My favorite thing to do is to plan trips and vacations.
I love them all – from big, bustling cities with a ton of nightlife to the quiet beachfront escapes. If I could make money from being on vacation, I would do so. Alas, I am not a travel writer or the lady from Eat, Pray, Love, so I’ll stick to my day job.
And one thing I’ve come to notice is that while planning vacations, people tend to offer advice.
While it mostly consists of restaurants to try and tourist traps to avoid, women often get some lip talk about safety – especially around sexual harassment. And a lot of us also do our own research.
Researching safety tips are a rite of passage for traveling women.
Most of the advice is commonsensical, such as not carrying a lot of cash or wearing flashy jewelry.
Other advice is horribly inaccurate, such as this gem — “Dress modestly to minimize attention from men” – taken from this article that also teaches ladies to “Wear a real or fake wedding ring, and carry a picture of a real or fake husband.”
That same article opened with “In Europe, you’ll rarely, if ever, hear of violence. As for experiencing harassment, you’re far more likely to think, ‘I’m going to ditch this guy ASAP’ than, ‘This guy is going to hurt me.’”
Funny. Supposedly European men don’t hurt anyone, yet 40%-50% of women in the European Union report being sexually harassed in the workplace.
But if you are looking for travel advice to Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, or any place that isn’t predominantly white, get ready to feel like you are taking a flight to the depths of hell.
“It is a sad fact that many local men view Western women as promiscuous,” says this article about travel in Latin America. “[Y]ou need to be aware of the culture differences between Latin American men and those from your own country.”
But you know, “This should not deter any woman from travelling alone as this can be a rewarding and empowering experience.”
Yes! I feel empowered already! But it gets worse. Way worse!
This article on travel advice to Egypt warns us of a “white slave trade.” As a woman of color traveling in Egypt, I had no idea if this advice even applied to me.
“Be strong, be confident, don’t be a victim,” says the writer. “The Egyptian men are far more likely to harass a woman who’s strolling around than one who is walking with a purpose.”
Try telling that to Egyptian women who deal with street harassment every day of their lives!
Other advice paints men of color as overly aggressive when confronted, yet generally cowardly when you stand up to them.
Even articles that supposedly encourage women to travel solo are filled with stereotypes – like this one, in which the author explains that “a travel buddy can cut down on unwanted attention in India, but in Italy, many men are just more forward in making their intentions known.”
The contradictions are dizzying.
And don’t get me wrong: Safety should be everyone’s priority when traveling! But if there is one thing I am sure of, it’s that street harassment is a worldwide problem.
Warnings of pickpockets and train ticket scams in Europe are perhaps, valid.
But this advice was a sharp contrast to the dire warnings of sexual assault, rape, and harassment I received when traveling to non-European countries.
Any maybe that’s – unfortunately – not so surprising.
But sexual violence and street harassment (as well as rape culture) exists everywhere.
So why do we continue to romanticize street harassment in Europe, while vilifying it when Black and Brown men are involved?
As exemplified by the famous poster that many of us had put up in our dorm rooms entitled “American Girl in Italy,” sometimes we aren’t so quick to notice rape culture when it’s right in front of us.
Traveling as a woman has its disadvantages because we are seen as helpless and naive when traveling solo, an easy target!
But while real danger very well may be lurking in a dark corner of a Cairo street, real danger also occurs when we let our guard down by believing that we are in less danger just because we are in Europe!
The message that this sends across is, essentially, “These are white people! No need to worry!”
It’s okay to feel uncomfortable when traveling to a new country, but if you want some real travel advice, let me help you out.
1. Language Barriers
The biggest hurdle to get through when in a foreign country is language barriers.
When you don’t speak the local language, everything feels uncomfortable and foreign, and that adds to the feeling of insecurity when walking down streets.
You don’t have to be fluent in another language to visit that country, but knowing a few key phrases is quite helpful in understanding what is going on around you. It will also allow you to ask for help and get a rapid response.
Will it stop street harassment or an assault? No!
But you can at least call for help or say thank you to a person who aided you.
During my first trip to Cairo, I wanted to prove to myself that I had learned enough phrases to make it on my own, but my partner who is fluent in Arabic was not so confident in my abilities. He was mostly teasing me, and I was determined to prove him wrong.
During dinner at a restaurant in Cairo, I got up to go to the bathroom and found myself lost. It happens! So I asked the nearest server, “Where is the bathroom?” He replied, “Straight ahead to the right, after the kitchen.”
I felt so proud that I understood that!
But on my way back to my table, he approached me and started talking to me in rapid Arabic, leaning close to me while smiling. I assumed he was flirting and disgustingly pushed him away.
