Traveling as a woman varies person to person, and I don’t want to blanket statement what it’s like. I want to avoid overgeneralizing or asserting opinions as facts. I will, however, write what it was like for ME, as a woman, to travel. And after speaking to multiple women traveler friends, I think it’s safe to say that many women have the same or similar experiences while traveling.
I’m not pinpointing any specific countries. ALL countries have their wonderful and dangerous features; every single one. The truth is, being a woman in this world, as it is currently set up, is hard and traveling as a woman has its own set of hardships. I wish that weren’t true, and we can work to change that, but in the meantime, I want to put these statements out there. There are things I wish people had told me, as a woman, before I traveled.
Again: this is in no way meant to scare or deter women from traveling. OH MY GOSH, GO TRAVEL, PLEASE, IN THE NAME OF WHATEVER YOU LOVE, GO TRAVEL. It enriches a life like nothing else ever can. BUT….be aware.
- BE AWARE
There are certain dangers that you have to be extra aware of as a female traveler. Be aware of who is staring at you. Be aware of who has taken notice of you, for whatever reason. Be aware of who is around you at all times. “Be aware” is not meant to be the same as “Be paranoid” or “Be distrustful”. Did you see the merchant staring at you long before your transaction started or long after it was over? Be aware. Do you notice that the women around you are covering their heads? Perhaps you’ve wandered into a sacred space and not noticed; or perhaps its the custom of the country for women to cover their heads, and you are now standing out. Can you see that a group of men are looking at you, maybe talking about you? Maybe they’re just curious because you look different from people around you; maybe they like your shirt; maybe you should just stay alert. Have you stepped into an alleyway? Can you see who is looking at you from windows? Is someone insisting on talking to you, even though you don’t want to talk to them? Just…be aware. Awareness can save lives. It can tell you that you should step out of a situation. It should tell you that you should try to find a more public space. Don’t be unaware.
2. WALKING ALONE
It’s very hard for me to say, “don’t walk alone” because I’ve walked alone many times, in many countries. But know that there have been women in the world that have been attacked because they were walking alone. That doesn’t mean don’t do it: it means please respect that this happened to real people, and that you should stay aware (again!) of what or who is around you. Or if suddenly no one is around you. I would at least say try to avoid walking alone at night in a new country, especially if you don’t know the rules or culture yet — but again, it’s quite hard to make a blanket statement like that. Just stay alert. I carry pepper spray when I can.
3. EMERGENCY PHONE NUMBERS
Carry emergency phone numbers with you. Write them on a piece of paper, on your arm, on a bracelet, in a phone (if you have one). These are people or places you can call if you are hurt or in trouble. These are also numbers that other people can call for you if there’s an emergency. Don’t be stranded someone you’re not familiar with, with no way to contact help. And unless you’ve got a memory like a steel trap (I know I don’t), you probably won’t be able to memorize the phone numbers, so write them down.
4. DON’T BE SCARED TO BE IMPOLITE
I am shocked on the daily the danger women are placed in because they were too worried about being impolite. “Well, he said hi to me, I didn’t want to be mean.” “He was being friendly, and I didn’t want to seem rude.” This is a symptom of a deeper problem in society, I believe: that women must always seem agreeable, or sweet, or gentle, or else be seen as RUDE, MEAN, HORRIBLE, UNGRATEFUL. No! Those are lies! If you are uncomfortable or feel unsafe, SAY SO. You can be polite in asking someone to stop speaking to you; you can say that you’re busy, that you don’t have time, that people are waiting for you (yes, even if that’s not true, make people think that your absence will be noticed). But you do NOT have to talk to someone just because they talked to you, if it makes you uncomfortable. Too often my friends have said, “I didn’t like that guy/I felt kind of scared/It stressed me out/I wanted to leave….but I didn’t want to be rude.” If politeness puts your life in danger, please be impolite.
If even after you have asked respectfully asked someone to leave you alone, alert the people around you to your situation. If someone persists in making you uncomfortable, especially after you’ve made it clear that you are uncomfortable or even afraid, make a scene – people who want to hurt you do not want a scene. They don’t want to draw other people’s attention to what they’re doing. Protecting yourself is not being culturally insensitive. You can generally tell the difference between someone who wants to build a friendship and someone who wants to make you vulnerable, or get you alone.
5. KNOW WHEN YOU’RE BEING LOUD
Don’t draw unnecessary attention to yourself. Don’t be obnoxious or loud. Don’t stand out and make a lot of people notice you, unless you are in a situation in which you feel safe or trust the people around you. There are always exceptions to every rule, but generally, be able to identify if you are being brash, loud, rude. You could be disturbing the people around you. You could be setting a bad example. You could be leaving a bad impression of people from your country.
Worse, and this is totally, completely unfair, if you are from a “Western” country (never liked that phrase…), there is an impression in the world that women are “morally loose” or promiscuous — not in the healthy, independent way, but in the “she’ll sleep with anyone so I’ll take advantage of her” way. Being overly loud or being obnoxious is tied to this stereotype: she doesn’t care what kind of attention she gets. It’s not fair, but it would be foolish to deny that some in the world see women this way. There is no reason you should draw extra attention to yourself by being obnoxious.
6. LEARN SOME OF THE LANGUAGE
The truth is, I want to say, learn ALL of the language! But that’s not practical or possible for every person. But at least, learn some key phrases in the local language; things like, thank you, I’m sorry, Where is…, do you speak [insert native language]. Knowing these phrases can show that you are respectful of the culture you’re in, and aren’t expecting that everyone around you morph themselves to suit you and your language. Why would you demand that everyone speak your native language, when you’re in their country?
Being seen as respectful can up your rates of “safety” as a woman traveler. Also, thinking that you speak the language can deter criminals because you seem like less of a clueless foreigner, especially that you could call for help if you needed to. In that sense, I recommend that you also learn phrases like, Help, Stop, police, I need…
For the most part in my travels, solo or with friends, the great majority of people I met were welcoming and gracious, and humbled me with their generosity of spirit. But the sad truth is that our beautiful world is not always a safe one. Take steps to stay aware of your surroundings, your behavior, and the behavior of those around you. Don’t be afraid; be aware.