Public Displays of Affection

In 2005, then–U.S. President George W. Bush met with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and the two walked around Texas holding hands, much to the chagrin of some Americans and the delight of others. But a lot of citizens asked, “What the heck is that all about?”

Well, public displays of affection vary from culture to culture. In the Islamic world, hand holding between men is a sign of harmony and goodwill, at least among men of equal social status.

Don’t go around grabbing the hands of Islamic men you don’t know well. Strangers do not touch each other in this culture, nor do men of unequal social footing.

This might lead you to believe that Middle Eastern countries are very touchy-feely. You’d be wrong. It’s really not possible to make a sweeping generalization of what’s acceptable throughout such a large part of the world, but many of these countries are very conservative where public displays of affection are concerned. Some countries frown on any canoodling in public, where others are tolerant of hand holding and a quick hug here and there. In most Arab countries, though, overt displays of affection (a hand on your partner’s rear end) are considered obscene, and in some cases, illegal.

The best advice for those traveling abroad is to research the specific area you’re headed to so you’ll know what’s tolerated and what will land you in jail, and also to follow what the locals are doing. If your travel guide says hand holding is fine but you see couples keeping a safe distance from each other, follow the live example’s lead.

The decency laws in Arab countries are no joke. A married Indian couple was charged with obscenity for kissing in public in 2009, and although they fought the charges and won, foreigners in that same situation would have a legal nightmare on their hands. The lesson? Don’t push any cultural buttons while traveling abroad!

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