Cultural sensitivity when travelling is essential. It’s always good practise to familiarise yourself with social norms and expectations before setting off. To ensure that you blend in and appear polite in a Muslim country, there are several habits and traditions to be aware of. Whether you’re heading to North Africa on Tunisia holidays or on your way to do business in the Middle East, here’s a guide to staying on the right side of the locals.
A HELPING HAND
Left and right hands are considered fit for different purposes in Muslim countries. The right hand is for eating and greeting, and should be used in formal situations at all times. The left hand is traditionally used for more ‘unclean’ purposes, and should never be used when shaking hands or taking food.
Although it’s traditional for men to shake hands, women should wait for the man to extend his hand first. Muslim women may not shake hands at all, but simply place their palm over their heart in welcome.
Another point to note is that hand gestures are best avoided. Their meanings vary between Muslim countries. Indicating something with the whole hand is always safer than gesturing with fingers.
Showing someone the soles of your feet is considered rude in Muslim culture. If you’re seated on the floor then it is best to sit with feet facing down. Likewise you should take your shoes off before you enter someone’s home, especially so when you’re visiting a mosque. If Muslim friends take off their shoes when entering a building, you should too.
It’s appropriate to do this with your left hand.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
Expectations vary from country and country, so you should research the national culture before you travel. This is particularly important for women. Cultural attitudes vary from country to country, and in some countries women are expected to cover up from ankle to head. Failing to do so may not only cause offence, but also affect your travel experience as a woman for worse. In Muslim countries that are more familiar with Western habits, such as Dubai in the UAE, a slightly more liberal dress sense is accepted. Take the time to understand the country before you travel, so that your favourite clothes don’t land you in hot water once you’re out there.
A basic understanding of Islam and its five pillars is of great benefit to anyone travelling to a Muslim country. Religious holidays are especially worth noting, as are the five daily prayer times.
Social, cultural and religious sensitivity when travelling will create a climate for enjoyment and understanding. Have you recently travelled to a Muslim country? What do you think are the most important cultural practices to consider?