Being a woman travelling solo sets off alarm bells which remain silent for our male travelling counterparts. I’ve heard “But you can’t backpack alone as a woman, it’s dangerous!”, “Be careful, you might get hurt” or “Wouldn’t it be better to take a friend?” My brothers been all over the world alone and no one questioned his choice or safety.
It’s great that people care. I am fully aware of the different dangers facing women than men, and yes I know the long list of things I’m supposed to do to not get raped (which by the way in many situations do not prevent the crime from happening and ignore the fact that 2/3 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim and 38% of rapists are a friend). Statistically I’m more likely to suffer violence against women from someone I know, than from a stranger in another country.
Whilst women most likely will face bigger obstacles than men whilst travelling alone – which shows the urgent need for feminism worldwide – the pressing issue is not whether women should travel alone. It is the case of violence against women as a worldwide issue, no matter where it is experienced or under what circumstances.
So, whilst I appreciate people’s well-meaning concern, I can’t help wondering if the stigma around women’s solo travel is just another one of society’s sneaky ways to perpetuate gender stereotypes of fearless, heroic male adventurer and his vulnerable damsel in distress.
Solo travel is absolutely fantastic, in terms of how much it can enable an individual to grow, maybe the preoccupation with potential dangers for women travellers is the projection from a sexist fear of women being fully independent and self-confident individuals with assertive qualities and leadership skills.
Regardless of where you are in the world, you have to be savvy and look after yourself, so the same goes for travelling. Obviously, some thorough research and a back-up emergency plan if something goes wrong are very helpful when stepping into unknown terrain.
Women wanting to travel alone shouldn’t be made to feel held back by fear, so I’ve put together a list for the best of women’s solo travel. It enables us to:
- Engage with feminism around the world. For anyone who is committed to working for social justice and the fight against patriarchy, it is really useful to talk to people across the globe and see how different cultures, societies and living conditions impact on people’s lives. In terms of activism, travelling to see how other people live and work for justice is the perfect way to bring back fresh ideas to inspire change and add to your own projects/movement back home as well as contribute your own ideas to other projects. It also extends the conversation to diverse experiences of sexism around the world rather than focusing solely on the centralised Western white woman.
- Pick up new practical skills. With all the fantastic sites available for projects where volunteers work in exchange for board and food, (i.e helpx, WWOOF, workaway) we have the chance to learn interesting new skills and work in a team whilst experiencing a different culture. When I was battling with a huge overgrowth of brambles in France, I noticed feeling like the prince in sleeping beauty who cuts his way through the thorns to get to his princess. Disney didn’t offer me a brave, female character to identify with, so with a sense of “HA take that!” I swung at the tough spikes with extra vigour and decided to be my own.
- Learn a new language. This is something we can all benefit from. I think it’s particularly important for those whose first language is English. I don’t want to be a lazy Brit that relies on the legacy of colonialism to get by in other countries by expecting everyone else to speak English. Being able to communicate using a whole different set of rules and words is eye opening and allows for a new way of self-expression. Non-verbal communication when a language is unknown can be fun and interesting too!
- Become your own best friend. Travelling alone doesn’t have to mean you get lonely. I have a whole collection of memories shared with just me, myself and I that I wouldn’t exchange for anything. The company we keep on our own is the most important company to be able to enjoy, because without a good relationship with oneself how can we expect to have positive relationships with others or the confidence needed to change the world?
- Make your own choices without having to consult anyone else or take into consideration the needs of others. Travelling alone allows for complete independence, we get to do what we want when we want and decide who we do it with and where. Sounds pretty good right? What’s more this completely breaks out of the stereotype feminists have been fighting for decades, of women existing to look after others, to take care of the home, the husband, the family.
- Travelling solo gives you the extra motivation to have unexpected conversations. When travelling with a friend or partner it can be easy to stay settled in your own bubble or miss out on conversations that you might only be motivated to have whilst journeying solo. Being a solo traveller forces you to step out of your comfort zone and talk to people whom you might otherwise have never engaged with. I’ve actually found I’ve been treated with an unexpected level of respect from some male strangers whilst travelling solo, more respect than I’m offered on a night out in England!
- See how big the world is. It’s huge and there is so much to see and do! Once getting a taste of travel, it’s pretty hard to stay in one place because of the excitement of how much is out there waiting to be discovered and of how many different paths have the potential to change your life forever.
The list goes on and each person will have their own unique experiences to add to it. However it’s really important to highlight that not everyone can travel, and that I write this as a woman born and raised in the UK with the privilege of a British passport that allows me free access around the world.
A lot of women, a lot of people, don’t have this freedom of movement due to a number of different factors. Examples are border restrictions, socio economic position and/or political unrest in their country of birth, ill health, forced child marriage. Yes I can write an article celebrating the fruitful experience of being a woman solo traveller, but in the feminist fight, the positives of one freedom must not exist in isolation to the other side of the coin, whereby one person’s freedom highlights another’s oppression. This shows the need for us all to continue the struggle for social justice and put feminism on the agenda worldwide. It’s not fair that only some people have the means available to pursue their chosen path in life.
I am a woman who travels alone because I can, others aren’t lucky enough to have the choice, never mind worry about whether they should or not. With this freedom comes a responsibility to travel ethically and be active in the communities I visit, as well as humbly listening to the stories of others and being motivated to be an extra pair of hands if asked.
Women’s solo travel is more than a journey of self-exploration; it is a way to question our position in the world and what we can do in the feminist fight for gender equality across the globe.