My partner asked why I had reacted so rudely to the server, and I told him he was flirting and that it made me uncomfortable.
It turns out, he wasn’t flirting! He was asking me if I had liked my meal and was curious as to which part of Egypt I was from. He knew that I looked like a tourist, but assumed it was from another region, not another country altogether.
You win some, you lose some!
At least I was half right. But it would have been nice if I could have avoided treating him like a pest.
2. Feminist Organizations
You are always encouraged to travel with contacts to local embassies and government organizations, but I recommend contacting local feminist or women’s organizations, too.
Local organizations understand why female travelers feel in danger and know how to handle cases of assault or gender violence in their respective communities.
While local law enforcement agencies might not be helpful, as is often the case in the United States as well, you can find support groups with people who identify with your concern.
Google has made it easy to find anything! And if your search bar isn’t giving you the answer, try Facebook, where you are most likely to get comments from people you trust. My favorite tool is to go on Twitter because you can reach a wide network of individuals and organizations.
When my friend was traveling in Northern Africa was assaulted by someone she had befriended, I had no way of actually helping her. I felt powerless to be so many miles away with no local influence to help her, so I did what I do best: I contacted friends I had met via Twitter and in this case, an Arab activist that I had already met in person.
I explained the situation to her and immediately she offered me several contacts of local organizations and individuals located in the area where my friend was currently staying.
I passed the information along, knowing that if I couldn’t be there in person, I could find her someone that cares and could help her navigate local law enforcement procedures.
3. Don’t Question Your Fears
There really are a lot of legitimate fears that women face when traveling, and that’s a valid concern.
I am not trying to pretend that machismo is not a major problem in Latin America, or that sexual assaults and street harassment are not part of the daily life of women in the Middle East, and so on. But these concerns are global, and we need to eradicate them everywhere.
When a man in Rome grabbed my hand without my consent and tried to stroke my hair, I felt that my personal space was invaded, and I was threatened by his actions, yet I ignored my reservations and giggled because I was told that Italian men were just friendly.
My friends were with me when this occurred, and none of them felt the need to intervene because we were all made to believe that there was no danger.
And perhaps I wasn’t in any real danger, but my personal autonomy was violated and I knew that the behavior was unacceptable, yet I forced myself to believe that it was all a romantic gesture.
I’m still kicking myself over that one!
Had this happened anywhere else, I know I would have angrily pushed him away without any hesitation, and any of my travel companions would have attempted to defend me.
4. Wear a Fake Wedding Ring
Just kidding! Don’t do that.
Actually, don’t change who you are because you are visiting another country because it won’t make any difference. And pretending to be married has never stopped (and never will) a person intent on hurting you from actually doing so.
Harassment is not flirting.
People who want to manipulate your movements and emotions in public spaces are not looking for a wife. They are looking to have a good laugh and/or feel in control of “their” space by pushing you out.
Ultimately, be you!
This doesn’t mean that you should disregard local customs, like dressing more conservatively or covering your hair in religious spaces. It means that you respect the local customs while being who you are.
For example, if you are a blonde woman with blue eyes wearing a sari in India, you are not actually blending in. Rather, you are mimicking local women. In fact, you’d stand out more than if you just dressed like you normally do.
Blending in doesn’t help curb harassment because local women get harassed every day!
It doesn’t happen to Western women because they seem more sexually available, it happens because we live in a world that sees us a meat for consumption.
Men can ogle and poke to find the freshest piece, and we are just supposed to deal with it.
But you don’t have to.
Street and sexual harassment are part of a larger problem of women being excluded from public spaces.
In places where gender separation is strictly enforced, the feeling of not-belonging is palpable with every step you take.
And men, who are often privileged enough to be in public spaces, will also notice your presence because you stand out.
It doesn’t happen as often in say, New York City streets, but who hasn’t walked into a Brooklyn pool hall at one in the morning and then realized that they were the only woman around?
I don’t want women to feel that they need to be aware at all times when traveling, because likely the level of street harassment will be comparable to any American city.
It’s exhausting to feel threatened with every step we take outside our homes, but racist narratives undermine the work that organizations and individuals throughout the world do to end street harassment.
The difference is that you are no longer in your comfort zone, and you don’t have the tools to fight back, like language and local connections – not where in the world you are.
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Patricia Valoy is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a Civil Engineer, feminist blogger, and STEM activist living in New York City. She writes about feminist and STEM issues from the perspective of a Latina and a woman in engineering. You can read more of her writings on her blog Womanisms, or follow her on Twitter @besito86. Read her articles here and book her for speaking engagements here.