too... the answer to what you might be required or expected to wear is as varied as the many countries that you might be traveling through in the Middle East.
At the time of writing, I have been in Iraq, Turkey, Palestine and Israel... and the requirements for women's head coverings and garments vary quite a bit.
I found that the West Bank and Palestine are better visited with a head covering, while Israel is also a good place to drape a shawl over your locks. Turkey I found to be quite free, but I did prefer to not call attention to myself and opted for looser clothing. In Iraq, in more conservative areas I have a silk blend scarf that I keep in my bag. At all times in Iraq, I keep my very long hair braided, twisted or bound back, for reasons I'll explain later. In all of these places, I almost always wear pants, as these are frankly much more decent for the amount of physical work that I'm doing while there.
Mostly, I just like to cover my butt (literally) and be mindful of some of the reasons beyond religion that you might want to cover your head while in the Middle East...
Because Western eyes are used to head coverings being solely for religious purposes, it can be confusing to understand dynamics behind head coverings.
For clarity, I am not a Muslim woman, and I do not wish to communicate adherence to a set of religious laws that I am not practicing...
as this would be inauthentic.
For clarity's sake, I am also a Westerner and this is simply my perspective.
As I understand it, head coverings are meant to be deeply personal when they are a religious choice, but they are often considered requirements.
However, aside from religious reasons, there are other reasons that you might occasionally want to wear a scarf while traveling in the Middle East...
One of which is that even in the United States until around one hundred years ago, women's loose hair was seen as highly sexual.
I think that we forget that for millennium, women's hair has often been a subject of both curiosity and desire... and is always something very personal.
It is no different in the Middle East. I find it helpful to think of pulling my hair back as removing it from the touch of a stranger
or, more practically, from the constant friction of my camera strap.
Due to my long red-yellow hair and pale skin, I am already an object of curiosity.
I've had children and even men wander up to me in bazaars and poke one finger out at my skin.
This can be disturbing, but I try to remember that no harm is meant.
However, if my hair had been loose, it could have been pulled at or even clipped.
You should always remember to respect the laws, customs and perspectives of the cultures you are honored to travel in...
and be safe by showing this respect.
More often than not when in the Middle East, you can find me sporting long sleeves and pants regardless of the temperature, as seen above... and some days, a long linen tunic is often on my back.
You will almost always find my hair bound back into a long braid, twisted into a bun or knot or tucked up under a bandanna. As a nod to the culture, I do often like to put something up top. I look strange in a headscarf, so I often choose hats or a bandanna, which also do the trick of hiding a copious amount of dust in my hair... there are silver linings in everything.