When you’re considering to study abroad, there are so many questions and concerns to think about: Where do you want to study? What school do you want to attend? What are you supposed to pack? How can you prepare for culture shock or homesickness while you’re living alone in a foreign country?
If you’re a woman considering to study abroad in a conservative region, or an area where residents predominantly follow a conservative religion or traditional culture, you will have additional concerns. Traveling to such a destination may mean that you’ll have to adapt your clothing and behavior to suit your new surroundings.
You can have a great experience studying abroad in the country of your choice, no matter how different the culture is. You just have to do your research and prepare yourself.
What to Consider Before You Decide
To get the most out of your time studying abroad in any country, research the culture. Adapting to the local customs will benefit you in social interactions and keep you safe from unwanted attention.
In more socially conservative regions, women may be expected to act in ways you aren’t used to. You may be expected to dress more conservatively and to be much more reserved around men. For example, in many locations, it’s considered inappropriate for a woman to be alone with a man or to have physical contact with any man other than her husband or family members.
“I can't really kiss my boyfriend on the street, or even hold his hand,” says Serena Piol, who is currently working in Morocco. “Depending on how conservative the country, women have varying levels that they are allowed to associate with men in public, and in private even.” [sic]
Harassment is always a concern, especially for women who are traveling alone in a conservative country. Trying to fit in while abroad is important, but cultural sensitivity should never require you to allow behavior that makes you feel unsafe or violates your personal boundaries. Be prepared to deal with cat-calling or street harassment by ignoring it or firmly saying “no,” and don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it.
Tips to Prepare
1. Research the culture before you go.
Talk to fellow students who have studied abroad in that location, and ask for their advice on culture shock and issues or questions specific to women.
2. Prepare to dress more modestly.
You don’t necessarily have to wear long skirts and dresses every day. “Don't go out and buy big ol' sacks to wear!” says Piol. “Wear your normal clothes, just perhaps mix and match to be more covered.”
3. Be smart about packing.
If you do prefer skirts, pack a few long, wrinkle-free skirts or dresses with long sleeves. They’re easy to transport, wear, and can be cool for warmer climates. These items can also be casual or dressy depending on accessories.
4. A big shawl or scarf is a useful accessory.
Easy to carry and pack, shawls are great for covering up if you feel the need. And although you may not have to cover your head, you might feel more comfortable doing so if all the locals are. Also, keep in mind that some religious sites require women to cover their heads and/or knees.
5. Ask the locals.
While you’re studying abroad, learn the expectations of how to dress and behave from local women. Observe how they act and what they wear. If you are feeling confused, find a female ally. It’s more likely that she will be sympathetic to your experience and can answer any questions you may have.
Living in a more conservative society does not mean you’ll enjoy yourself any less. Being observant of local customs and keeping an open mind will ease your immersion into a foreign environment.
Gass, S. (n.d.). Women Studying Abroad: Preparation and Support Are Important. Retrieved from Transitions Abroad.
Gender and Study Abroad. (n.d.). University of Puget Sound. Retrieved from Univeristy of Puget Sound.
Lussa, R. (2009). Coping with Culture Shock. Retrieved from TopUniversities.
Newport, N. (2000). Sexual Harassment And Prevention In College Students Studying Abroad. Retrieved from The Center for Global Education.
What Should I Wear? General Clothing Comments. (n.d.). Journeywoman. Retrieved from JourneyWoman.