If you spend a lot of time watching or reading the news, you might be apprehensive about traveling to a Muslim-majority country. The Middle East in particular is not always painted in the most positive light, and many Western people have been led to believe that countries with large Muslim populations are inherently dangerous. While some certainly are, many of the most hospitable, interesting, and culturally rich countries on earth have a Muslim majority. Moreover, while most people associate Islam with the Middle East, there are plenty of countries outside this region that have a Muslim majority, from Indonesia to Albania, along with many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. If you’re planning to travel to a country with a Muslim majority and haven’t done so before, here are a few things to keep in mind.
You can’t paint all Muslim countries with a single brushstroke.
Before we get started, it’s crucial to understand that there is a ton of cultural variation between Muslim countries, that not all are in the Middle East or even heavily influenced by Arab traditions, and that cultural, geographical, and political traditions and systems will play a huge role in your experience.
About a decade ago, I visited some old friends in Senegal, which has a Muslim majority but is also in laid-back, chilled-out West Africa. It’s also a pretty hot place, and a lot of women there wore tank tops and tiny skirts, just as you’d see in warmer parts of Europe and the Americas. But what really sticks out in my memory is turning on the TV in the middle of the afternoon and seeing a version of a Snoop Dogg video that I’d seen before -- only this one featured completely topless women. You would never see something like that on a regular TV channel in the United States, which has pretty conservative laws regarding nudity, but much to my surprise, there was no problem with it in a “Muslim country.”
So while this list is meant to give you a general idea of what to expect when traveling to the Muslim world, never forget that there will be plenty of exceptions. Think about it like this: both England and Ethiopia are Christian-majority countries, but they’re very different in terms of language, culture, and expectations. In the same way, a trip to Malaysia and a trip to Saudi Arabia will be wildly different.
There will be calls to prayer…very early in the morning.
My very first trip to a Muslim-majority country happened to be to Cairo. One of the first things I learned during my stay was that the Egyptian capital is home to the largest concentration of mosques on earth. I found this out at 5 a.m. on my first morning there, when I unexpectedly woke up to a cacophony of calls to prayer from various neighborhood mosques. Praying five times daily is one of the pillars of Islam and it’s standard for mosques to remind their congregations to pray each time it’s required. While the adhan, as the call is known, can actually be quite beautiful, presuming the mu'addhin (person who calls it out) knows how to carry a tune, it’s often blasted loud enough to rouse even the heaviest sleeper. In other words: bring earplugs.
It’s easier for solo women than you might think -- and it’s not.
While traveling in some Muslim-majority countries can be more of a challenge for women than, say, a jaunt around Sweden and Norway, in many ways, being a woman in a Muslim-majority country can make things easier. In countries where there’s a lot of segregation between the genders, women might have special areas in restaurants or cars, or seats on trains that men cannot access. For solo women in particular, people might make an extra effort to help out, and while this can sometimes be driven by ulterior motives, it’s more often than not part of human kindness, and maybe a little curiosity.
Now that that's out of the way, do remember that there are certain precautions and behavioral changes that women visiting many Muslim-majority countries should adhere to. It depends on what country you are visiting, but it’s a good idea to cover up. While few places require women to cover their heads, it’s often easier to do so (and can help ward off the sun in hot countries). You’ll also want to consider wearing looser clothes that have conservative necklines, cover your upper arms, and reach at least to your knees, though again this depends a lot on where you are visiting. And remember, even men will be expected to dress more conservatively -- just do your research before you go.
That said, remember that some Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East, follow sharia law strictly, even to the point of extreme sexism and complete disregard for basic human rights. Case in point: women only just got the right to drive in Saudi Arabia. Even the judicial system in places like the United Arab Emirates, which has a huge expat community, has a pretty sordid history of treating women abysmally. For example, just last year, a British woman was arrested under sharia law for extramarital sex after reporting being raped. Keep this in mind before you travel to Muslim-majority countries. However, countries that are members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation tend to have legal systems that afford women more rights and legal protections.
You might want to tone down the PDA.
You’re not going to see a ton of teenagers making out on street corners in most Muslim countries and public displays of affection are widely frowned upon. Even holding hands or a quick peck might raise some eyebrows or could be illegal under so-called “decency laws.” LGBT travelers should be aware that although it’s common to see men holding hands as a gesture of friendship in some Muslim countries, same-sex relationships are still frowned upon and homosexual relationships are criminalized in many of these places.
Be prepared to eat halal.
You might have to face the challenge of reinventing your diet a bit when traveling in the Islamic world. In Muslim-majority countries, eating halal is the norm, and while not all Muslims are strict about sticking to food that’s considered correct under Islamic laws, most restaurants will only serve meat butchered in the halal manner. For most international visitors, the absence of pork is what’s most notable. Even American fast-food and chain restaurants operating in Muslim-majority countries will have different menus -- sans bacon cheeseburgers -- that adhere to halal dietary laws.
Alcohol can be harder to come by.
A few years ago, a friend of mine brought me a box of Godiva chocolates with the words “alcohol-free” appearing discreetly on the label. Apparently, he’d picked it up at a duty-free shop somewhere in the Middle East, where it’s easy to find liqueur-free truffles suitable for teetotaler Muslims. In many Muslim-majority countries, alcohol consumption is outright banned, while in others (such as Pakistan and the Maldives), it’s only banned for Muslims. However, many hotels and restaurants will still keep it off the menu, or even ban it on their premises. In the UAE, you can usually find it easily in places frequented by foreigners, such as hotel bars, and if you actually live in the country, you’ll need to apply for a special permit allowing you to imbibe. Oh, and just so you know, plenty of Muslim people actually do drink alcohol, although in some countries, this involves relying on the assistance of bootleggers.
Remember that people are not their governments.
Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, chances are that the leaders of your country have done some things you don’t agree with, or things you might even find embarrassing. Remember that the same applies for people of other countries and cultures. Islam is still widely misunderstood, and most people -- irrespective of faith or culture -- really just want to live their lives in peace and security. Moreover, most people are delighted to welcome travelers into their countries, share their cultural traditions, and learn about what life looks like in the rest of the world. Wherever you go, you’ll get the most out of your experience if you go into it with an open heart and mind.
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