This blog post has been writing itself in my head for at least the last several months. Ultimately, it came to fruition partly related to a recent article written by a fellow travel blogger Gigi Griffis were she discussed her recent trip to Columbia and the numerous safety issues she faced while traveling there as a solo women. She received a lot of angry comments both on her blog and Facebook page from people who discounted her concerns and largely her feelings regarding her own safety. The other reason I’m writing this post is following a discussion I had with my Pops about what it’s like largely to be a woman traveling, but also to just live daily life as a woman. This was directly related to an incident that happened while I was in Barcelona last week. It made me realize that men in general (sorry to say) are pretty clueless as to what a woman puts up with on a daily basis, especially regarding the safety concerns that govern many aspects of our daily lives. Things we even as women don’t likely realize we do. Now I realize there are women out there that are less safety conscious than me, or who are fearless and for whom maybe these things don’t apply, but I imagine they are few and far between.
Women’s safety concerns can dictate where they park (always in a lit area, never next to a creepy child molester van). It dictates where they might choose to live, or what hours they may choose to work. As an example, my previous job in Kelowna the free staff parking lot was like a 10 min walk to a largely unlit parking lot that by the time I got off work in the winter hours was pitch black. So do you think I would park there? Hells no. I’m not risking my safety to park for free in some shady ass parking lot. And so I didn’t and I just paid. I have lived places where I didn’t exactly feel safe so I would literally do a “safety sweep” and check the closets and behind the couch and under the bed when I got home at night. Now I know you’re probably thinking I’m a crazy lunatic, but I reckon that easily half the women who read this and live alone perform some type of safety related action or routine when they get home at night. I’m also very aware of my surroundings when out at night regardless of where I am. I look people in the eye and would never wear headphones or be chatting on the phone if I was walking anywhere at all secluded. I feel like if I’m aware and alert I’m less of a target for someone to attack or rob me.
So how does this overlay into when we travel? Well being a blond westerner brings it’s own share of problems when traveling in much of the world where blond hair isn’t very common. Living in Saudi it’s pretty uncommon if I get thru a day without something strange or inappropriate happening. Just a quick walk down the main hospital corridor where I work can sometimes feel like I’m walking down a cat walk. I’m not saying this because I think I’m super hot, I’m just stating what actually takes place for me and many western women here. Men stare. Sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes in a creepy leering way. At least once a week someone takes my photos without my permission. Often this happens in one of my patients rooms and it’s awkward as fuck every time it happens. First, they never ask me if it’s ok to take the photo. Second, often the phone isn’t silenced so as the photos is taken the phone makes that shutter noise so they know that I know they’ve just taken my picture. Thirdly, if you’re going to take my bloody picture maybe you could give me a heads up?! At least let me look my best for whatever creepy reason it is that you needed to take that photo in the first place?! Then there are the inappropriate questions regarding whether I’m single and if I would like to have an Arabic husband. Ummm no. Then there are the instances where a man will look at you literally like you aren’t wearing clothes. Sometimes I will walk out of a patient’s room feeling like a need a shower because of the pervy aggressive looks I received. It should be noted that our work uniforms consist of super unsexy white scrubs. Mine are way too big and I literally resemble the marshmallow man from Ghostbusters. Seriously. Can you imagine if we were allowed to wear the flattering scrubs we wear back home. I feel like the local male population would quite literally die of heart attacks. The other thing that happens quite a bit is getting followed. Last month a creepy dude followed me around the grocery store and leered at me while I picked out my cucumbers in the produce section. As a woman here you will often get followed by cars with Saudi boys who are old enough to be your children. The same day of the infamous cucumber incident a Saudi guy pulled up next to the vehicle I was in and demanded my driver put down the back window so he could “get a look.” I told my driver to tell him to “get a life” instead.
