This spring there was a lot of press coverage of two high-profile assaults on female travelers who were brutalized at the hands of local men in the countries they were visiting.
The first incident was a vicious assault on a Swiss tourist who was on a bicycle tour in rural India with her husband. After setting up camp for the night, the two were attacked and robbed. The man was beaten. Five local men then gang raped the woman.
The second story involved the murder of Sarai Sierra, a 33 year-old American woman who chose to travel to Turkey by herself. Her disappearance led to a frantic search, and the subsequent discovery of her body resulted in a lot of public commentary, including some very harsh inquiries about why a married mother of two would ever go off alone to someplace like Turkey – or any place where unaccompanied women are known to sometimes encounter very abusive treatment at the hands of male strangers.
Asking all the wrong questions. Other questions that came up (questions that were either asked explicitly or strongly implied) were: Should women travel alone to such places? Why would a woman ever want to do that? Why would women want to travel alone, anywhere, anytime? Don’t they know better? Don’t they know how dangerous it is? What could explain Sierra’s utter lack of judgment? What did she expect?
But I think these are very unhelpful lines of analysis. When it comes to addressing the issue of violence against women, when it comes to women’s safety, these are the wrong kinds of questions to be asking. Instead of blaming the victim, instead of focusing on the motivations and choices of women who are merely trying to exercise their basic human right of freedom of movement, we need instead to be asking questions about what can be done to make this a world where women in fact are able to exercise their birthright to explore this beautiful planet and all that it has to offer. We need to be asking other questions, instead. Different questions.
Questions that include:
Why is it the case that women who travel alone typically face greater risk than men do?
Why? Because much of the world is colonized by a male supremacist rape culture that hates women. That sees women and girls as objects to be used and abused and disposed of as men see fit. That rapes them (or threatens to) in order to keep them in their place. And a woman alone is easier to prey upon than is a woman who is travelling in a group or with a man.
I’m a man. A white man. A cisgendered man. A man who is “read” as heterosexual. A man who is at the moment still relatively able bodied. And as such I can pretty much go anywhere I want, any time I want (provided I can find the money to do so). If I need to go get some peace and quiet I can just go off and find it. If I want to head out on the highway (lookin’ for adventure!) I can just jump in my car and go! Let my mind and my body be free. And women can do this too. But in a culture where all women – but especially women out on their own – are seen as possible prey, women have to worry about safety in ways that I never do.
I have a female friend who, when she was a university student, would at the end of each school year ride her motorcycle half-way across North America in order to get home. She loved the freedom of the open road. That sense of feeling like a part of the landscape she was passing through. But her sense of freedom was limited by the fact that she always felt that she had to carry a loaded pistol on her person as she traveled. Not because she liked guns. But because she feared rapists. And a woman who is stopped by the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere with a broken down bike is at great risk from any predatory male who happens to pass by.
If my friend wanted to head out on the highway lookin’ for adventure, she needed to do it with a loaded gun. And it’s ridiculous that she should have to do that.
(And unlike all those right wing yahoo males who go out of their way to flaunt their large guns in some sort of paranoid hypermasculine penis-enhancing display, my friend actually had real reason to worry. She was simply trying to keep herself safe from predatory men as she sought an experience of freedom.)
Even the wilderness is not safe. I have a young daughter. And I despise the fact that as she goes thought her life she will face increased risk of attack simply because so much of the world sees people of her gender as legitimate targets of physical and sexual violence. As people to be raped. If she ultimately winds up sharing my love of the outdoors, she will always have to think twice before venturing out into the wilderness alone. Not because of the wild animals she might encounter out here – but because of the “civilized” ones! The extremely dangerous – and all too commonly encountered – human male.
And I am not talking about India here. Or Turkey. I am talking about right here in North America. In 2013. The fact that girls and women still face the threat of rape and murder at the hands of men in this so-called modern age -- in this so-called advanced society -- is an utter disgrace.
Are women who travel with men necessarily safer than women who travel alone?
In a word: No.
Having a man along didn’t help the Swiss tourist who was gang raped while on that bike tour in rural India. And having a traveling companion who is male can present its own risks. In fact, women most often face threats from men they know rather than from strangers. There are a huge number of women who have been raped by male travelling companions -- but you don’t hear about those attacks in the media. These are women who thought that having a guy around would help keep them safe. And what they discovered was that it did not keep them safe. It hurt them. Being attacked by a stranger is always terrifying. But to be attacked by a trusted friend -- which is a far, far more common event -- brings a whole other level of shame and betrayal.
Insisting that a woman always travel with a man is no guarantee of her safety. And it is infantilizing. It sentences her to a form of captivity. A kind of custody that is not always protective.
How about travelling with a group of women? Doesn’t that help?
