Here we go again: “Safe” and “Unsafe” Places for Women Travelers

For the last few days I’ve been having an e-mail exchange with Marie Javins, author of the upcoming Africa travel book Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik, about how women’s travel literature thrives on this irrational fear that the fairer sex is at so much risk when traveling abroad. Lo and behold, out today is this crazy article on “The best (and worst) destinations for women worldwide.” I love and I think USA Today’s travel section is one of the few newspaper ones that’s still worthwhile. But man does this piece rub me the wrong way.

There are so many things wrong with this whole concept that let’s just mention the main one: women who travel abroad are usually as safe or safer than they would be in their own country. How many women got beat up, raped, or killed in your own country? Now, how many tourists suffer the same fate in the place you’re going? More importantly, how many scared women travelers have even done a Google search to look up this information?

Now let’s talk specifics. The safest place in the world that I have ever seen for women travelers, apart from Japan, is probably Turkey. Men and women will both go out of their way to make sure your travels are comfortable and that you are not seated next to a strange man on a bus or train. Yet in this article, it is listed as one of the worst places. Why? Because “you’re likely to see many women in full hijab, or at the very least covered discreetly by veils, long shirts, and flowing pants.” Yes, but you’ll also see plenty of miniskirts in the cities and hot bathing suits on the coast. Also, there are some women covered head to toe at the farmer’s market where I live in the U.S.–does that mean it’s unsafe in my town?!

Meanwhile, India is listed as a “safe” place for women to travel alone. Are you f%#*ing kidding me?! I’m not saying women shouldn’t travel there, but it’s by far the most hassle-heavy place on earth and if you’re alone, you’ll be lucky to get through your time there without at least a few sexually frustrated men trying to cop a feel.

Actually, that’s probably the best way to choose where to travel as a woman alone. If the men are sexually frustrated, expect to get a lot of hassle. If they’re not, you’re probably okay. So the Middle East is going to be a pain. In Latin America you’ll get suggestive remarks, but nothing more. In most spots on the globe, quit worrying altogether. Unless getting grabbed in the tush one day out of 300 or hearing suggestive remarks in Spanish is going to scar you for life, go see the world!

  1. Marie

    Not to offend people, but there’s a fine line between exploitation and empowerment.

    I personally find that the negative part of being female on the road is that I can’t pop into a bar at night to chat up locals, because it often means “prostitute” (depending on the country). But this idea that I am somehow less safe than a man–the element of surprise gets anyone, regardless of gender, and let’s face it… what many people are asking is if it’s common for men to assault foreign women in other cultures. Uh, hello? Go look at statistics for your own country, and then go look at statistics for travelers (aside from extreme destinations). Now, next time you see a post on Lonely Planet’s Forum asking “I’m young, blond, and beautiful, can I go alone,” ask what they are really inquiring about. Why don’t you see, “I’m a studly young man, is it safe to travel alone?” Or, “I’m a dowdy, fat, gray-haired, middle-aged mother of six, can I go by myself?”

    What are people really asking, and what is the implication about men in unfamiliar cultures? My two cents anyway, but then, I’ve had my share of hassle. Egypt is big for that. I find the Middle East to be the opposite of what the USA Today article describes. Respect the culture and it will respect you, male or female.

    And I have gotten so much more help due to being female. Women have a position of respect in some cultures, and people automatically trust me in spite of me giving them no reason to trust me. I’m just a stranger with a backpack, after all.

    And as for women respecting other cultures in dress and attitude, that goes for men too. Men shouldn’t run around in tank tops and shorts in Muslim countries any more than women should. I find the majority of marketing of “women’s travel” to be pandering, patronizing, and exploitative. But I seem to be in a tiny minority.

  2. Chris

    Well… I am a guy. I read the article…

    Ireland – I have been to Ireland and I will say that if you are a girl, you can do anything. If you are a girl, you can hitchhike and a guy will take you anywhere and may pay for everything and may not try anything… but will be respectful either way. But if you are a guy hitchhiking, then you will be out there for hours and barely get a ride to the bus station.

    Turkey – I’ve heard mixed reviews. I’ve heard guys will come up and grab a girl’s butt… (so says a Bulgarian girl I talked to) but some turkish guy denied that… saying it was only certain parts of turkey that does that.

    Sweden – I’ve heard the guys are really aggressive and blunt.

    Spain – When I was in Madrid, guys were whistling at girls, and I was with a girl at a bar and they started pulling her away from me. Then they slapped the girl because she pushed him away. But I’ve heard it’s totally different in the south and near Barcelona.

    Other than that… I can’t comment.

  3. Melissa

    I’m actually a woman who has traveled a lot alone, and I was just Googling to find the safest places to travel for women. You see, after enduring months of being groped, whistled at, propositioned, and worse in Latin America, I have no desire to go through that again. I did not dress provocatively, but I did sightsee and go out for a drink on occasion.

    Now I want to travel someplace on my honeymoon that feels safe (and since I’m gay, we’ll be two women). So I feel that the more information we put out there that lists places that are more “safe” than others, the better. I do agree that the article was a little off (India? Yeah right.), but I would like to see more info about how to avoid harassment and what places single women (or women in pairs) should avoid. Not that women should stop traveling (that would defeat the purpose!), but tips on how to deal with harassment and where to expect it, would be useful.

  4. tim

    Melissa, I’m hoping some of the well-traveled women I hear from regularly will jump in on this, but Latin America is sure a lot better than say, Egypt or India. I was just with a bunch of women in Panama City and none of them had experienced more then a whistle there and I’ve heard very little about hassles in Costa Rica, Belize, Chile, or Argentina. Naturally the first world (expensive) countries are going to be easier. Much of eastern Asia is pretty hassle-free, as is Turkey and much of Eastern Europe. Like having to walk past a U.S. construction site each day to get to work though, part of the travel experience for a woman is developing a thick skin and good retorts. Unfair yes, but truly dangerous? Very seldom.

    There are LOADS of books on this subject, both narrative and how-to. Peruse your local bookstore or library and see the Seal Press site.

  5. deepika

    The whole idea of if “you would go there you would get this or you will be better off”, is ridiculous. Being an Indian woman who has traveled aross the world, I feel you can expect misbehaviour and desperation anywhere in the world. It has more to do with sex-hungry men with shallow mentality, than a place instilling such qualities as customs. Ultimetely the way a woman carries herself and tackles situations makes a hell lot of difference. And mind you, it has got nothing to do with dressing up provocatively or going to a pub.

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