― Audrey Niffenegger
Her Fearful Symmetry
Humans are unique among the animal kingdom for their highly complicated and, frankly, bizarre social structures. Humanity has spread to all seven continents. Perhaps the differing geography is what has led to such a confounding variety of behavioral patterns. Many societies have evolved with patriarchal powder structures. As a result, women have historically been afforded fewer rights than men.
Women, in general terms, are physically smaller and weaker than males. There is evidence, however, that implies females may be smarter than males. Females, for example, live longer. But that weaker physical form puts us at risk. If you do a quick search of violent crimes, most of them are committed by men.
The fact is that women face greater risks to their safety. But there is hope: the expansion of modern technology promotes the spread of information and hopefully education.
As a female traveller, you will have to deal with more stuff. This is especially true if you are travelling solo. Without getting into scary and depressing statistics, let’s agree that women are more at risk and move on to what we have to do about it.
The most valuable skill to protect yourself is to say ‘no.’ If something feels like a bad idea, you shouldn’t do it. Don’t give in to peer pressure. Don’t let the fear of seeming rude stop you from protecting yourself. If you are afraid of offending someone, remind yourself that you will never have to see them again. It is always okay to politely decline or flat out refuse an invitation if there are bad vibes.
Avoidance is the best strategy for staying safe as a solo female traveller. It sounds like paranoia, but the fact is: women do not have the same liberties everywhere throughout the world. So avoid the bad parts of town, even if there’s a really tempting tripadvisor review on street art in that area.
Limited lighting and reduced support services (busses, police, etc) are why more crimes happen at night. Even in tourist areas, it’s a good idea to be in before dark. Other tourists may be the ones you should avoid because they could be “punch drunk” and think they can get away with anything because it’s their first trip away from mum.
If you do get out late, find an official taxi to take you back to your doorstep. The extra expense is worth the risk.
Many customs may seem uncomfortable to western women. But one of the best ways to avoid trouble is to not draw attention to yourself.
I’m not saying you have to acquiesce and compromise on everything, but just that you should pick your battles. Trust me when I say you are already setting a positive example for women’s rights by your mere presence.
So consider covering your head and/or shoulders if that is the local custom and you don’t feel like you are being untrue to yourself by doing it. But if something crosses “the line”, you have the right to do (or refuse to do) whatever you have to in order to make yourself feel safe.
Many police stations and martial arts studios offer self defense courses tailored to women. No matter your age, it’s super easy to talk your parents into paying for a class as a going away present.
For more safety tips, read Safety Tips for Backpackers.
As a visitor to another country, you are up against customs that have been ingrained for centuries, if not millennia. You may have to deal with people that have been indoctrinated to view women as inferior. Many societies are patriarchal, and let’s face it: chauvinistic.
Make peace with what you can and can not change.
It’s unlikely that you will magically change anyone’s mind with your shining example of female capability and intelligence. Don’t waste your energy getting frustrated by the situation. What you can do, is be a gracious representation of female competence.
Whatever you encounter, remember that you are a guest in their country. So while differing customs may seem abrasive to you, consider the likelihood that you may unconsciously or mistakenly offend their customs at some point. Tolerance is important, and there is nothing like travel to teach it to you first hand, as uncomfortable as the lesson may be.
Let’s consider a specific social interaction you WILL encounter at some point: staring. Blatant staring is not considered rude in many parts of the world. So while it may make many westerners feel uncomfortable, it is likely coming from a place of curiosity rather than contempt. So be patient, and just ignore it, or have a little fun with it and wave back. Women with blond hair and blue eyes will have to put up with this a lot more than is fair, so be prepared for it and acknowledge that you look different than 98% of the rest of humanity.
At any point, if it comes to issues of your personal safety, do whatever you have to do. If you actually need help, go ahead and use their own prejudices against them in any way if that gets you safe again as quickly as possible. But the rest of the time try to be respectful.
There is nothing as fun as having your period on vacation. Especially when that vacation is a 12 day hike in a developing country where you will get sick if you so much as rinse your toothbrush in the tap water. So what are your options?
Dealing with Auntie Flo is unavoidable. It’s a good idea to have a plan in place before you go.
Mom and dad may not appreciate a souvenir quite so serious. Having sex on a backpacking trip requires all the same precautions and has all the same risks as having sex in your high school bunk beds. Same stuff, different continent. Just make sure you are being responsible!
Okay, mom talk over. But seriously: If you can’t be 100% sure of your safety, don’t do it.
Humans are animals. The animal kingdom is vicious. But that does not mean that everyone is out to get you. This article isn’t meant to scare you into never leaving your house, just to prepare you with some information and advice.
Wanderlustable females MUST be aware of the unique challenges they face as travellers. Hopefully the world is changing as smartphones improve access to information, but it is the way it is. It’s not fair, but that shouldn’t stop you from having adventures. Be brave. Be yourself. Be careful.
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission or compensation if you click through and/or make a purchase. The opinions and recommendations expressed here are my own.
― Audrey Niffenegger
Her Fearful Symmetry