When I tell people about places I’ve been, or where I’m going, I occasionally get “The Look”. The Look is that face of disapproval that screams, “Do you want to be raped, murdered, sold into sexual slavery, and then dumped into a septic tank?”
It’s a rhetorical and silent question, but if I had the nerve to challenge them, my answer would sound something like: “I would rather live today, and experience that life, than live in fear of what might happen, and still find myself in the exact same circumstances in a parking garage at the library one night, ten minutes from my own home.”
Women are safe, everywhere and nowhere.
It isn’t the traveling that changes that truth, it’s the horrible hands of fate, forgetting the “rules” of being a woman alone that apply in Des Moines or Demascus, misreading cues, ignoring your intuition, or just plain bad luck of stepping into the wrong place at the wrong time.
I strongly suggest that any woman who wishes to travel alone reads The Gift of Fear. Author, Gavin De Becker, examined hundreds of violent attacks against women and found that the single best defense mechanism we each have is our intuition. Honed for thousands of years our primal survival instinct tells us how to interact, who to trust, and how to respond when we find ourselves in harm’s way.
Years ago, as a victim’s advocate who was called to the scene of a number of sexual assaults, I always found Gavin’s findings to hold true. The victims always had some statement indicating dis-ease – with a person, a situation, or the way someone had disregarded their earlier barriers – that set off their intuition, but they chose to silence that voice in favor of being polite or “not appearing racist” or thinking that they were “being silly”.
For me, when I travel alone, I’m rude if I need to be. I don’t feel compelled to politely answer questions about where I’m going or with whom I’m travelling. I don’t smile without purpose just because I make eye contact. I don’t chat up strangers or respond to their chattiness without first evaluating my threat levels.
Have I occasionally been socially pressured, or situationally pressured into making choices I’d rather not have? Yes! And, after the fact, I always kick myself for ignoring my inner voice. That voice was designed to keep me from being eaten by a mastodon, or raped by Ted Bundy, and I should view that voice as my most precious travel companion. But, she’s getting louder with every trip I take, and I’m getting more attuned to her importance.
Knowing that I can rely on my intuition in some circumstances, does not mean that I ignore the truth of the horrible acts that have been perpetuated against female travelers who just had the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and experiencing the lightening strike that can be fate. One quick Google search turns up reports of endless counts of violence against female travelers, with and without male companions.
“A 51-year-old Danish tourist was gang-raped [in Paharganj, New Dehli] after she got lost and asked a group of men for directions back to her hotel, police said. The attackers … dragged her to an isolated spot, stole her iPad and cash and held her hostage for more than three hours. Six of the men raped her.”
“On Jan. 3, a Polish tourist was allegedly drugged and raped by a taxi driver near a main railway station [in New Dehli]”.
“In July, an American tourist was gang-raped in the tourist town of Manali in the state of Himachal Pradesh [India].”
But, the problem isn’t just in India. Last year when I spent time in Bali, a male friend jokingly reduced the threats of violence against women traveling in that area by saying that I would be completely safe because I was a “white woman, in Bali”. He ignorantly forgot the world headlines last year when a serial rapist targeting the peaceful towns of Ubud, and the 20-something party destination of Kuta, attacked an Australian woman in her villa while seven family members slept nearby.
“A serial rapist is believed to be behind a terrifying attack on a 28-year-old Australian woman in Bali. The woman … had a knife held to her throat during the assault … while seven other members of her family, including children, slept nearby in the property.”
Stories like this permeate our travel consciousness, and each time we hear them, at the back of our mind we judge the traveler: “Where were you? Why would you go there? Who were you with?”
But, just as often these stories take place when the woman is traveling with her male companion. In South Africa a couple was kidnapped at a highly traveled picnicking spot, they were held for 14 hours, and she was raped repeatedly while men from local villages watched and taunted the couple and cheered on their assailants.
The stories are terrifying, but they’re also exceptionally rare. Which is why they make international headlines. Just as one wouldn’t refuse to leave the country due to the likelihood of lightening storms, so to should we refuse to be limited to certain segments of the world, and only travel with male companions, due to the likelihood of a lightening strikes of a different type. Yet that’s what people want. They want their women – sisters, mothers, girlfriends, and daughters – safe, and to them, safe means home.
Women’s Travel Fest, held in March of 2014 was dedicated to the question of “How can women safely see the world?” And featured travel journalist Samantha Brown, and journalist Sarah Shourd who was held captive for 410 days in Iran with a friend and her now husband, among others. The conference discussed women’s travel openly and honestly, touching upon everything from traveling as a solo female in the middle east, to traveling with kids, and plotting a female-friendly itinerary.
But, women’s safely is about more than just conferences and catchy YouTube “Tips” videos, it’s about being safe in our own homes first. The truth of sexual assault is that most women who are assaulted encounter the violation not in some remote jungle in a far away country, but in their own home town, by a person they know, and maybe even trust. I live in a first world country, with first world ideals about the treatment of women, and a world-class legal system, and even here women are not well protected from assault. So, why would I allow the potential risk to keep me within the unsafe “safety” zone?
Instead of expecting women to timidly tiptoe around the world through safe tour bus caravans of Mid-Western travelers on July holidays to the United Kingdom, we should begin by addressing these violations in a real and meaningful way in our own country – longer sentencing, faster processing of rape kits, better trauma care during the medical evaluation process, and believing the victim