Travel experiences distorted by gender bias
The first time I ever came across something that honestly dissected the dangers and limits of what it is truly like to be a woman traveling alone, I was in 10th grade. It was A Girl’s Guide to Saudi Arabia by author Maureen Dowd, and it cleverly examined the culture of women traveling alone with the restrictions of a country like Saudi Arabia.
Just take a look at the byline: “Saudi Arabia! Just the vacation spot for a headstrong, adventure-loving, cocktail-imbibing, fashion-conscious chick. Long averse to non-Muslim curiosity seekers, the Kingdom is now flirting with tourism, though drinking is forbidden and women can’t drive — or do much of anything — without a man. Armed with moxie and a Burqini, the author confronts the limits of Saudi Arabian hospitality, as well as various male enforcers, learning that, as always, it matters who you know.”
Honestly, until that moment I hadn’t really considered that my gender could affect the places I could safely visit or the connections I would need just to get around in the world. And I acknowledge that this is definitely a naïve point of view, but either way you’d think that given that pretty much everyone talks about how exciting it is to travel abroad in college and see the world before you’re actually in the world full-time, this would be a more prominently discussed subject.
Only last year The Guardian writer Laura Bates published “Why is travelling alone still considered a risky, frivolous pursuit for women?”, a piece that examined the case of two Argentine women who were killed while traveling in Ecuador. After the incident, many people were quick to blame the women for not traveling in a larger group or with a male companion. But why are individuals blaming the two women for following that bolstered ideal of being a world traveler, instead of examining the kind of conditions that exist in order to allow two things: sexist remarks about how they should’ve had a male companion and a chance that the fact they were women played a role in why they were killed in the first place?
According to Bates, these conditions do not outweigh the problem at hand. “The truth is, women do experience a large amount of harassment and abuse while traveling alone, but they also experience danger in their local communities. To suggest that any woman shouldn’t travel alone is illogical when no country has successfully tackled, and stopped, gender inequality and sexual violence.” So are there countries like this out there?
Lee Tulloch, the founder of Harper’s Bazaar Australia, published a piece called “Female Tourists Unsafe Destinations: Is Travelling as a Solo Woman Dangerous?” on Traveller, a travel advice website based out of Austrailia. In the piece she recounted her own experiences traveling throughout different countries and expressed her concerns that many countries still take the stance against victims of assault who are visiting their country rather than addressing the system that allows for this.
Tulloch wrote: “Egypt, for instance, where sexual harassment and assault on unaccompanied women and girls on the street is systemic. Maybe you didn’t see this on your bus tour to the pyramids, but if you’re a traveller who likes to mingle with the locals, enjoy street culture, and you’re a woman, this is very concerning.”
One of the possible misconceptions about the dangers prevalent in the United States against women versus the dangers available to those traveling alone is that they are vastly different. Yes, you’re not in the place you’ve grown up, and you may not speak the language or know how to convert dollars to euros off the top of your head — but many of the precautions that women take to stay safe in the United States are similar steps that should be taken whenever one is traveling. In a perfect world these precautions would not be necessary, but we are not in that kind of world.
Elisa Doucette, a Forbes contributing writer sums it up very well in her article, “The Realities Women Face Traveling Alone and How to Stay Safe”: “Women are attacked in their own backyards when they do things like this, let alone when they are traveling in unfamiliar locations…You must, as a human being aware of the fact that the perfect world does not exist yet, strive to exist in the world that does.”
This opinion was echoed by freelance journalist and Forbes contributor Alexandra Talty. “As a woman who lived in New York City, I don’t think that I’ve never been someplace where I’ve been alone at night where I’ve considered myself completely safe — you always have to be conscious of your surroundings,” Talty said.
So why does this narrative even exist to such an extent? Doucette believes that narrative might be pushed for the sake of the story. “[It’s] pretty safe to assume the media is often looking for a good spin to get views, so they are going to feed into the fear and ‘story’ behind any time that females are targeted,” she said. “It makes a good lede to report on the anti-female rhetoric of a country. There is definitely a danger to being a solo female traveler, but as long as you are careful and diligent about your surroundings, people you are with, customs and culture where you are traveling, you generally won’t have a problem.”
The negative media coverage is important to note, because a lot of solo traveling experiences can be very positive ones, perhaps they just are not the ones that readers want to hear about. According to a survey administered by the travel website Booking.com, they found that “half of women more likely to holiday alone now than they were five years ago,” of these women, “65 percent of women say they feel more confident when taking a trip by themselves.”
Don’t just take the word of statistics, though. Former Ithaca College student Ellie Corne decided to take a semester off to do some solo traveling and has since extended her travel plans because of the wonderful experiences she’s had. Since leaving Ithaca last May, she has traveled to Australia, Japan and Philippines; specifically Byron bay in Sydney, Hokkaido, Nara, in Japan and Cebu, Moalboal, Oslob, Siquijor and Southern Leyte in the Philippines. From earning her professional diving license in Australia to taking her 100th dive in the depths of the North Pacific Ocean, Corne said, “The more time you spend alone, the more you grow as an individual. You make your own decisions without having to compromise… Travelling alone gives you time to do things for yourself, allowing you time to know yourself better, while simultaneously giving you the option to mingle with the countless other travellers doing exactly the same thing.”
She has loved the people she has met by adventuring outside of her comfort zone. “I’ve learned to always listen to the advice of the locals, no matter how ridiculous they may seem to you and your crazy adventurous first time traveller mates,” she said. “They’re the ones who know the environment, culture, and lifestyle, and in the end definitely know more about anything and everything you’ve planned to do on your trip.”
On the safety side of things, she explained that it mostly comes down to common sense – small things like never riding public transportation alone, especially at night. And it really depends upon the region in which you are traveling as well. Corne said that while she was in Australia, she met a lot of young female travellers who were quite comfortable; however this is a heavily populated, English-speaking country, which may make it easier. When she started to plan for her trip to the Philippines to continue her diving experiences, she had to coordinate the places she could travel to steer clear of locations noted for kidnappings or rebel groups.
Planning for the basics truly is a significant aspect of the ability to travel in general. Freelance journalist Alexandra Talty considers these “entry moments,” which are essentially the simple things to plan for. Once you reach your destination, how you are going to make it to your flat or hostel? Was the hostel recommended by a source you trust and do you know where to go from there? In Talty’s article for Forbes, “The Female Solo Traveler: When ‘Don’t Go’ Isn’t the Solution,” she examined safety tips for travelers based off her own experiences as well as those of a popular travel blogger and a solo female backpacker. Talty’s stance on the concept is summed up within the second paragraph: “Solo travel is a dangerous business for both genders, meaning all of my advice is applicable to both men and women. How is that for some equality?”
If the views of these three women, the numbers and media representations say anything, it is that women travellers should not be deterred or scared to want to see the world. While women do face more biases and constrictions in certain areas of the world, if a woman is smart, cautious and understanding of the culture that she is getting into, perhaps more women will have these positive travel experiences and collectively help to change the narrative on female solo travellers.
Mila Phelps-Friedl is a second-year journalism major who is the only person in the world that uses a passport as her main form of identification. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org