A note about your author: Saba Awan is a Global Security Specialist at On Call International. In this role, she focuses on the geopolitical dynamics in the Asia-Pacific Region and works with travelers to provide pre-travel security consultations, risk assessments, and incident briefs regarding their areas of interest. Both of Saba’s parents were born in Pakistan and immigrated to the United States in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s. As a child, Saba and her family regularly traveled abroad to Pakistan and other countries. As a teenager, Saba visited Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage with her family. Following that trip, Saba observed nuances from one Muslim-majority country to another and is eager to share what she’s learned in this featured article.
Many people associate Islam solely with the Middle East, but it is crucial to understand that there are several nations around the world where Muslims make up a large majority of the population. From countries like Indonesia, located in Southeast Asia, to Eastern European countries like Albania, travelers to these nations can also expect Islamic practices to be a prominent part of everyday culture. What one may experience in Saudi Arabia could be very different from an experience in Malaysia or even Turkey. Though these countries vary culturally, geographically, and politically, there are many etiquette ‘guidelines’ that are standard practice throughout Muslim majority countries–and you’ll get to learn about them in this post! Understanding these practices can ease travel stressors and make any trip to a Muslim-majority nation safer and more enjoyable!
LOCAL LAWS & CUSTOMS
Culturally, societies with a large Muslim population are very different from what we see in western countries. For instance, because many Islamic countries are under a theocratic government, many laws are in sync with Islam and its requirements. With that being said, travelers will notice differences regarding local laws and customs in many Islamic countries compared to laws and customs in the west. Country that operate under Islamic laws, also known as Sharia laws, will generally be more conservative, with modest dress codes, segregation between genders, and other rules such as daily prayers, eating restrictions, etc.
Praying five times a day is one of the pillars of Islam and it is standard for mosques to remind their congregations to worship with a call to prayer, known as the adhan. It is common for workers and shopkeepers to abandon their shops and stations in the middle of the workday to head to the mosque and pray. While this may be a little inconvenient, shops usually open back up within 15 minutes. Do not be surprised if you are woken up before sunrise by the adhan, they are typically very loud, and often awake even the heaviest sleepers. Bringing earplugs on your trip may be beneficial to ensure proper rest.
Because alcohol is prohibited in Islam, many countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Libya, have a complete ban on the distribution and consumption of alcohol. Other countries may pose stringent restrictions on drinking, such as Dubai, which only permits drinking at licensed venues. Although alcohol is legal in some countries, such as Egypt, many Muslims have a dim view of drinking, so it is best to limit drinking and avoid intoxication while traveling. Travelers may also have to adjust their diet in the Islamic world as Muslims are strict on sticking to foods permissible by Islamic law. This means most restaurants will only serve meat butchered in a halal manner (aka when an animal is ritually slaughtered). Additionally, pork and other products made from pigs are hardly available, even in fast food restaurants, as pork is forbidden under Islamic laws.
If traveling during the month of Ramadan, expect restaurants and other tourism sites to operate on reduced hours or be entirely closed. During Ramadan, many Muslims will observe the fast and refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking from sunrise to sun-set. Travelers are not expected to fast but should be mindful when consuming food or drinks out in public. Many areas frequented by tourists will have restaurants fully open and serving, but this may not always be the case. It is important to research beforehand and check if the dates of travel coincide with Ramadan, which falls on a different date each year.
While this is not the case for every country, but more traditional societies have stricter rules regarding social interactions. Talking to the opposite gender is frowned upon in many societies. It is expected for women to only interact with other women and for men to interact with men, except in urgent circumstances. While often there is no punishment associated with conversing with the opposite gender, it is viewed dimly by locals. Exceptions to this rule are generally made regarding business meetings and emergencies. Additionally, Islam requires men to lower their gaze when women are nearby. In some countries like Saudi Arabia, there is enforced segregation between genders, so women have designated private seating areas in restaurants and transportation that men do not have access to. Many societies also frown upon public displays of affection in public. While handholding is acceptable, kissing in public should be avoided, even amongst married couples.
Many travelers worry about what to wear when traveling to these countries. While rules vary from country to country, it is best practice to dress conservatively and follow local customs. If local women are walking around with loose-fitted clothing and a headscarf, female travelers should dress similarly. It’s best to research dressing standards and etiquettes in countries prior to travel to ensure preparedness. As a rule of thumb, most Muslim-majority countries encourage modest dressing, so travelers should be sure to pack long, loose-fitting bottoms and tops. Women may also keep a scarf handy for extra coverage. Women are not the only ones subjected to modest dress codes; men are also encouraged to dress in loose fitting clothes that go past the knees. Wearing appropriate clothing makes it easier for travelers to visit holy sites, interact with locals, and avoid unwanted attention.
LGBTQ+ ATTITUDES & CONSIDERATIONS
The response and outlook regarding LGBTQ+ lifestyles vary from country to country. Homosexuality and same-sex relations are illegal in some countries and can result in severe penalties. Even in countries where homosexual relations are legal, the degree of acceptance and tolerance differ. Many countries in Southeast Asia such as Indonesia are generally tolerant towards different lifestyles, as long as it is kept discreet. However, other countries, like Saudi Arabia are more conservative and generally less tolerant of said lifestyles. As a precaution, travelers should research attitudes and laws regarding their specific lifestyle prior to travel. Additionally, it is best practice to avoid public displays of affection or outwardly expressing your choices if they are deemed unconventional in the country.
GENERAL ATTITUDES TOWARDS WOMEN
In many countries, it is uncommon for a woman to go out without a male companion. Therefore, solo female travelers may encounter stares and comments when out alone. Gender roles may be strictly defined, and women are expected to be respectful and obedient to men. In some places, it’s common for men to only address women through their male companion. Men will avoid touching women, even shaking hands, out of respect.
Because there is so much variation between Muslim majority countries regarding customs, cultures, and laws, it is important for travelers to do their homework before their trip to help minimize travel safety risks. Organizations should also ensure and provide clear emergency protocols and contingency plans in case of emergencies. With appropriate precautions, traveling to Muslim-Majority countries can be stress-free, enriching and fun!
Want to Learn More?
On Call International’s Global Security Team is available for pre-trip destination consults to discuss security risks and cultural norms in specific countries and itineraries – to learn more, get in touch with us today.
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