Sarai Sierra, aged 33, was murdered while on her first trip abroad to Istanbul, Turkey last month.
In response to news reports on this tragedy, many people were quick to comment on the irresponsibility of women who travel independently. With condescension, they questioned Sierra’s common sense, affirmed the vulnerability of women traveling without male companions, and scathingly discouraged females from engaging in solo travel.
This, of course, resulted in backlash from independent female travelers and other advocates for solo travel. Twitter feeds teemed with blog posts and articles dedicated to “Safety Tips For Female Travelers” and “Why Traveling Alone As A Woman Is The Best Thing You’ll Ever Do,” all aimed at proving these internet commenters wrong. The hashtag #WeGoSolo was created as a way of promoting awareness of female traveler independence and linking readers to all kinds of resources on women and travel safety.
What bothers me is I see a lot of these blogs, tips, and articles aimed strictly at women. At least once a day I come across a post dedicated to the “Ten Things Women Should Be Aware Of When They Travel,” but never do I ever see similar posts on precautions for male travelers.
To say that a woman traveling on her own is unsafe because she is a woman is sexist. In my opinion, dedicating entire articles to only women’s safety tips is also, in a way, sexist. Are these articles, tips, and advice columns helpful? Absolutely. Women especially may be apprehensive to travel on their own because of the way mass media portray women’s roles around the world. Everyone can use a little more encouragement, a little more “girl power,” from seasoned, solo female travelers to get them going. However, the more we single out women with these titles, the more the word “female” or “woman” is connected to the word “safe,” the more the world will continue to think a woman is incapable of traveling at all.
Safety while traveling alone is not, and should not ever be, a gender-specific issue. Travel safety is relevant to us all.
Often, we are so focused on the fragility of the female traveler that tales of men in dangerous situations while abroad seem ‘anomalous.’ But they are constantly being told. For example, Matador contributor Bart Schaneman wrote an article about a man who was drugged and taken advantage of while traveling through Vietnam. Jon Brandt and his travel companions were robbed after their bus was hijacked in Quito, Ecuador. In college, I had a friend who decided to hang out with a group of amiable out-of-towners (male and female) who were visiting Charleston for the night. They went to a club, where they drugged him. When he woke up in the club’s doorway, brutally beaten and missing his wallet and cell phone, he was thrown in jail for the night because he couldn’t pay the exorbitant tab left by his ‘friends.’ This was in his own backyard; he hadn’t even gone somewhere unfamiliar.
The worst story I ever heard was about the son of a neighbor who lived down the street from me. Henry Lo was a smart kid, a math major at William’s College, a nice boy I remember playing on the playground with in grammar school. He was killed in an avalanche while hiking through the Swiss Alps. His death was tragic and unexpected, much like Sierra’s — except no one commented on the foolishness of Lo for traveling abroad and choosing to participate in such a risky adventure. They were more concerned with the loss of someone they cared about, someone they missed very much.
Is it about gender vulnerability? Is it about victimization? Is it about keeping your wits about you? Preparing for all circumstances, taking self-defense classes, carrying a knife, carrying a gun…? Is there any way we as travelers can completely protect ourselves at home or abroad?
Of course, using common sense will increase your chances of returning home in one piece. It’s no guarantee, but being vigilant about your surroundings, sticking to well-lit streets and crowded areas, researching rough parts of town and country-based crime ahead of time, keeping a close eye on your belongings, your drink, and the people you come into contact with will at least help you feel prepared in the rare case you encounter potential harm. There are millions of ways both men and women can use their travel savvy to avoid unfortunate circumstances.
And most travelers know that every time you travel, whether alone or in a group, you take a risk. You’re put into an unfamiliar arena, and it’s up to you to get through your journey while making it as pleasurable as possible. Despite your preparations, and possible reservations, more often than not you return unscathed.
According to an article on fear by David Cain,
…there are all sorts of unpleasant scenarios that can happen. But there is no way you can cordon off enough of life to eliminate the risk of pain, and that’s what our fears are trying to do…. Fear of the future is fear of the past. You can’t fear the future because you don’t know the future. You’re just deathly afraid that certain parts of the past will happen again.
You can be over-prepared, under-prepared, angry, disturbed, adventurous, physically fit…but don’t let fear of the unknown keep you from doing the things you’ve always wanted to do. If I gave up on the prospect of traveling alone because someone else did the same thing and ran into trouble, I’d never have experienced the totally awesome and crazy things that have happened to me while traveling abroad.
Let’s stop making travel safety a gendered issue. Instead, let’s keep doing the things we’ve been doing — booking flights to new and exciting places, talking with locals who may or may not be nice to us, sampling food that smells or looks weird, opening ourselves up to new opportunities. If we let other people’s opinions dictate how to travel, it becomes their experience, and not our own. Female travelers, be safe. Male travelers, be safe. But more importantly, keep traveling — because the best way to influence others is by doing.