I am a woman travelling alone. Along the way I have met people with different attitudes towards this fact. Some think I am brave, some think I am foolish, some think it’s a bit sad, but mostly people don’t really think anything about it. That’s because I am lucky enough to be born into an environment where girls largely enjoy the same freedom as boys.
Although I am sometimes aware of being a woman on my own, it doesn’t effect my decisions any more than it would in my home country. When I was sleeping in a tent on a clifftop in Portugal I was asked quite a few times ‘but aren’t you scared?’ I highlighted that most women are attacked by people they know. So called friends, colleagues, and partners. Attacks by complete strangers are much rarer, yet you don’t hear people inquire if you’re nervous accepting a lift home from the office Christmas party just in case Dave from accounting decides to get a bit rapey.
I think there is a difference between naïvely putting yourself at unnecessary risk and irrationally being driven by fear rather than facts. We all should live within boundaries that we feel comfortable with and I respect every woman’s choice to decide for herself where hers lie.
Travelling within parts of Asia it’s been interesting, and sometimes challenging, to experience some of the more obvious differences between women and the roles they play within society. I’m writing this from Lombok in Indonesia where I’ve just been chatting to a 15 year old girl who was telling me all about her husband, and showing me photos of her wedding. I wasn’t even particularly surprised to hear that at such a young age (to me, still a child) that she was already married. She seemed more surprised to hear that I was not married at my age. I explained that I had a long education, started working, bought my own house, and now I am travelling. She told me that I was very lucky. Yes, I most certainly am.
Encountering all these differences has really thrown up for me the issue of how our gender roles have been carved out across the world. When I was in Sri Lanka I was bombarded with where are you going? Do you have a boyfriend? Are you married? Don’t get me wrong, the majority of men I met were courteous, respectful and friendly. But at the same time it was commonplace to encounter this prying before they had even said hello.
I was out on a scooter when I was stopped by police. One of the officers asked for my driving licence (which I didn’t have, but didn’t seem to be a problem). The next question was “no man?” Yes, but he prefers to travel in the seat storage box…do you need to speak to him? because I can let him out. Of course, I just smiled and replied “no, no man”. “Not married?” Once we had firmly established I was travelling alone and not with my husband I was politely told I could leave.
There is nothing threatening about these daily questions you face as a woman, it falls more under the bloody annoying category. It didn’t even particularly irritate me for the first month or so but after a while it gets tedious. Out surfing with a male friend who was already in the water I was approached by a guy. Before he had even reached me on the beach he called across in broken English:
“boyfriend? boyfriend surfing?”
Without much thought other than, I am really not in the mood, I quickly blurted out “yes”.
And so it went on as if I were applying for a greencard and trying to convince immigration officials of the validity of my sham relationship.
Unsure? UNSURE?!! How dare you question the true love between me and my Israeli boyfriend (whose surname I don’t even know). It’s because we flew in from different airports isn’t it?! There is plenty of time for marriage and babies. (Like after I have learnt his surname or spent longer than a week and a half in his company).
I am British so have the polite gene which makes it very uncomfortable for me to appear rude, but even I have my limits. Still at this point rather than ask him kindly to go away I instead retreated to the surf. Once in the water I informed my (barely even) friend about our new upgraded relationship status, and although I retold the story in jest I found the whole situation quite annoying.
I realised my frustration had built up from all the inappropriate questions I had been asked by everyone since I arrived. Rather than being annoyed at the relatively harmless man who was getting on my nerves, I was actually annoyed at myself. I know plenty of women who find it easier to invent partners in order to dissuade unwanted attention. I completely understand why, but I don’t think we should.
In the long run it just reinforces a notion that unless someone else has already claimed you then you are fair game. For a long time I had been busy justifying all the questions that can be easily filed under: ‘Its none of your business’ because of cultural differences. Lets be honest I’m unlikely to let a 5 minute interrogation from a complete stranger about my relationship status happen back in the UK.
It was then I realised in my attempt to be super liberal and culturally sensitive I had been confusing the difference between understanding behaviour and accepting it. Differences exist and it’s not my place to judge anybody. I also make an effort to be sensitive to those differences when I am in another country. It is however my place to decide what behaviour is appropriate to me. So I can simultaneously understand some differences without accepting them.
I don’t want to walk past someone anywhere in the world and be asked if I want jiggy jiggy (I was almost tempted to ask how many people had ever taken him up on his kind offer, I can’t imagine it has a success rate anything over 0%). Whilst some people may see it as relatively harmless, or even inconsequential, to me it all feeds into the overall picture of how women are perceived and treated in the world we live in. My own personal view is that it is not ok and I don’t want it to continue, so I should be making that clear (…in my nice, polite, British way of course!) So I simply started answering that in my country it’s a bit odd to ask strangers these things. It was that easy! No drama required and no frustration.
The mild irritations in Sri Lanka proved to be a gentle introduction for India where, in my opinion, there are undeniable problems with how women are viewed by some in society. First of all I want to make it clear I would never discourage any woman from visiting this diverse and magical country. I have met many girls who have travelled alone and encountered absolutely no problems at all. They have couch surfed at guys houses, taken the sleeper train during the night, and visited the big “scary” cities. Yet there is no point pretending it’s a completely rosy picture for women in India.
At some point you are likely to encounter, at the very least, a look/comment/or incident that will be uncomfortable to you. I was groped in the street just walking alone the few hundred yards from a restaurant to my hotel. After another woman on my yoga course was more seriously assaulted we took to walking in groups after sunset, trying to escort one another from place to place.
I’ll be honest this was a frustrating experience after the freedom I am used to. Freedom that recently I have become increasingly aware so many women are not privileged to have. I couldn’t help but feel resentment about the adjustments I needed to make for the sake of my safety.
I guess in the last 5 months my experiences have raised many questions in my mind about how both men and women interact and fit into society. I don’t have a very neat ending for this post because the truth is for most of these questions I haven’t found any real answers. Maybe just the observations are enough. I do know that I am not responsible for anyone else’s behaviour but I can control how I respond to a situation.
Cultural attitudes in all countries change, adapt and flow in different ways. These shifts obviously take time and undeniably require an overall attitude change from society. But as individuals we also need to chose and take responsibility. What are the roles we want to carve out for ourselves and the next generations of men and women? And how does our behaviour right now, in this very moment, effect that? It’s certainly made me more conscious of the language I use and the behaviour I reinforce and accept, wherever I am in the world.