RESPECTING CULTURAL CUSTOMS:
When planning my gap year, I suddenly become aware that I had only visited, aside from stopovers in Hong Kong and Singapore, westernized and white-majority countries. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and go somewhere with a huge cultural contrast, and so ended up on a 4 day trip to Morocco.
It was a fascinating and eye-opening experience; for the first time I was confronted with the importance of respecting another culture which was diversely different my own. My thoughts on this really started when a group of women in my tour group began complaining:
“I can’t believe we have to dress this way! It’s like 40 degrees, it’s totally unfair that we have to cover up” one said.
“I know right?” said another. “I mean, we aren’t Muslim, why should we? It’s totally subjugating us! It’s not like we consented to this!”
It took SO much constraint not to jump in. Really? You didn’t consent to this? Why are you here then?
My attitude towards such concerns has always been very straightforward: if you can’t respect and abide by the practices of that country, don’t go.
Particularly in Islamic countries, this is key. Yes, it can be quite shocking to learn first-hand the way in which women appear very restricted. Yet abiding by customs isn’t the same as agreeing with them. It is simply a sign of respect towards the culture you are in. That isn’t to say that we aren’t entitled to our own views, but you are a guest of that country and thus have no right to impose your standards on it.
Of course, until you arrive somewhere it is very difficult to know what to expect. ‘Culture shock’ is a very real phenomenon which can affect even the most experienced travellers. If you are thrown into an entirely foreign culture with situations you have never experienced, it is entirely natural to fall back on comparing it to your own frames of reference; it simplifies things a great deal if we can simply brand elements of a culture as ‘wrong’ instead of trying to negotiate them. For these reasons I try not to judge those women in my tour group too harshly. They were probably feeling overwhelmed and perhaps a little intimidated.
To try and prevent these feelings, and also any awkward situations, I’d recommend the following things:
- Do your research and prepare
Yes, trawling the web will only get you so far, but it’s a darn sight better than not doing it at all. I certainly discovered things about Morocco which made a huge difference in deciding whether to visit or not. For example, it is a moderate Islamic country and broadly considered to be very safe, even if you are a women travelling solo. Dress codes are quite liberal. A pashmina and a couple of long skirts (as shown above) and I was good to go.
Some prior foresight certainly saved me (unlike some) from running to H&M the morning of leaving to grab appropriate clothing. It could save you from many other awkward situations too! Moreover, locals appreciate even the smallest effort to respect their customs.
- More often than not, it’s a question of safety
I’m aware that I’m walking on eggshells here. I am NOT saying that anyone ever deserves to be attacked on account of dress or behaviour, but upholding the standards of your home country abroad can maximise risk. Standards of propriety can be very different, and are often used to justify negative treatment. It is both ignorant and dangerous to blame any consequences of not complying, which can even be legal ones, on the culture; like it or not, you are responsible for what happens. When it’s your own safety at stake, it really isn’t worth the risk on the basis of principle.
- Ask yourself: am I comfortable?
It is so, so important to be honest about what you feel you can handle, and if you feel that you would have more fun chilling on a beach in Italy, there is nothing wrong with that! I feel that there is increasing pressure to go to more and more ‘exotic’ places to show you are a ‘real’ traveller and not a just a ‘tourist’. ‘Tourist’ has unfairly become a dirty word because of the connotations of taking selfies in inappropriate places and overcrowding landmark sites. This is a very troubling hierarchy, especially when it pushes people into visiting places they aren’t 100% comfortable with in the name of being ‘intrepid’. Do whatever YOU want to do, and never let anyone else question your destination choices.
Whether it makes you feel lucky to be where you are from or more enlightened about the world, they always say travel is the best form of education. As long as you are organized and prepared, you will have a wonderful trip wherever you are going!