I’ve arrived at my hostel, taking a deep breath as I put down my bag. I go through the motions, familiar by now, of unpacking my bag and chatting with my temporary roommates.
This time, it’s two young European girls on their university break, touring around a new country. We exchange questions and answers like playing cards- where are you coming from, how long are you staying, and the inevitable,
“Are you traveling alone?”
“Wow, you’re so brave!”
“I would never do that.”
“But it’s so dangerous.”
“You have so much courage!”
“What’s it like?”
I pause. Images flash through my mind. Alone, last night, I arrived at a cafe and met a few friendly students with whom I ended up going out and having a fantastic time. Also alone, two days ago, I was groped on the train while other people watched it happen and didn’t say anything.
The two young girls are looking at me. This is the first time they have traveled without their families, and this is a big trip for them. They have expectations, preconceived notions, and internalized beliefs about their ability to travel alone. They are looking at me, an example of traveling alone while female, wondering about my experience.
Maybe what I say will matter to them. Maybe it won’t. But I feel some sort of responsibility- for what? I want to tell them how I’ve struggled, and how I’ve succeeded. I want to tell them how I’ve been “brave”, and how it actually isn’t so hard. I want to tell them to be safe, and to be courageous. I struggle for words.
What story do I want to tell?
There is an archetype of the Solo Female Traveler. This is a woman who, in general, has the resources and opportunity to travel for pleasure, around the world, by herself. I am a Solo Female Traveler, a white cisgender woman from the United States, who has the means to work and travel for a year.
The very existence of this Solo Female Traveler is, in my mind, astounding. Women that can choose to freely travel alone in foreign countries without patriarchal protection are a rather new phenomenon. This phenomenon is not equitably distributed around the world or across class lines, certainly, but compared to most of human history, a woman’s freedom to travel alone is growing rapidly.
But even as Solo Female Traveling has become more common, it has not become easy. When I meet other Solo Female Travelers, eventually our conversations will turn to our shared experiences in this role. Many of these shared experiences are about the harassment, threats, assault, or mental and physical violence that we have faced while traveling. We talk about the times when we have said no when we wanted to say yes, or yes when we wanted to say no, out of a desire to not be harassed or hurt. We talk about how many times adventurous spirit has been taken as a sign of sexual availability, how many times an acceptance of hospitality or offer of help has been taken as a sign of sexual availability, how many times a polite word or smile of acknowledgment has been taken as a sign of sexual availability, how many times appearing in public or being silent has been taken as a sign of sexual availability. We talk about how we have denied ourselves experiences, because of a deeply internalized command, “don’t let yourself get raped”. We have debates about what it means to “stay safe”, cowardice or common sense, openness or “better safe than sorry”.
If there are Solo Male Travelers in the room, they will usually offer one of two responses. One, they will be so eager to establish that not all men are harassers, violent perpetrators, or rapists -especially not these men here, talking- that they will minimize the Solo Female Traveler experience until we change the subject. Or, two, the men will point out that, indeed, there is danger all around women, and they will press this point until the women affirm that we understand the vulnerability of our gender and the protective benevolence of this Solo Male Traveler. Either way, the conversation will end with women swallowing their words left unsaid.
If there are only women left around the table, we will continue to share our stories, until fatigue or frustration changes the subject.
These conversations resurface over and over again in my travels. They are opportunities to empathize, to support and find support in women who have had similar experiences, who feel similar fear and anger. At many points on this trip I have felt utterly alone and vulnerable, after piled-up aggressions and harassment and altercations. These conversations have provided me with new breath.
These experiences are worth talking about. At first, I wanted to write an essay condemning the harassment and discrimination I have faced this year, on the basis of my gender. I wanted to channel these conversations held with other Solo Female Travelers, to focus on our stories. I wanted to fall into the anger and resentment that I feel, and use it for vindication. Indeed, at one point, I wrote the above to tell some part of my story and frustrations.
But these conversations cannot be the only story I tell. This narrative of the Solo Female Traveler, alone and discriminated against in foreign lands, victimized yet courageous in spite of it all, isn’t appealing, nor sufficient for me anymore. It was a narrative handed to me by other people, by those who assumed they knew what the world was like and by those who decided what it was like a long time ago. This narrative stroked my ego, telling me I was brave, keeping me feeling self righteous and self centered. It was a narrative that condoned and stigmatized victimhood at the same time. It has evolved from many sources, including myself and my own conversations.
But today, I want to start to write a new narrative. I need a new narrative, one that acknowledges my reality and realities beyond my own. For the stories that we tell ourselves, true and false, are very much real.
My rejection of the Solo Female Traveler narrative comes from two reasons.
