It should come as no surprise that in countries whose governance is religiously based, i.e. a theocracy, the state imposes restrictions on when, what, where and how you can practice your faith and live your life.
As a result, it should also be unsurprising that such non-secular rules would also affect any students who want to study abroad in a religiously intolerant country, as underestimating the gravity of these religious strictures could lead to serious consequences, including arrest or possibly worse.
In a situation in which you have to adhere to strict local rules that contradict your personal beliefs, you should take precautions to avoid breaking the law or offending the locals.
While studying in a religiously sensitive country, having a healthy understanding of what is okay and not okay in appearances, behaviors and routines can save you time, energy and reduce the anxiety while living there. The following guidelines are designed to help any person wanting to travel or study abroad in a country that may not be as religiously welcoming as their own.
1. Research the Country
The best place to start your research is using any world-atlas website tool that shows which countries are the most religious. After your search, you will know which specific religion the people of that country most commonly adhere to.
Once you know the predominant religion of the country you plan to visit, research what cultural customs are required for men and women. Women, in particular, should be especially careful and study the ins and outs of public appearances, interactions with the opposite sex and public displays of affections.
2. Understand the Governmental Restrictions
Though researching the religious conventions of a country is important, anyone hoping to blend in while studying abroad must also be familiar with the host country’s government.
Studying in a socialist, communist or totalitarian country can mean restrictions that many Americans are unused to. For instance, in the tragic case of Otto Warmbier, during a study-abroad-related trip to North Korea, his decision to try and take a souvenir with him resulted in his death.
While most instances will not be so grave, what may seem like small infractions in America can have much more severe punishments abroad. In China, for instance, the government restricts its citizens internet usage, which means that certain favorite sites or social media of yours may be forbidden.
As in America, ignorance is not an excuse for breaking the law, so it is your responsibility to make sure you are as educated as possible regarding these different state-enforced restrictions.
No country invites in study-abroad students in the hopes of arresting them for breaking the law, so most tourism bureaus will have plenty of resources for international students. Take advantage of such literature and you will be more than prepared for the cultural differences.
3. Practice Some of the Customs
Though many cultural customs you can politely decline to practice, certain public ones, such as dress codes, are unavoidable.
For instance, some Islamic countries enforce dress codes on their women in hopes of encouraging modesty. Women are expected to dress with long-sleeves, skirts and scarves.
If you consider such a dress code an imposition, then you should choose a different country to study in. However, if you have chosen to study abroad in one of many religiously sensitive countries, then you are going to have to adopt their public traditions.
To do so, try to let go any notions of cultural superiority, i.e. that your way of doing things is better than theirs. Instead, adopt the viewpoint of the country’s people and really try to walk — perhaps sometimes literally — in their shoes. Doing so will help transform the task from an imposition on your freedom into an enlightening, mind-expanding experience.
4. Respect the Country
When it comes to studying abroad in religiously sensitive countries, ignorance is not bliss; if you don’t respect their way of life, their will likely be repercussions. Again (assuming no one forced you to study in a particular country), you made the choice to be there, so you have tacitly accepted the liability for your actions.
The purpose of studying abroad is to step outside your comfort zone, and, in doing so, learn more about yourself and the world around you. By being in a foreign country, students can see the world from different perspectives, and perhaps even adopt some new ideas about life.
The restrictions of a religiously sensitive country are not meant to be intimidating, but should give you the chance to experience self-reliance, responsibility and flexibility.