Unfortunately, these incidents aren’t specific to Saudi. Last week in Barcelona my Kiwi mate and I were dressed up for dinner and walking in a crowded main square when men repeatedly blocked our way to try and chat us up. We would step around them and a little further up some new guys would try the same aggressive and unsuccessful move. Later that evening as we were walking back to our hotel 2 men crossed our paths and catcalled us about spending the night with them. We ignored them and crossed the street. They turned around and followed us. I’m still pissed about it. That they felt that it was ok to try and follow us late a night back to our hotel. I personally have zero tolerance for this type of behaviour and stopped to make it very clear that we knew what they were up to and that they had better keep it moving. Sadly, my Kiwi mate and I have been followed on the streets of Phnom Penh, and in Nicosia Cyprus a Nigerian guy kept following us after we repeatedly told him to leave us alone. To the point that I actually had to cause a public scene for him to leave. Super creepy. While in Kolkata India, my friend and I would joke that when we go back we will have shirts made with the Hindi text “STOP STARING” written on the front because that week I experienced some of the most intense staring of my life. Then there were the numerous sexist and generally unpleasant experiences in Marrakesh Morocco. Being surrounded by groups of men in the main square. Having my path blocked in the Medina or my wrist grabbed on more than one occasion as a shopkeeper tried to drag me into their store. Then there are the local markets the world over. I think you would be hard pressed to find a female traveler that hasn’t been inappropriately touched or rubbed against while trying to purchase some cheap tourist trinkets. Just so I’m being clear by “touching” I mean being rubbed against or having one’s ass, breasts or crotch grabbed. Unfortunately, I have had all 3 happen more than once. But to be fair, this can happen to a woman without traveling abroad. I’m sure many of my female readers have been in a crowded bar or nightclub and had a similar experience.
Travel as a woman can be difficult in ways that men will never fully understand. Sometimes after an inappropriate encounter I try to visualize what my Pops or my brother would do or think if they had witnessed it. Or I try and think what the men would do if the person getting leered at or followed was their mother, daughter or sister. It wouldn’t be ok then would it?! So what does a lady do? How do you combat this type of behaviour when it happens a lot? Many of us modify the way we dress while traveling. We try to make ourselves less visible. Loose casual clothing, nothing flashy. Cover your hair when it’s culturally appropriate to do so. In my opinion these alterations don’t really make any difference. If a man is going to stare at you then he’s going to stare at you regardless. I have tested this theory day in and day out living in Saudi. I get the same looks and attention whether my hair is covered or not. It’s still pretty obvious that I’m a westerner and therefore foreign looking. I think talking about it helps. Making men aware of what kind of behaviour is threatening and inappropriate. But here’s the thing, many men would welcome any type of attention from ladies so if the situation was reversed they likely wouldn’t be uncomfortable like we are. I have tried the “you stare at me and I’ll stare right back at you” game. Trust me. That never works. In fact in my experience it just makes the staring more aggressive and usually the creepy dude will take it as suggestion to come and have a closer look. Also when someone is full on perving at you it’s impossible to hold eye contact with them. I find it very threatening. I’m not sure how we go about making it clear that men the world over need to modify their behaviour. Just because a woman looks foreign does not make it ok to aggressively stare at her. It is NOT ok to follow a woman. Especially when she has already made her disinterest clear. Especially if she is alone or it is late at night. It is NEVER ok to grab a women’s wrist or block her way. I guarantee that if she didn’t want to see want whatever stupid thing you were selling a second ago, she sure as hell won’t now that you’ve become physically aggressive with her.
Please don’t read this post and take it as a message that women shouldn’t travel because that is definitely not what I’m saying. I just think women have to be safe and smart. The main goal of this post was to draw attention to the many ways women can and are made to feel unsafe or uncomfortable. That maybe one guy who reads this will be with his buddy who will see a lady and say “she’s hot, lets follow her!” And the guy will turn to his friend and say “nah, lets go get a tea/coffee/beer instead.” To be clear I have traveled to over 40 countries now and I have met many, many lovely and kind men throughout my travels. Luckily, when I think back on visiting most countries the impression I had of it, and the memories I take with me are overwhelmingly of the positive things that happened to me and the positive interactions I had. And not the intense staring or back to back ass grabs I got in the market.
Safe travels ladies….