Laura Stewart-Liberty reflects on the harsh reality of travelling the world alone as a woman.
Solo-woman travel is widely reported to be on the rise, partly thanks to films such as Eat Pray Love, Wild, and Tracks. The attraction is clear; these ‘bildungsromans’ present solo travel as a transformative, life affirming, potentially lifesaving experience, an opportunity for women to ‘find themselves’. This translates to reality with a spike of rich westerners reviving the Grand Tour tradition for the 21st century, uploading perfunctory Instagram travel selfies, and saying unbearable things like ‘I want to do South America, but I don’t really want to do China’. That said, perhaps this new trend is a reflection of women’s increased freedom and autonomy.
Regardless of how you feel about the uncomfortable truth of the over-privileged masses marauding around the world, there’s another uncomfortable truth. We have seen the too-frequent media incidents of women travellers being raped and murdered whilst travelling abroad. This Autumn, Morocco exceptionally sentenced four men to death for the brutal murder of two Scandinavian women, Louisa Vesterager Jespersen and Maren Ueland, who were hiking in the Atlas Mountains. A man was also found guilty of the murder of a young British woman in New Zealand. These are just two examples of many tragic, high-profile cases.
In the wake of the examples above, some media coverage has centred on the assertion that solo travel is never safe for women, whereas others claim that women are the victims of femicide and sexual violence everywhere, not exclusively when travelling alone. Considering the overall lack of data on this subject, and the wide array of contributing factors, this can be a difficult question to answer. But let’s try to unpack this.
On one hand, it’s a sad given that violence against women is a global pandemic. Women travellers are clearly victims of male violence abroad, but it can be hard to establish whether such instances occur at a higher rate than violence directed towards women in their native countries. For every high-profile case surrounding the horrific experiences of women travellers, there are countless more detailing violence directed towards women in their native countries. Just this month, protests spread through India following the unfathomably sickening gang-rape and murder of a veterinary doctor, and another woman was burnt to death on the way to a hearing on her rape. In 2016, a woman at the Pamplona bull-racing festival was raped by a group of men, a crime that last year sparked fresh outrage as the men were charged not with rape, but the lesser crime of ‘sexual abuse’. The countless other violent crimes against women are too numerous to make the news; studies show that domestic killings in the UK reached a 5-year high in 2018, and the ‘vast majority’ of the 173 people were killed by their partners were women.
The realities of the modern internet-focused media have also affected how such violent crimes against women are reported and could potentially be creating the illusion that women solo travellers are disproportionately the victims of male violence. Largely, clickbait news and journalism mean that every headline has to be more sensational and shocking than the previous. Every story has to have a USP, or shocking element, and the incredible saturation of domestic rape and femicide cases means that typically, these stories don’t warrant mainstream news coverage, hence the impression that women travellers are more frequent victims.
On the other hand, it is also hard to deny the other factors at play, specific to women solo travellers. Sometimes without much much more than a minimal knowledge of the language, or geographical surroundings, and without friends or family in the vicinity, foreigners travelling abroad are undeniably vulnerable, and often targeted by pick-pocketers. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suppose that this inherent vulnerability, in conjunction with the women’s specific vulnerability under global rape culture and patriarchy, could make solo women travellers a target for gendered violent crimes, and other forms of harassment. A friend of mine on her year abroad in Russia once took a taxi home late at night and was driven out of town and kept in the locked car by the driver. Eventually she managed to exit the vehicle and sprinted home in the snow. This combination of vulnerabilities can also give otherwise unremarkable incidents a whole new threatening aspect. Living abroad in France, a friend and I were surrounded by a group of men swinging whiskey bottles on a deserted dark path on our way to a night out in the Park de la Villette. Same old, same old, until one of the men grabbed my arm and said, ‘look at me when I speak to you’. We were completely fine in the end, but it did suddenly hit me how vulnerable we were. A naïve oversight on my part, but I didn’t even know the French emergency number at the time.
Much of the joy of solo traveling comes when you’re open to new experiences, and to meeting new people. For women travelling alone, however, it often seems like we’re having to strike a balance between openness and prudent fear, the ever-present threat of male violence, magnified abroad, often causing women to ramp up their usual safeguarding measures. Unfortunately, sensible advice has to be to stay wise and keep your wits about you, but try not to let fear limit you, until we reach the day where there is no cause for this fear.
Artwork by Laura Stewart-Liberty.