Thursday, February 7, 2013

A Woman Alone


  Jezebel writes about women traveling alone reaction to the reactions to the murder of Sarai Sierra, a female tourist traveling alone in Istanbul.

I already talked about this in a previous post, but just felt it was worth it to share the link above.

The comments on the Jezebel article are worthwhile if you're a woman traveling or living alone outside your home country - or even in your home country, or hometown.

Some that I particularly liked:

If women can't travel alone, a lot of women will end up never traveling. For a lot of people, there are only a few sweet spots between the "poor young person" and the "busy working person" stages when they have the chance to take long vacations. If they hit that sweet spot and none of their friends have the money or the time, what are they supposed to do?
I do know some women who will assume that they'll be able to travel when they have serious boyfriends or husbands. Most of them never end up going anywhere. You're not guaranteed you'll find that perfect relationship, or that it will be with someone who likes traveling, or that money and time still won't interfere.
I say if you want to go somewhere, you should do it when you can.


"A single woman traveling alone is risky. In a foreign country, it is downright foolish."
Yes, all those risks of traveling in Japan and Germany.
I know traveling as a woman isn't the same as as a man, but my God Americans live in such constant fear of low-risk situations.
You know what you're more likely to get hurt doing? Driving to work as a single woman. Better stop going to work, ladies!
"No way I would even let my beautiful wife out the door to travel to any country alone."
Good thing she isn't your goddamn thrall, King Shithead.

(I agree with her on that one: the whole "letting" your wife do this or that - - ha ha, it's no secret how I'd react if Brendan ever talked that way to me...or I to him)


Okay, I do not mean to sound controversial at all and I absolutely think women can and should travel alone, *but* you, as a woman, should definitely take more precautions, safety wise. I am a woman who has traveled extensively alone. I've done several cross country trips alone, traveled in Brazil and Argentina alone, camped in rural Montana alone and traveled through much of Europe (including backpacking in remote areas) alone. I have also been followed to my hotel room by a strange man, followed in my car until I had to head to a police station, and accosted in the middle of wilderness by a farmer who attempted to sexually assault me. I got out of all of those situations okay, but (not to pat myself on the back) this was due to having considered these things happening in advance and knowing what my best options were. (And also good luck.) Again, I'm not saying not to travel alone as woman, but it is crucially important to be prepared.
Bad things can and do befall travelers of both genders, but women can be targeted much more frequently for things like sexual assault, so it is helpful if you have some kind of basic training in self defense or at least read up on it. It's good to know, for example, that it's generally not smart to carry a knife or a weapon that can be taken from you and used against you, that it's generally better to have something to disable an attacker like pepper spray or mace. Study up on the your destination extensively. Try to acquaint yourself with the layout of the city before going or on the plane, so you can avoid being lost with a map in your hands. Find out about your communication (cell service, internet connection, etc.) options and the local police and hospital situation (including the possibility that you may want to *avoid* the local police!) In some places (more conservative places) you will attract a LOT of unwanted attention if you wear something as simple as a tank top. Also, be especially, especially cautious when drinking.
That said, traveling alone is a special kind of magic. There are few things more precious to me than my memories of solitary travel. Particularly if you can find yourself alone in untouched nature, it is the only thing I've ever encountered that I could describe as a transcendent experience. I would love for more women to travel alone in all corners of the world, I just think it's important to realize that to do so safely often requires a bit of extra work on our part. Not fair, necessarily, but neither are periods and such is life. ;) Anyway, just please, prepare and then prepare some more. I read about adventurers fairly often (both modern and old timey) and though they may seem reckless in their ambitions, most of them are actually overly cautious and have researched and prepared for every eventuality they can think of.
Anyway, safe and happy travels, all! :)

My comment on Jezebel sums it up for me:

I've been around the world with my husband and alone. On my own I went to China (rural and urban - Guizhou, Beijing, Hong Kong, Shandong and more), India, Nepal, Bangladesh (Bangladesh!!), Japan (although I met a female friend there), Korea (although I met a male friend there, but had to spend a lot of time out and about on my own), the Czech Republic, England, Laos, Thailand, Ireland and the Philippines. That solo trip to India was *two months long* and I spent **a year** on my own in China.
With my husband (i.e., a man) I've been to India, the Philippines, Singapore, China (I returned to some countries!), Indonesia, Egypt, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala and Turkey. In Turkey I had to go out by myself a bit because he got sick twice.
With a group, family or female friends I've been to India (again! this time six months), France, England, Malaysia, China (Xi'an, Yunnan, Sichuan, Chongqing, Xinjiang) and Canada (oooh).
Oh yeah, and I live, full time, in Taipei, Taiwan. At first on my own, now with my husband.
And tomorrow we leave for ten days in Sri Lanka.
So. SO. Sooooo.
I'm not saying all this to brag. (OK, maybe a little to brag. But you'll forgive me for that, right?) I'm saying this to show that hey, I've got experience. I know what I'm talking about.
I can say honestly that traveling alone was not worse in most of those countries, just different. For example, in India, if you are a woman traveling alone, the ticket agent will put you on trains with groups of women or families. It's a normal courtesy. The families or women "adopt" you and look out for you. You have to be careful of dodgy hotels and keep your wits about you, but it can be done. In Turkey, I went all over the country, not just Istanbul, and felt like I blended in and was basically ignored if I put on a headscarf once we went out east. In Bangladesh, there are so few tourists that yeah, you stick out (and I did get some sexual harassment), but people are so hospitable that they'll look out for you, because a foreign visitor is rare, and they want their country to leave a good impression. I took a bus from the border to Dhaka, and the women on the bus basically took me in as one of their own and shared their iftar snacks with me (it was Ramadan). It's not like India where easily scammed hippies (sorry) are a dime a dozen.
That said, as a woman there were places I could go that men couldn't - places with women - but places that as a woman I couldn't go (certain teahouses in eastern Turkey, for example).
With my husband, I got stared at less, and left alone more, but the downside of that was that nobody looked out for us. They just assumed that was his job (sexist! I totally plan the trips! But change is coming more slowly to some countries), and so we got less help, less "adoption" by locals...which meant less harassment, but also less interaction. Places that didn't really welcome women (few places will explicitly bar women, but you'll get the Death Stare if you enter) were off-limits, as were places where women congregated. So we lost out on both ends.
In a group you barely talk to any locals at all. It's kind of sad, really, and so I try not to travel in groups.
I'm not saying I'd rather take some harassment to get my local interaction. Obviously, harassment sucks. I'm just saying the two things are different, but it is still possible to travel alone.

