With a continuous supply of news stories documenting the unequal and sometimes down-right horrific treatment of women abroad it can often be scary booking that flight, but taking the plunge and exploring the world with all it’s highs and lows can be the most rewarding experience of your life.
It can be an absolute joy travelling as a woman. There is an unspoken, automatic and very natural connection between women around the world, meaning that you can be invited into local family dinners or asked to hold a stranger’s baby on the bus. Women are rarely seen as threatening so relationships can be formed quickly, and I have never experienced such warmth and openness from complete strangers. Older women you meet may take you under their “mother-hen” wing and force their husbands to carry your bags for you. Men often treat you with respect and chivalry. Drivers will pick you up in an instant if you are hitchhiking, not wanting to drive by a “vulnerable young woman” on the side of the road. All this is so different for men travelling, who often are treated with more suspicion and much less sympathy.
However, it is true that this vulnerability works both ways. You can, and most likely will experience some form of prejudice. Not just segregation (although being shepherded into the top of a Mosque to watch over the men below did leave me questioning), but also the everyday prejudice of being overlooked because you are a woman. Men do not ask your opinion on things and women only will if it’s beauty related. You are constantly asked when you are expecting to be married and how many children you would like. Having grown up in the UK, and been given every opportunity to do whatever I want with my life this might seem patronising, but in some countries woman do not have, or are not expected to want the same things in life as men, and indeed many do not.
Increasingly, in Central and South America, the influx of Western media (in particular porn) creates a stigma around young white women. During my time in Central America, I cannot count the number of times I was heckled “puta”, a prostitute, or asked how much I charged for an hour. This, other than being incredibly degrading, can really knock your feeling of security, especially if you are going to be in one place for a while.
But all of these differences just stem from the difference in cultures and need to be respected. Some retaliation may be necessary, for example I found answering the heckles in Spanish, rather than just keeping my head down worked, and pretending to have a husband so that my taxi driver didn’t take me home to marry his son really was necessary. For other more background things however, there is nothing more to do. You have decided to immerse yourself in another culture and that is what you are getting. One of the hardest things about experiencing sexism when travelling is knowing that there’s not much you can do about it, and in fact in some situations doing anything could make the situation a lot worse.
Travelling as a woman (especially if you are alone) is a journey all in itself. You find yourself becoming stronger, more self assured and at the same time more relaxed and open minded. It will make you value the society you have been brought up with for giving you freedom, whilst admiring a new one and it’s traditions. It will make you realise that amongst these few differences there is a whole hoard of similarities. It will also make you question your home country, it’s culture and maybe most of all it will make you question yourself.