In the wake of International Women’s Day, I have found myself thinking a lot about how my womanhood has impacted my travels. Being a woman is something that sits at the front of my identity - I am a passionate feminist, I identify strongly with other women and I try to surround myself with strong and empowering people who push me to be the woman I want to be. If anything, traveling has made this even more true.
Feeling more visible. Feeling less safe.
Travelling around the world, especially on a budget, has certain risks and discomforts no matter who you are, but in my experience, it seems that these risks are increased for women, and even more exacerbated in certain parts of the world. I have been travelling with my male partner, which has made me feel infinitely safer, but this has it’s own drawbacks. I have met many women traveling alone over the last year, and while I admire them, some of the experiences I’ve had this on this trip makes me feel reluctant to ever head off the beaten track on my own in the future, which is a real shame. Perhaps if I had traveled alone from the beginning I would have developed more strategies to keep myself safe, but I actually feel significantly more reluctant to travel alone now than I did at the beginning of our trip.
Of course as women, we are taught from a young age to not engage in ‘risky behaviour’, like going out alone late at night, wearing provocative clothing, acting in a way that would attract unwanted attention (especially if intoxicated), the list goes on and on. It is hopefully by now, a well understood argument that these socialisations women have been taught for generations sorely need to be flipped on their heads - that there is no crime in going out alone late at night, or exposing your skin, or even getting drunk. What is a crime, is assaulting someone, intimidating them, making someone fear for their safety. There is a weird complication when you leave your home turf, however. Things like cultural sensitivity come into the mix. In situations where men have made me feel uncomfortable as I have been travelling, like when they have tried to take my picture without my permission, or move closer to me than is necessary on public transport, or even just refuse to talk to me or take my money and instead default their communication to Neil… I feel a bit torn - am I being culturally insensitive by being offended? Should I cut them some slack because their country isn’t as progressive with gender politics as mine is? It gets a little harder to feel sympathetic when someone is touching you inappropriately under the guise of an ‘ayurvedic massage’ or exposing themselves to you and masturbating in public. But even in these situations, I find myself questioning, interrogating myself, wasting, wasting, wasting my energy second guessing whether I’m allowed to feel affronted. And this is something that undoubtedly can and does happen no matter where you are in the world. It’s just a huge bummer though, isn’t it?
Travelling in certain countries, such as (but not limited to) India, Israel and Egypt, I have never felt more visible and invisible in my life. No one seemed to give a shit about what I thought or had to say, but everyone felt pretty comfortable staring agog at me. I think it will take me a bit of getting used to when our trip is over that I won’t have to be mentally calculating what my proximity to Neil is. There were certain parts of our trip in India where I didn’t even feel comfortable being alone for the few minutes it would take for him to go to the bathroom. I never used to even think about whether I would take a top or bottom bunk in a hostel or on a sleeper train, but now I insist on taking the top bunk if possible, it’s much safer (i.e: much more difficult for anyone to climb on to you). All of this calculating and strategising gets exhausting. And the same things happen at home, or wherever you are in the world, but being outside my comfort zone, it makes it all feel pretty heightened. I should say that Neil has been incredible with empathising with me and accomodating me, without making me feel even more powerless. His understanding and willingness to get angry, to protect me if I need it and to allow me to call the shots is something I am very grateful for. I am looking forward to being home again though, where I feel like I can have a bit more independence from being with a male chaperone.
Including women in things makes everything *literally* better
There have been several places that we’ve travelled to where women are disallowed from entering the work force, or even being very present in public society. I don’t think I saw a local woman the whole time we were in Egypt (we were in a really small town for our whole trip, but I’m just telling you my experiences). I had never really experienced it before, but when you take women out of the equation, it is very noticeable. As far as I’ve seen, men don’t have the same attention to detail or care as much when things aren’t just right, which in a hostel or guest house scenario becomes really obvious, very quickly. The guest house we were staying at was filthy, with cigarette butts everywhere, the food was almost inedible, I could go on. This place was never going to be deluxe, and nor did I expect it to be. But I couldn’t help thinking that if the staff hadn’t consisted of only half a dozen reluctant looking men, things might have been different.
We have had so much experience in hospitality businesses over the time that we’ve been travelling, from hostels to restaurants to tour companies, and while we have had some great experiences with men in these businesses, it is just so clearly valuable to include women in these spaces. Not just because they work hard and make the business run more smoothly, but as a female patron, I feel automatically more comfortable if I see a woman working in the establishment. I don’t think men ever think about things like that. We went into a bar in India, where not only was I the sole woman in the establishment, it seemed like I was the only woman who had probably ever been in there. I felt intimidated, I was being watched like a hawk.
It’s not all bad
I realise this post risks me sounding like a bit of a downer, a bit of an angry feminist (God forbid). I think I’m a little weary at the moment from some of the experiences we’ve had recently. I don’t want to get too down on India, because I really enjoyed myself there overall, but after a month I was ready to claw my way out, I was so sick of how I was being made to feel as a woman. I have actually tried to write a blog about our experiences there, but I just couldn’t muster the energy to talk about it, because it felt like too much negativity would come out. I couldn’t find ways to talk about our travels there that weren’t totally dominated by how I felt victimised and devalued because of my gender.
But over the whole trip, I have had some incredible female-focused experiences, met incredible women and felt uplifted and proud to be close to them. At Burning Man, we spent a lot of time at the amazing Camp Beaverton, a long-running lesbian camp. We have several close friends who camp there, and they are so accepting of people of all kinds - cis-men, trans people, non-lesbian women. They have certain rules, like cis-men aren’t allowed in the ‘Beaverdome', but they are so welcoming and respectful, that they make easy for people to respect their boundaries. The camp reminded me how powerful the female sense of community is, and how unusual and amazing it can be to put the female experience at the core of building a living space, no matter how temporary it may be.
I also loved seeing ‘Jagged Little Pill: The Musical’ in Boston. I find Alanis Morisette’s music so empowering, steeped in my earliest understandings of feminism. I also went by myself to Boston to see the show, alone. I felt amazing taking time to do something that was only what I wanted to do, and to do it by myself. The show was incredible, and centres the experience of women and trans people in a way that you don’t often see in traditional musical theatre.
In Chicago, while I was training at iO, I participated in several improv jams where only women-identified and non-binary players were invited to participate, and had amazing experiences. I love performing with women, they are generally so supportive and generous, in ways that men so often aren’t on stage. Some of my favourite female improvisers I saw in Chicago were Mary Catherine Curran, Emma Pope, Katie Klein, Alison Ringhand and Dina Facklis. I also found most of my workshops and classes to be really aware of gender balance, or at least most of the participants having a welcome awareness of the need to address gender as a factor in our play with each other.
Not long now until this crazy year of travel comes to a close. I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about it all being over, and what re-entering regular life is going to be. But I’ll save that for my next post.