In her article “Dangers of Traveling While Female” (linked above), Tara Isabella Burton writes:
“…as a travel writer, I am painfully conscious of how easy it is for a moment’s lapse to turn me from an observer – an all-seeing eye, freely taking in a Tbilisi hilltop or a Turkish terrace – into a target.
It’s the reason I turned down the recent invitation of a well-known Georgian writer to visit him at his winter home in the mountains. It’s the reason my heart starts pounding when the waiter in Tbilisi brings me a complimentary plate of baklava when I’ve only asked for a coffee. Not because I fear that this writer, or this waiter, will drag me into a darkened room and rape me. But rather because the social codes I have learned to fend off unwanted advances – abruptness, bordering on rudeness; the refusal of any special favors or gifts; the subtle avoidance of giving off the “wrong impression” – are diametrically opposed to the openness, the willingness to go anywhere and do anything, that form the genesis of every good travel story.
Of course, many of my decisions are instinctive, ritualistic rather than practical. I am statistically more likely to be raped on a night out with friends in England than by a stranger in Yerevan, after all, and I know that however tightly I hold my keys, however forcefully I refuse free baklava, the only thing that will determine whether or not I end up raped is whether or not I end up in the presence of someone who has decided that my consent is immaterial. Nevertheless I have internalized a series of rules – do not smile at a stranger, never follow a shopkeeper into a back room, never accept a ride, never tell a man where you’re staying – that prevent me from following in Fermor’s footsteps, from sleeping in haystacks or barns like, as he puts it, “a tramp, a pilgrim, a wandering scholar,” much as I might like to.
“Can’t you just get over it?” a male friend asked me once, accusing me of clinging to cowardice in the guise of common sense. Certainly, it is possible to attribute some of my reluctance to skittishness: I have swallowed concepts of self-preservation over and beyond what I need to keep myself from ending up at the bottom of the Bosphorus. And I wonder, sometimes, whether women are too often taught to prioritize a nebulous idea of “safety” over adventure. My male friends laugh about the scrapes they have gotten into – arguments, fist fights, muggings – dangers that have left no lasting damage.
Can I not adopt the brisk attitude to danger of the Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy, who once fended off a would-be rapist with a .25 pistol?
Yet behavior taken as mere geniality in men – accepting rides or invitations, staying for a cup or tea or dinner, even engaging in idle conversation – is often taken in women to be a sign of sexual willingness…”
As a child, I dreamed of becoming a world traveler, visiting all of the unique and exciting places I had only read about. I imagined myself sitting under a cafe umbrella on a sunny day in Rome, sipping my espresso and watching the life of the city pass me by. Or dipping my bare feet in the Pacific Ocean, photographing the pyramids of Egypt, standing solemnly in the midst of the ruins of a concentration camp from WWII German, or catching my first site of New Zealand from the air. It seemed my possibilities were as limitless as my dreams.
I still possess a terrific wanderlust. I still want to experience famous vistas, foreign flavours, and spectacular cultures. But I know more about the world than I did as an eager eight-year-old and, for better or worse, I understand that I am limited to only so much adventure time alone. The world is not so embracing as my storybooks would make it seem.
I now know that the only thrill of riding over the subway rails of Manhattan is being left alone. I wanted to be like those women in films who wandered strange and exotic cities alone, successfully (Eat. Pray. Love. anyone?) But I’ve learned that’s not realistic. Not because I have any less right to walk the sidewalks but because the presence of a lone female will eventually cause some unpleasant excitement.
Soraya Chemaly recently wrote a brilliant piece entitled, “When Did You First Have to Think about Rape?” In it, she notes:
“…by the time we [women] are fully engaged in the world, at school, going to work, shopping for food—you know, living—we have already made our own personal adaptations to the reality of the threat [of assault].
For example, we choose our commute options carefully to avoid being alone in certain places, we park closer to entrances than men might, we don’t exercise outside as much, we limit our daughter’s physical freedoms earlier than they or we want to, we develop instincts about the level of threat implied in street harassment, and we learn to weaponize everyday objects, like keys.
We have a gendered safety gap and we pretend that it has no effect, when it does. It affects everything from how we dress to the suppression of our speech as a result of this violence and its threat.”
I once found myself alone and lost in a foreign city on a national holiday. The streets I had wandered only a few nights earlier after fish and chips with friends were now bustling with celebrators and tourists…and ever alleyway looked the same. And I was scared. I tried not to show it. I tried to look confident, like I had half a clue of where I was, but I was afraid. I felt vulnerable and every moment that passed made me wonder if I might have trouble down the next street.
It was not the city itself which caused the fear. The fear was not intensified by any language barrier. It was not even the group of men standing outside the corner pub, glasses of beer in hand…at least, not those exact men. None of them bothered me. I blended into the ever-moving crowd. But the idea of what those men were capable of, should they fancy having fun at my expense, was the true source of my fear. I had never felt so profoundly female.
I’m not talking about my femininity or even the physical form of my body. I’m talking about the sudden awareness that I was a girl wandering a man’s world alone. I was feeling the effect of the “gender safety gap”.
I was alone for just over an hour. I often imagine what sort of things I might have discovered had I not a female, but a human presence. Who might I have met? What new drink might I have tried? What photographs might I have been able to add to my album upon returning home?
And if I had been assaulted, would it have been my fault for walking? Would my clothing have been to blame; the multiple layers of clothes I had on to keep out the cold? Would it have been my fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Reading about the travel exploits of men, you would be hard pressed to find the protagonist fearing sexual violence or altering his travel plans to avoid the threat of hypothetical danger. And, whether it’s a societal expectation of masculinity or a natural male inclination (or a blend of both), danger is just part of the thrill of travel.
That is not to say that there are no safety risks to men who travel alone. That would be an unfair representation. Men are victims of theft and assault. Yet “Top Ten Tips” lists for safe travel alone are far more likely to address single women. Female travelers, as Tara Burton points out, are naturally more limited in the thrills they may safely seek.
The threat is not some phantom created by a woman’s overactive imagination or delusions of victim-hood. It is not something women bring upon themselves. It is the daily reality – whether we’re on the road or not – of women living in a world which has so long exploited them. A world that interprets a shared conversation over coffee as indication of sexual desire.
As one young woman wrote,
When people ask me about my experience studying abroad in India, I always face the same dilemma. How does one convey the contradiction that over the past few months has torn my life apart, and convey it in a single succinct sentence? ‘India was wonderful,’ I go with, ‘but extremely dangerous for women.’ Part of me dreads the follow-up questions, and part of me hopes for more. I’m torn between believing in the efficacy of truth, and being wary of how much truth people want.
I do not wish to travel the world as a man. Nor do I begrudge men for their travel experiences.
I simply wish to travel with enough confidence to believe that others will respect my worth as a human. I wish to enter a world where branching out on my own is not a luxury. A world where eye contact is not consent. A world where women are treated as human beings and not easy targets.