In late 2011, I wrote a post about the solo female travel experience, discussing some of the safety tips and lessons learned in several years of roaming the globe by myself.
In it, I reiterated that the worst experience I’ve had was actually in France, not somewhere exotic, and that while solo female travel is scary to those who have yet to embark on a journey alone, it’s been wonderful experience, allowing me to walk both sides of the cultural line in new countries.
The issue merits revisiting now, however, given the media portrayals and subsequent discussions about a female traveler who was recently murdered in Turkey. Many of the comments note that it isn’t “suitable” for a woman to travel alone. One commenter said he would never let his wife go out the door to travel to any country alone. There are also appallingly xenophobic statements against Muslim countries in the comments about how women might be able to travel alone but “certainly” not to Muslim countries. Focusing on the solo female travel question, or cloaking the issue in a thick layer of xenophobia avoids the bigger, more important concern.
Why are we talking about solo female travel, not violence against women?
While the easy thing is to blame the solo female traveler, the reality is that violence against women, not solo travel, is the issue. And it’s certainly not limited to far-flung places. There are plenty of case studies of violence against women in the USA and Canada – is it “irresponsible” for someone to walk around alone there too? And let’s not forget about the violence inside our homes. In Canada, on average, every six days a woman is killed by her intimate partner. In 2009, 67 women in Canada were murdered by a current or former spouse or boyfriend.  In the USA, an average of three women are killed by an intimate partner every day. Of all the women murdered in the States, about one-third were killed by an intimate partner.
In contrast, the murder of Sarai Sierra – an awful event – stands out as an outlying situation, not the norm for a woman abroad. Yes, there have been other deaths – both male and female – overseas. (See this article about Australian deaths in Bali, mostly due to alcohol and drug use. Or this piece about deaths in Argentina). But blaming her death on the fact that she was traveling alone in a foreign place is not doing justice to the full situation. As Christine from Almost Fearless notes:
Tourists do die overseas. There are two big killers: drowning and car accidents. Still, those numbers are not abnormally higher than at home, it just goes to show that very few people are being killed overseas. The US Dept of State keeps statistics by country on death rates of Americans abroad. In Turkey, there were two deaths in 2011 (the last full year of statistics). One was a homicide, the other was a vehicle death. In the last 10 years there were just three murders. The woman killed in Turkey was a New Yorker and in 2011 alone NYC had 502 murders. She was statistically less likely to be killed in Turkey than she was if she stayed home in New York.
US citizens die at home and, less frequently, they die in foreign countries. Stating that Sarai was murdered because she was abroad, as many comments have done, detracts from the real concern: that of violence against women worldwide.
What about my last 4+ years of solo female travel?
How I feel travelling as a woman alone depends wholly on where I am geographically; the world is large and thus my view is necessarily nuanced as well. In a good part of the world, I still feel safer travelling than I do at home in North America. I’m going to note here, too, that my feeling safe in a foreign country does not detract from that country’s issues with violence against women. For example, I do feel very safe here in Vietnam, even walking at night. The same for my years in Thailand. However, the countries each do have a history (and a present) of endemic violence against women, as do many others in the region.
The difference is that crimes against women here are often limited to closed socioeconomic groups and not often committed against tourists. While devastating as a whole – just like the above case studies are devastating in the USA and Canada – as it relates to my mental wellbeing, I do feel safe. (This includes Turkey, by the way – I never felt unsafe there.)
The answer changes in some other parts of the world. I wrote about an issue in Marseille in my original solo female travel post, and I’ve had some heart-stopping moments in elsewhere too – being dragged by my scarf into a shop or the earrings yanked off my ears at a stall because I did not want to stop and talk to the shop-owner. Being called all sorts of awful names by a young man in Fes because I did not want a guide for the medina. The thing is: it wasn’t only when I was alone. Often, I was with men, but it did not make a difference. (See also the devastating recent rapes of 6 women from Spain at gunpoint at a resort in Mexico. They were not travelling solo – they were with men – the men were just tied up by the assailants.)
That is part of what irks me about this discussion: being “alone” is not the issue. Travel abroad is not the issue. The issue is treatment of women. And we should be using this media spotlight to as a springboard to discussing how we can fix it.
What about other women who travel?
