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How Anthropology Has Helped Me Deal With Sexism as a Traveler

by Mary Ellen Dingley Jun 30, 2016

I SAT DOWN in my over-warm kitchen in the Dominican Republic, slumped with exhaustion and almost in tears. “I can’t handle men shouting at me, and following me, and saying things to me, and staring at me,” I said to my neighbor, a local Dominican-Haitian woman.

I was shaken. Even a trip to the grocery store made me feel like I was shrinking in on myself. My neighbor nodded in sympathy but replied, “It doesn’t bother me at all, I’m used to it, it’s part of my culture, so I like it. But you aren’t used to it, I understand.”

To me, it felt like street harassment, but to her, it was a normal way of interacting in public spaces. My anthropologist side understood this, that this was simply a cultural difference I needed to adapt to as an outsider. I should react how my neighbor did, laughing it off or replying with a joke. But I still felt deeply angry, disrespected and even frightened; a man who had seen me walking home showed up to my house one night and I wasn’t sure of his intentions. And as a western-born feminist, I firmly believed in my right to move in public spaces the same way men did – without being shouted at or followed. The anthropologist in me wanted to adapt, the feminist in me wanted to rebel.

We all travel with deeply held beliefs, carrying them along with our backpacks and passports. While the point of travel may be to open our minds to other ways of being, and long-term travelers may pride themselves on bending into any cultural shape, we all have lines we don’t cross, cultural ideals we won’t conform to. How do we travel well, and hold true to ourselves?

The anthropologist in me wanted to adapt, the feminist in me wanted to rebel.

Traveling as a feminist is worth considering because women around the world face discrimination. This comes in the form of violence, lack of access to public space and transportation, lack of access to education, no right to own land, forced marriage, or high maternal mortality. And any female traveler, whether or not she faces discrimination, is going to experience her travels way differently than a man. Of course, discrimination and prejudice are always intersectional, and race, class, sexual orientation, neurotype affect how one is treated all over the world. I would have been treated differently abroad if I was a woman of color, rather than a white woman. I would have had to tread more carefully if I was of a different sexual orientation.

But this isn’t about “traveling while female”, this is about traveling while feminist (which anyone can be) and as someone steeped in anthropology training. How can one travel with an open, anthropologically-bent mind, and a feminist perspective and remain in balance?

When I lived in the country of Georgia, I used to watch my host sister doing all of the work in the household, cleaning and cooking and taking care of me and her brothers. Her brothers, perfectly capable pre-teens, would not lift a finger to help. And this was normal. Because I was trying to be a good anthropologist, I said nothing, but I often think – what if I had simply asked why they didn’t help? I had other Georgian women complain to me about inequality and lack of opportunity and I heard many stories of domestic abuse. What if I had started the conversation about gender roles? I didn’t. I simply observed.

Anthropologists aren’t supposed to change culture, not when they are doing anthropology anyway. Many people don’t understand this and think of cultural anthropologists as people fighting against modernity and advocating for staying in the past. As a man in a London pub who was not an anthropologist told me in a textbook case of the “mansplaining” phenomenon, anthropologists are perceived as wanting “everyone to live in mud hats and have 10 babies and lose all their teeth – their TEETH!” He emphasized, leaning an inch from my face.

But in actuality, anthropologists usually stand against outsiders changing cultures in unwanted ways. They aren’t against cultural change because cultures always change. That would be like being against the cyclical changing of the seasons. But they are for recording, studying and preserving languages, art, rituals and more that are important to people. They are for cultural autonomy, not necessarily cultural purity.

The greatest personal sin an anthropologist can commit is changing the culture they went to study. Every anthropology student is warned against this with horror stories of anthropology gone wrong. I was taught that the best way, and the only way to truly experience a culture is to let it be. Not to try to influence it, but to learn from it.

I was taught that the best way, and the only way to truly experience a culture is to let it be. But what if we see culturally embedded injustice? What then?

But what if we see culturally embedded injustice? What then?

Most feminists agree the first and most important step in fighting sexism is to call it out. To name it when you see it. To ask people to question their assumptions, what they do and why they do it. But doing that as a guest in a foreign culture is tricky, especially as a woman who may be expected not to argue.

What I chose to do when living abroad was compartmentalize – sometimes I was abroad studying as an anthropologist, and I would not speak out about my own beliefs. Sometimes I was there to work, and my beliefs took a backseat to the goals of the job. But often, I’m there simply as myself, and that’s when I tried to have the important conversations around sexism and when I would freely explain my feminist views over drinks with new friends.

The most profound cultural change is homegrown – such as the amazing women in groups like Girls at Dhabas who can navigate the cultural intricacies and know the most effective way to state their arguments. Or the local women leaders around the world supported by organizations like Vital Voices or Women for Women International. I’ve learned that my “job” as a traveler isn’t to give up my beliefs, but to enter with an open mind willing to learn and to share when appropriate. This can take careful cultural analysis and a lot of listening, but when a conversation can be started in which everyone is respected, honest, and open, it’s all worth it.

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