Tackling the Real Fear Surrounding Solo Female Travelers: A Tale of Eurocentrism & Xenophobia
By Lauren Hutton
I started traveling by myself when I was eighteen years old. I hopped on 12-hour bus rides across Europe, dragged my increasingly heavy suitcase into hostels that doubled as ruin bars and ones that looked over pristine cities. I pantomimed my needs with locals who spoke no English, befriended fellow travelers over late nights in castled cities, and saw the most miraculous, marvelous things. It was the best decision I ever made, and I still travel alone somewhat frequently. But something that continues to get under my skin is the narrative of danger that accompanies solo female travel. Don’t get me wrong — traveling alone as a young woman can be dangerous and often comes with a slew of fears and necessary precautions other travelers never have to think about. I am acutely aware, and these days well-versed, in the constant threats to my safety while alone. What I find so irritating about this dialogue, however, is the often misplaced and xenophobic nature of these fears.
Friends have questioned if I’m afraid of terrorist attacks abroad. If I am aware that all of the inhabitants of the country I am visiting want to rob me. If I’m crazy for traveling alone to Turkey or Hungary or the Czech Republic. Apparently, everywhere foreign is a savage wasteland compared to the infinite safety and comforts of the U.S. Frankly, these questions, while often well-intentioned, are examples of thinly veiled racism fronting as concern. Only one third of Americans own passports according to the U.S. State Department, and there is a reason for that. Many Americans are scared of the “other,” the world beyond their border lines and, increasingly, border walls.
There seems to be this widely held belief that I, as a white woman, would be at particular risk in these foreign countries because of the culture and inhabitants of the place itself, ranging from Eastern Europe to Northern Africa. I have never been confronted with these kinds of fears when speaking of traveling in the U.S.; clearly these concerns are not for my vulnerability as a woman travelling alone — it is foreign men and cultures that evidently pose a risk. Concerns of robbery, assault, or worse that stem from my being a solo female traveler are warranted when living in a world in which women’s bodies are routinely and often violently taken advantage of. Concerns that focus on the other and perpetuate a narrative of non-western identities being savage, malicious, aggressive, in ways that western men evidently are not, are not only rooted in histories of racism and colonization but also perpetuate damaging Eurocentric ideologies.
I have encountered many men who scared me on my travels. Men who catcalled me, coerced me, assaulted me. Men who were offensive and potentially dangerous if I had responded differently. Men who saw my innate vulnerability through the conservative clothes, well-researched decisions, non-confrontational, non-flirtatious, downcast eyes. However, most of these men were white. Fellow travelers in hostels, vacationers in clubs, tourists on the same well-traveled paths. These were the men who made my trips scary.
A few months ago, I traveled alone to Istanbul for a long weekend. My friends, while supportive, seemed slightly distraught by the non-European destination. One night while there, a woman I had befriended and I needed to get home. We were in the new part of town, having spent the evening talking politics in a rooftop bar overlooking the Galata Tower, marveling at the colors and smells of the spice market, catching a midnight meal in a lively part of town filled with locals. I used all of the money on my travelcard to get us both onto a bus back to the old part of town, where each of our hostels were located. Unfortunately, we were dropped off at a tram line stop that didn’t have card recharge stations. With no money left on my card, we stood for a moment to brainstorm our next move.
A Canadian man approached us and expressed his enthusiasm at the fact that we spoke English. He read between the lines and swiped both of us in, a total expense of the equivalent of 38 cents. We got on the empty tram and headed in the same direction as he explained his navigational prowess — while Google Maps was pulled up on his phone. When we all got off at our stop, I pointed in the direction of his hostel. Right behind the Blue Mosque, he had said. I gestured to the monument, grateful my friend and I were each staying closer to the old town and in the opposite direction to him. He paused, mulled about, and finally said his goodbyes. We watched him walk away. In the minutes that followed, we hugged, recounted some of the moments of the night, and wrapped up our conversations. We each darted off in the direction of our hostels, quickly traversing the final few hundred yards.
Once back, I opened my phone to a message from her: “Omg that tram dude ran after me to ask if i wanted to spend the night with him.” My blood went cold picturing him disappearing into the darkness; had he watched the rest of our conversation? Where had he been concealed? How long did he wait once we were each alone to run after her? She continued: “I was scared he would follow me back to the hostel but luckily made it here safe.” We live in a world where women consider themselves lucky to not be assaulted rather than unlucky for having been made to feel unsafe, having been watched and followed. A world in which this behavior comes from western men, too.
The only offense from Turkish men that trip came in the form of taxi drivers trying to scam me. I didn’t feel unsafe as I stepped out of each of their cars, but I assure you I double checked my door was locked that night.
In a New York Times article, executive director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka discussed how violence against female tourists was a thread in the broader fabric of violence against women around the world. The article went on to state that violent episodes are just as likely to occur in rich Western nations such as France, Italy and Germany as in the developing world. If that’s the case, we need to hold our acquaintances accountable for contributing to narratives that equate non-western nations with heightened violence against women. That equate nonwhite bodies with aggression. That equate all that is non-western as insidiously “other.”
Men in some of the countries I’ve visited subscribe to different values surrounding gender roles and appropriate behavior. In Morocco, a man asked my boyfriend rather than me if he could place a scrub on my hand. Another offered him camels and a Ferrari for me — mostly in jest. In Eastern Europe, older men were shameless in their admiration. None of these men made me feel afraid. Knowing and understanding different cultural attitudes, particularly as a female traveler, is common sense and undoubtedly a good idea. That doesn’t, however, justify Eurocentric beliefs that blindly villainize populations of non-western nations and idealize western values out of a lack of understanding, a difference in ideology, and dangerously, a complete disregard for evidence.Ultimately, foreign cultures and customs are not the enemy here — violence against women is. The narrative surrounding solo female travel is one of risk, precaution, and luck. But it should not be one of blind fear for cultures that are not our own. Women are vulnerable while traveling alone because we live in a patriarchal global community in which violence against women is not sufficiently educated against, spoken about, or combated; that vulnerability, however, should not be equated to an innately violent or malicious nature inherent to non-western cultures.