We get it: women travellers are more at risk than their male counterparts, but that’s no reason for ladies not to go places
In 2007, I spent 10 days in Egypt with a male friend who was living and studying there. While he was in class, I explored Cairo alone. At the Muhammad Ali mosque, a group of schoolchildren started following me – cute little kids, maybe third graders, fascinated by my digital camera and apparently having recently learned to ask, “Hello, what’s your name?” in English. A few minutes later, though, a different group started trailing me from room to room, this time made up of male high school students, led by male teachers who looked about my age. They hung back, not actually interacting with me, just whispering, pointing and laughing. After two hours of following me, I was aggravated and decided to cut the visit short. As I made my exit, one teenager finally walked up and handed me a note. In carefully scripted English it read, “Do you have sex?”
I balled it up, threw it at him and snapped, “No.” Of course, that was a lie, but I figured it wasn’t the time and place for a productive back and forth about sexual values. When I met up with my travel companion an hour later, we went to a market where few men would speak directly to me even when I spoke first, only asking my friend what his wife would like. As we walked around, one or two young men hissed.
In the taxi ride home, my friend complained about how difficult it was for him to travel with me, and how he was frustrated that, with me, he wasn’t treated as well as he was when he walked around alone. My presence, and the reactions it caused, was a major annoyance.
He was right: It is difficult to travel with me. Lucky for him, he got to leave me behind after a little more than a week. I always have to travel in my own skin.
I don’t tell this story to say that Egypt is a terrible place, or that male travel companions are always so thoroughly self-involved – Egypt is a wonderful place, and male travel companions are only sometimes so thoroughly self-involved. Where I live in New York, I get harassed on the street with regularity. Most people in New York also aren’t aggressive street harassers – same as in Cairo, even if that city does have a serious street harassment problem. And I remember this incident specifically because it was so unusual. The day after the sex note, I met a group of young women who walked me all around the city for no reason other than they were nice and wanted to share their knowledge with a visitor. I met many, many men and women who were warm, kind and generous with their time and expertise. And I’m uncomfortable relaying this anecdote, because I realize it’s a common trope: white American woman leaves her country, whines about brown men.
I tell it, though, because it’s a fact of Traveling While Female that sometimes, when you’re in an unfamiliar place, uncomfortable things happen – and they can feel even more invasive when, by virtue of being somewhere new and of internalizing the never-ending narratives of female sexual vulnerability, you feel extra vulnerable.
The things women are used to can seem particularly galling to men who experience them intermittently, and those same men may react with outsized self-pity or resentment – toward you. And it can be especially difficult to traverse across layers of power and privilege when you feel very small and exposed, but know intellectually that your nationality, your skin color, your income or your ability to travel for pleasure put you in a wildly advantageous position over many people on the planet.
The reality is that women of all backgrounds face different challenges navigating the world, whether it’s around the corner or across the globe. Traveling while female means facing a long list of rules about where you can and cannot go and what you can and cannot do. There are lots of male-only spaces, from beautiful bathhouses to secluded monasteries to military encampments and operations to religious institutions to centers of power and decision-making. That can be frustrating as a tourist; it’s maddening as a journalist.
But women-only spaces exist, too. They rarely have the same political power male-only spaces hold, but they do have their own stories, especially about how life in a place operates outside of public view. Men have always written history according to their own experiences, and male-dominated spaces are often the ones deemed important and visit-worthy. There’s power there, for female travelers to see the broader reality of a place by going where the women go.
Apart from formal restrictions, if you travel as a woman you’ll be treated to strong suggestions about places you should or should not go. It is true that bad things happen, and when you’re female, the pervasive threat of rape hangs over nearly all of these warnings. Sometimes that threat is realized.
It’s also true that the world outside your front door is far less scary than you might think; it’s alternately comforting and terrifying to realize that there’s very little you can do to ensure you won’t be harmed, and that women around the world are much more at risk in their own homes and communities than they are on the streets of even an unfamiliar locale. There’s something to be said for doing things that feel scary, for going places where you’re a little uncomfortable and for trying things that are new and challenging.
That doesn’t mean ignoring your own legitimate fear responses; fear is one of the most important tools in your self-protection arsenal. It does mean differentiating from feeling afraid or uneasy about a situation you’re in or a person you’re facing, from a more generalized discomfort at the prospect of doing something far outside of where you feel most at ease. Remember too that news stories and even human rights advocates highlight the unusual, the dangerous, the problematic, the violent – not the mundane day-to-day that makes up real life in most places.
And then there are the dress codes. The unfortunate reality is that women’s bodies, and the clothes we put on those bodies, are politicized everywhere. We understand and usually take for granted modesty norms in our own countries (if you work in an office and are perusing the Guardian at work, you probably aren’t reading this article in your underwear, for example). But when your Lonely Planet guide to a place tells you that female travelers should dress modestly, that can feel like a bit of an affront, especially if, like me, you believe that telling women to cover up because our bodies are inherently sexually tempting and it’s our job to control that temptation is both misogynist and dangerous.
Yet cultures are neither static nor readily understandable from a brief summary – facts we often forget about societies not our own. When you are a visitor, you are seeing one sliver of a vast reality in one specific place in time, and all through tinted lenses. I realize I just don’t grasp the full experiences of women in places outside of the corners of the US in which I have lived. I’m rarely able to blend in to the places I visit and my very presence indicates I enjoy an abundance of resources often unavailable to the people whose worlds I’m peeking into. I also know that I will sometimes be given more leeway than local women. So I make an effort – including a physical one – to at least appear as inoffensive as possible.
I also respect the position of women who dress however they want, wherever they are. It can be difficult to reconcile your own beliefs about bodily autonomy and women’s rights with customs you don’t entirely understand, and to balance a desire for freedom and authenticity with a basic need to be polite and respectful as a tourist or outsider. When it comes to the physical body and the clothes we put on top of it, there are no easy or correct answers.
Here’s a simpler proposition: take some chances. Push back on the idea that women are inherently vulnerable and at risk. Choose to believe that the world is far less dangerous than the front page of your newspaper might suggest. Know too that danger is relative – and some people, by virtue of skin color or location or appearance or sexual orientation or religion or economics, are far more exposed. So trust yourself and your instincts; don’t trust your assumptions or your expectations.
Link to article: feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663875/s/37a3cfe1/sc/10/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Ccommentisfree0C20A140Cfeb0C280Cwomen0Eshould0Etravel0Ealone/story01.htm