Some interesting posts have emerged from the negative media coverage of solo female travel. I’ve listed a few below. In addition, I reached out to a fellow female traveller, MaryAnne Oxendale. In her words:
I have been harassed a lot in my 38 years and two decades of travel, both in Canada and abroad. Some of the things that have happened to me make me cringe now that I look back on them from my current perspective. However, at least half of these occurrences happened when traveling with a male companion. It’s not about traveling alone as a woman. I have had a million positive experiences specifically because I was travelling as a solo woman – in Turkey, I was looked after, protected, cared for because of that status. The thing is, it isn’t even about travelling “as” a woman, solo or not. My friends back in Canada also face harassment and sexual violence and abuse from men they know and men they don’t know. This is not about civilized vs uncivilized countries, domestic vs foreign, us vs them. This is about a lack of respect, globally. It’s not about telling women to not leave their protective cocoons. Women have always had to be extra careful about their safety, not just when travelling, but sadly even in their homes.”
So what to do?
I’m uplifted by the many posts encouraging women to travel ((see here, here and here for a few of them), but I don’t want to pretend that there is no danger in solo female travel. The issues of sexual assault and violence against women are what I call checkmate arguments: they are undeniably rational things to fear when travelling alone. There are, of course, dangers in travel for solo men too – just different ones. Of course, those checkmate worries are also worthy of fear at home.
As Frederike says in her post:
It’s not that Sarai was killed despite Istanbul being a safe city. I think we shouldn’t look at this from the Istanbul perspective, or compare Istanbul statistics to those of other places in the world. We should look at the world as a whole. It’s just not a safe place for women. Our physical strength is hardly ever enough to defend ourselves against men who want to harm us. So we get beaten up, we get raped, we get assaulted, we get murdered. That is the risk every woman on this planet lives with every day. Some places may have a higher risk of getting harmed, but being a woman is enough to be at risk always and everywhere.
Things – bad things, ugly things, evil things – often cannot be mitigated or planned. I travelled for years and years and never got robbed like I did when I returned to New York for a visit, when when my laptop, hard drives and camera were stolen. I spent a good amount of time in the Middle East and North Africa and Malaysia and Indonesia, and yet the single ugliest act against me came from an afternoon in France.
I’ve long encouraged women to travel solo, and have been doing so myself for close to 5 years. I will continue to encourage women to travel solo. It’s a balance between thinking smart and trying to stay safe, and also not succumbing to the fear. I don’t want to pretend that there’s no basis for the fear – that would be irresponsible. But for me, at least, the fear is there at home and it’s there abroad. It has nothing to do with foreign travel and everything to do with existing as a woman in today’s world.
I don’t brand myself as a solo female traveler because that isn’t the focus of my site or my passions. I travel for the food, for the learning and for the people – but I do so in the body I have been given. That said, in times like these where the national focus seems to be on a red herring – a woman traveling alone – I did not want to stay silent. I understand that people are lashing out and allocating blame for a terrible event, but by structuring the public conversation around solo female travel (or about Muslim countries generally) we are detracting from the very real and valid issue of violence against women worldwide.
Ending with some practical suggestions
I wanted to end this post with the practical: some safety tips that might be useful for women and men looking to travel alone.
- Carry a rubber doorstop (I’ve been doing this for years), to wedge from the inside of your room at night.
- Carry a safety whistle (also keeps the monkeys at bay – trust me).
- Pay a bit more to stay at a central hostel or guesthouse in a well-lit area of town, with a 24 hour front desk.
- Watch your drink and certainly not getting drunk, especially if you’re alone.
- Err on the side of dressing conservatively. I don’t want to get into a “but it’s an issue of men’s perceptions of women” debate because the reality remains that when you’re traveling, you do need to err on the side of dressing conservatively. I bought a longyi in Myanmar, I covered my head in parts of Indonesia, I wore long sleeves and long dresses and scarves throughout the Middle East and parts of Morocco. In the end, I still stood out, but in respecting the local dress, I definitely felt and saw a difference in the way I was treated.
- Be vague about your hostel/guesthouse. Sometimes a casual conversation will lead to a question about what hostel you are at, or where you are headed next. It’s wise to stay purposefully vague, or have a (faux) backup hostel or guesthouse in mind for those situations. I’m always wary of giving too much information about my whereabouts when traveling alone. This applies, of course, to men as well.
- Be aware that eye contact in some countries can invite aggressive behaviour. Again, it’s not the message I’d like to put out (as in, I wish this wasn’t something we had to worry about) but it can be the case. I am mindful of this fact, especially as a Montrealer – a city that has proudly declared its love of eye contact.
- If you are travelling in a country for more than a few days, register with your local embassy. I’ve done so here for Canada in Vietnam, as have my American and Australian friends in town. Most consular services do include registration for citizens abroad, and it is very helpful in the event of emergency (or even natural disasters).
Hopefully the posts above (and this one) can help reframe the discussion to one of violence against women generally, not about the pitfalls of solo female travel. I acknowledge that there are risks, but I will continue to travel the world alone and encourage others to the same. It’s been one of the more rewarding things I have ever done.