And yes, I'd go back to Turkey alone. Even the conservative eastern side where I saw few women out and about, I only felt comfortable with covered hair, and more than half of the teahouses were men-only.
* * *
A long comment, but I wanted to fully express myself as this topic is important to me.
Another tip: if you do want to travel alone and the country/countries you want to visit aren't super safe ones like Germany or Japan, do a Google search on the country you're planning to visit and the words "woman alone" or "woman traveling alone"...or something along those lines. See what people say. The Internet is littered with forums full of advice threads on almost all countries for women who want to head out on their own. Read those first and be informed.
I do feel it's important for women to be able to travel alone, and I know there are two sides to the argument. On one end you get "you shouldn't sequester women at home, blaming them for the actions of a few bad people - that's victim blaming and it's unacceptable", and on the other you get "well, it shouldn't be that way, but it is, and you have to be realistic about what is and isn't safe".
There's also the side that thinks it's fine to victim-blame women and keep them at home, but I don't really want to give that side any credence, so I'm not going to cover it. I'm gonna call bullshit when I see bullshit.

While I believe it is important to be realistic, I don't think that a lot of people who believe the second line of reasoning are actually all that realistic. Many haven't done that much traveling, and many either are not women or are women who haven't done a lot of traveling alone. Women who have done that traveling will tend to go with the first belief - that they can handle themselves and shouldn't be the ones blamed for the existence of crime against women. 
Because, honestly, while some violence or crime is directed at women alone because they appear weaker and easier to target, a lot of it is violence that would also be targeted at a man alone. There's also the 'false correlation' issue: just like with sexual assault, it's just not true that a woman gets sexually assaulted based on what she's wearing or where she goes - covering up more or not going out alone won't reduce her risk of sexual assault to zero, or even all that much: most sexual assault happens at the hands of someone the victim knows or has allowed into their space, and it has nothing to do with what clothing is worn. 
The same for traveling alone - honestly, you're in just as much danger in your own area as you are in a foreign country (depending on the country). I felt no safer in DC than I did in Turkey or India, to be honest. And what could have happened to me in Beijing that couldn't also have happened in New York? Some countries pose unique risks, but preparedness and smarts can help you reduce those risks to a level not much higher than you'd find in your own country.
As a woman who has traveled extensively alone, as well as coupled and with a group - and did some of that solo travel in countries seen as dangerous, such as India, Bangladesh and the Philippines - I can say that "realistic" doesn't mean "stay home". It means "be smart". Don't wear revealing clothes, don't make a lot of eye contact, don't advertise yourself as being alone, do be clear and firm, and feel free to lie about a fake husband nearby, or stick to families and groups of women. In most of these countries, a group of women will almost always immediately understand why you are hanging out around them and fold you into their group. You might even be invited home for dinner.  Whatever you think of head coverings, if you're in an area where that's done, just do it. It's not about you - it's about fitting in. 
- Do take a self-defense course. I didn't and while I was never assaulted, I wish I had. I will, when I get the chance (anyone know of any good self-defense classes in Taiwan? Is that even a thing here?)
- Do carry pepper spray or mace, not a knife
- Do wear a money belt
- Do look around and pick out 'safe spots' - open businesses, other women - that you can run to if you sense danger
- be assertive - scream loudly if you are being harassed or feel threatened. Don't be afraid to slap a guy doing this, even with your shoe if you can get it off quickly. In most countries, even India (despite the horrific recent bus rape), the crowd will come to your defense
- If you feel threatened and see a foreign man nearby, running up to him and saying "look, someone's bothering me, can you pretend to be my partner for a few minutes" will probably be enough to get him to help you. Look for other women, first, but if you see none, this is another good bet. If one's around. 
- trust your spidey sense - if something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't.
- I know this feels like unfair sequestering, but don't go out at night by yourself in most developing countries. It's not worth the risk. 
- try to hook up with others or groups for portions of your trip, even if you don't want to stick with them for your entire trip.
- know when not to freak out. There is no reason to feel unsafe in Taiwan at night, for example. Trust your gut, but learn to recognize and ignore irrational fear. 
* * *
So ladies - don't listen to the haters. Be smart, be safe, be careful, but don't be afraid. Don't think that the world is not open to you. How is it even possible that the world and all its delights (and terrors) is open only to the half of the population that has the right genitals? 
You are half the population and nobody has any right to sequester you at home like precious jewels. This is your world too. Go out and take it.

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