First of all, this narrative feeds into the idea that the outside world is dangerous, and women are vulnerable creatures who, outside the protection of a man, are frighteningly responsible for their own safety. It creates a lens of fear that discourages women from seeking new and valuable experiences.
In reality, I have not experienced more or less harassment and violence in the world at large than I have experienced in American society. We have a tendency to simplify the problems of others, while assuming that our own house is clean. But women are far more likely to experience harassment and violence from people that they know than from strangers. For Solo Female Travelers, many of whom have class and other privilege, daily discrimination experiences are usually limited to street harassment, and more rarely random acts of violence. On the whole, it is when women are not protected by outsider status, or the privilege of travel, that they endure systematic oppression and violence.
And yet, this fear permeates the narrative of the Solo Female Traveler.
I do not believe that the perpetuation of fear is the solution to the problem of sexism and violence against women who travel, just as telling women to defend themselves against rape is not the same as demanding that men are taught not to rape. Teaching women that they are responsible for not becoming victims is not the same as questioning the structures that designate them as such. Telling women that traveling abroad alone is unsafe is not only directly contradictory to my experience, but it also places the responsibility for sexism on foreigners while erasing culpability in my own society.
There is a global patriarchy, and, traveling or not traveling, women will face sexism. This is a reality. Adding a layer of fear of the unknown on top of that reality discourages women from searching out experiences that are both possible and immensely valuable.
Everywhere in this world, there are dangers and there is kindness. Overwhelmingly, my trust in people I don’t know has led to inspiring, rewarding, life-changing moments. I do not want to contribute to any narrative that discourages women from these same opportunities, because of some unnamed fear, in a world rife with kindness.
The second reason I find the Solo Female Traveler narrative problematic is that when we focus only on our own difficulties and hardships as travelers, it minimizes the experiences of the women in the world who do not have the privilege or desire to travel alone. We are writing our story over theirs.
Tara Isabella Burton’s viral article, “Dangers of Traveling While Female”, eloquently points out the travel stories that we glorify. These are stories of adventure and risk taking, imposed narratives and projected egos, that for centuries have been written by and about men. Burton writes,
“Such an approach to travel – the grandiose conviction that the world exists to be mapped, shaped, formed anew with reference to the author’s own preconceived convictions of how it ought to be (Fermor insisted upon calling Istanbul “Constantinople” long after the Turks themselves had decided otherwise) — is exclusively the provenance of the privileged, the powerful: those who never doubt that the world belongs to them… [It] is often the world in which the storyteller, with his witty quotes and charming misfortunes, becomes a kind of literary colonizer: the true subjects of the story – these locals for whom “Constantinople” is only ever Istanbul – reduced to mere background objects, picturesque scenery.”
Travelers want to come back with a good story. As often as I hear boasts of careless revelry or close calls come from (usually) male travelers, I hear lamentations of missed opportunities come from female travelers, including myself. Why can’t we have the same adventures?
Perhaps that is not the question to ask, because perhaps these adventures are not owed to us. When we righteously demand accommodation in a foreign place, we ignore the valid, complex realities of the people who live there.
I have had many disturbing experiences this past year. But this reality exists not because I am a Solo Female Traveler in sexist counties, but because this reality exists for many women around the world. My feelings of entitlement for safe travel, while valid, are not more important than any woman’s desire to live in a safe and equal society. It is not enough to demand less street harassment, or safer public transportation, or any other issue that female travelers tend to focus on, without also considering the circumstances of the women that live there. To focus only on what we want as women travelers is to ask for special privilege within a system that does not provide for all, instead of creating agency for everyone.
It can also be an attempt to create an agency over the heads of other women, without their voices. Our voices as foreigners should contribute, but not talk over, local dialogues. We are travelers passing through a place, and our observations and simplifications, even if well meaning, are not more important than how women in their own societies choose to live. Sharing stories and empathizing is important, but creating connections also requires listening and considering another perspective. There are stories outside our own.
I have met some of the most awe-inspiring, incredible women I have ever known in the last year. They have showed me their worlds and their homes. We have shared chores and meals, and many, many cups of coffee. They live in a world that frequently does not give them enough recognition nor opportunity, and yet they inspire me to no end with their courage, vulnerability, love, and joy.
They have also repeatedly humbled and reminded me, both by example and directly, that my way of looking at the world is not the default. These women have been my teachers. They have shown me the projections and assumptions that I make. They have taught me that travel should not be an imposition onto a place, but an immersion. They have taught me that the world is full of beautiful, and not beautiful people, and yet the only real choice is to continue on with what you want to do anyway.
These women have taught me that I don’t need to buy into old stories- I can write my own. This is my choice. I have no new overarching narrative to present; rather, I want to complicate the story we are already telling ourselves. Global feminism, when it includes many voices, is anything but simple.
Complicate the narrative.