There’s something amazing about exploring a new city for the first time and experiencing an array of new sights, smell, and sounds. Eating new foods, picking up words from a foreign language, and experiencing a different culture. And it’s even more amazing to be alone while doing it. Not being tied to another person’s likes, dislikes, or schedule. It’s a freeing experience.
But for women, there’s a darker, dangerous side to traveling solo.
A recent New York Times article notes that there has been a tremendous rise in solo female travelers, but also a substantial amount of violence against these tourists. Beyond the normalized mistreatment of women that takes place in public spaces—catcalling, harassment, and attempts to take advantage of supposed naiveté—there is an increased danger when in a foreign city and you don’t have your regular support system in place. You don’t have family or roommates making sure you get home okay and you don’t have friends to watch your back. It is considerably easier to be taken advantage of if you are alone and unaware of local customs, don’t understand what is being said, or are unsure how to navigate an unknown city.
The ability to travel is itself empowering. It suggests a certain level of economic independence since women are able to fund these trips on their own and confidence for women who don’t need to be accompanied by a spouse or a parent to travel. The overall trend of women embarking on independent journeys is very promising, despite the dangers that lurk in the unfamiliar.
A Trafalgar survey found that, in the United States, 86% of women are not afraid to travel alone and 73% of women feel that traveling has made them stronger. Traveling often leads to resourcefulness and helps us understand our place in the world. Meeting people who live differently than you can open your mind and remove ingrained prejudice or ignorance.
But some of these women aren’t always welcomed by the locals— they’re sometimes attacked, mugged, or even killed.
In Western countries, the culture has very different expectations of women than in other parts of the world. Western women have been raised to believe that they can move about freely and should be treated equally to men. In other parts of the world, women live very different lives and are expected to conform to a different set of behaviors. A single woman traveling alone can run into trouble when her ideology or social behaviour doesn’t quite fit with the local culture. However, it’s not just about a clash of culture, since gendered violence isn’t specific to one region of the world. Female travelers in wealthy, Western countries, like France and Italy, need to stay on alert as well. The United Nations has collected global data tracking gendered violence against women, but most countries don’t track violence against female tourists so there are no specific statistics available. Countries that benefit from tourism don’t want to publicize the fact that visitors may not be safe in their cities.
Despite the efforts, and strides, made by the feminist movement to achieve equality in all aspects of our lives, women still can’t move through the world as easily as men do. We are constantly wary of supposedly friendly offers from strangers and always looking over our shoulder to make sure we aren’t being followed. This looms over our experiences like a shadow and can take away from the pleasure of traveling.
I’ve traveled abroad alone a handful of times and, while I truly enjoyed the experience of traveling, I was much more alert and aware of my surroundings than I was during the times that I traveled with my family. And after reading the stories presented in the abovementioned New York Times article, I’ve begun to question if the benefits of traveling alone outweigh the dangers. Why bother going somewhere new if I’m not going to be able to relax?
And violence against women of color is even worse. Jessica Nabongo, who is on a mission to become the first Black woman to visit every country in the world, says:
“In any European cities that I’ve been in — like Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Milan — women of color are in more danger because a lot of people think we are prostitutes… My fear is always that if something happens to me in a European city, no one will care. I could be running down the street screaming in Italy and onlookers won’t care because I’m black.”
To combat the danger, many women will stay in hotels with security or dress more conservatively. But the onus should never be on women to prevent attacks. We shouldn’t have to dress or act differently from solo male travelers. In response, women have formed a few online communities, via travel blogs and websites, where they can share tips and tricks and help each other stay safe.
While safety should always be the first priority of any traveler I believe that the only way women can achieve equality in this area of life is to confront the issue. Instead of cowering at home we should be choosing to face the dangers head-on, because, as Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover”