I'm a Woman, I Take Precautions When I Travel, and I Will Not Get Over It
Travel writer Tara Isabel Burton published an amazing essay in Salon this week about her experience of traveling as a woman and the restrictions it put on her. Burton remembers setting out as a young traveler with dreams of being a carefree adventurer, up for anything and ready to welcome any experiences that came her way. The reality was very different. When a woman has had “Don’t get raped” drilled into her for her entire life, it’s not so easy to accept an invitation to a party from someone you just met or take a ride home from a stranger or even be happy a waiter brought you a pastry for free.
I’ve done a reasonable amount of traveling in the past year or so, and I can identify with all of the feelings Burton describes. The things that most sticks with me, though, is her observation that the men in her life don’t understand her fear. “Can’t you just get over it?” she recalls a male friend asking.
I remember my second night in Jerusalem being in the Old City for the first time with two friends and fellow study abroad students. We decided to try to walk around the outside of the Old City walls, and at first everything was fine. It was a beautiful night, we were all super-excited to be there, the walls were lit up and gorgeous. Then we turned the corner and I stopped. The busy street that ran along the northern wall veered off in a different direction, the streetlights ended with them, and the sidewalk in front of us was almost completely dark.
“I’m not going that way,” I said. My female friend agreed. The boy with us just did not get it. “You guys said you wanted to do this. It’ll be an adventure,” he said. We couldn’t explain to him that this was not an adventure we were interested in having. In the end he agreed to go back only because we were going to be late to meet up with the rest of the group.
This person was, I must reiterate, a friend and a very nice young man. He was sweet and funny and a great person to be around, and he was big supporter of women’s issues in the States. But it was so far out of his experience to be afraid of walking down a dark street in a foreign country that for those three minutes he turned into a bit of a jerk, someone who couldn’t accept the fact that we were uncomfortable.
Traveling as a woman is always interesting. In the Middle East, there were stares and restrictions on what I could wear to certain sites or in certain neighborhoods. And while I often say I could have walked down any main street in a mini skirt in all but the Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem without feeling I’d compromised my physical safety, I never wanted to risk that. I got a lot of stares even when dressed modestly. Any outfit that didn’t cover both knees and elbows was invitation for people to shout things out of car windows.
In Peru, men didn’t shout but they’d watch. Our driver insisted on making jokes about my sister and I having boyfriends even after we’d told him we didn’t. And you learn to deal with all of it because what’s the alternative? But it’s still there, and most of the men in my life, even the ones who have shared travel experiences with me, don’t get it.
“How do you know he meant it like that?” one friend asked when I told the story of someone shouting out of a car at me. I stared. It was amazing to me that someone could think there was any way to mistake the intent in these situations. That anyone could think it wasn't sexual. You’d have to have never experienced it. Which, of course, he hadn’t. Fortunately this particular case was rather cut and dry. “Well," I told him, "he said, ‘Hey, sexy, come over here.'"
I’ve been lucky abroad. I’ve had very few instances where I truly felt unsafe, and fortunately nothing has ever come of them. My travels have been nothing like that of RoseChasm, who recently published a short but incredible essay on her nightmarish study abroad in India. I’ve never experienced anything like she did, but that possibility is always there, for every woman. It’s something that’s fundamental, integral to our experience, and very difficult to describe.
Like Tara Isabel Burton, I hate that my safety response shuts down a lot of experiences. I hate that when a young man comes up to me in the Plaza de Armas and asks what I’m reading, my first instinct is suspicion. I hate that I don’t want to go exploring after dark unless it’s with a large group, no matter how beautiful a night it is. I hate that I am not comfortable with getting lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood just to see where we end up. I hate it, but I’m not comfortable — and I never will be.
Can’t you just get over it? That’s like asking “Can’t you just get over the idea that Russian roulette is dangerous?” There are people out there who will hurt you if you give them the chance. This is not a nightmare born out of the fevered female mind. This is a real danger, and there is no way to know how close it is. None. At. All. And if that doesn’t scare you, at least a little, if it doesn't even make you consider taking precautions, then you’re doing it wrong.
So to any guys who are reading this: I’m happy to cover up at holy sites out of respect. I’m more or less okay with being stared at. I’ll deal with people shouting things out of car windows. But I will not walk down the darkened street at night. I will not go to the party with people we just met. I will not leave the ground floor window open for the breeze. And I will not get over it.