Sarai Sierra had originally planned to go to Turkey with a female friend, but her friend had to back out for financial reasons. So Sierra went alone -- a decision that she has since been posthumously criticized for. (Apparently the admonition to never speak ill of the dead does not apply when the agenda is to victim-blame a woman for the male violence that has befallen her.)
Might Sierra have been safer had her friend gone along? Who knows? I myself was travelling in Turkey many years ago, and as I made my way up the coast toward Istanbul I kept running into a group of European women travelers. At one stop where I met up with them I saw that they all looked really stressed out. It turned out that they had travelled inland to an ancient tourist attraction. They stayed at the inn that their student guidebook had recommended because the owner was, the book said, “a great guy.”
But while they were there, this supposed “great guy” decided that it was time for his teenage son to “become a man.” He proceeded to lock one of the women in a bedroom with the young man. The teen attacked the woman as her friends yelled and screamed from outside and tried unsuccessfully to break down the door and get into the room. Meanwhile, trapped behind the locked door, the woman repeatedly fought the guy off. He finally stopped his attacks and let her go.
In a misogynist culture where women are treated as property (or prey), not even an army of women can always keep you safe.
Are some cultures really more violent toward women than others?
On average, places like Turkey and India do experience higher rates of violence against women than a place like North America. And we need to be able to talk about that fact. Because it is a reality of life on our planet that some cultures are indeed worse for women. And to pretend otherwise makes it impossible for us to begin to have meaningful conversations about just what makes one place better than another for women – about just what makes that place better for all of us, actually, because when things are good for women, they are good for all of us! If we can talk about this fact, then we can figure out what can be done to ensure that all cultures become places of safety for women.
Sometimes people are hesitant to discuss this reality (that some places are worse for women than others) because they fear that it lets those of us who live in places like North America off the hook. That it allows us to deny our own levels of violence against women. But it doesn’t. According to the work of cross-cultural anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday (who is no apologist for violence against women in North America!), when it comes to violence against women, cultures range from extremely dangerous to very peaceful. Some cultures lean toward being “rape free” (and many actually are rape-free), and others are “rape prone.” (You can read more about her here http://billsprofeministblog.blogspot.ca/2010/09/achieving-rape-free-world-its-not-that.html and here: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~psanday/rapea.html )
North American cultures are about half way down the list between “rape free” and “rape prone.” When it comes to rape, we’re just about in the middle. Only average. And that’s nothing to feel good about. When it comes to rates of rape, being average still represents a failing grade!
Are there easily-identified practices that make some cultures safer for women and girls?
Recognizing that cultures experience different levels of violence against women allows us the opportunity to begin to imitate those that do better than we do when it comes to the safety of women and girls. We can adopt within our own cultures the very practices and principles that promote women’s safety -- which just so happen to be the very same practices that promote women’s empowerment!
Funny how that works, isn’t it? But it makes total sense when you think about it: violence against women is a crime that both reinforces and is in turn reinforced by sexist oppression. It keeps women in their place. Cultures where women have higher levels of social, political, spiritual, and economic power are also a lot less risky for women and girls.
Want to stop violence against women in your culture? Then you need to work to increase women’s social status in every possible way. In those cultures where men do not rape women, women are not always treated exactly the same way that men are, but they are never considered to be in any way inferior to men.
We simply can’t continue to oppress women financially, educationally, sexually, reproductively, politically, socially and spiritually and yet somehow expect society to lessen its violence against them! It’s the whole damn thing that needs to shift!
Want to stop rape? Empower women in all ways. Always.
It’s that simple.
The continuing existence of a rape culture -- any rape culture -- merely represents the choice of the men of that culture to maintain male supremacy by holding women down. Socially. Structurally. Physically. It all goes together.
But why do men still enjoy recreational travel in highly misogynist cultures? Why do men play where women die?
A lot of the commentary (chatter) about the murder of Sarai Sierra questioned why a woman would choose to go to such a place that has so much violence against women. The implication was that women should just not travel to such places -- and certainly not alone. But as I read these attacks on Sierra’s judgment (and, by implication, the judgment of all women who travel alone pretty much anywhere), the thought that kept occurring to me was this:
Why are we only talking about the choices that female travelers make? Why are we not asking why male travelers remain perfectly content to still tromp all around through misogynist cultures having the time of their lives -- as if the mistreatment of women in those regions doesn’t impact them at all?
The answer’s relatively simple. Because it doesn’t impact them. Not directly.
Why do we men wander blissfully in lands where our sisters would likely be raped and possibly even sold off into sexual slavery? Places where such things are happening right in front of our faces? (Has anyone else been to Thailand or Cambodia and walked right by the brothels full of young girls with numbers pinned on them so a man can order the one he wants without having to bother to even learn her name?)
“I’ll have number 3, please. She looks young and innocent.”
Do those of us men who do not actually enter into the brothels ever bother to notice the women sitting there waiting to be selected? The young girls who were probably sold into that life of slavery? Or the children who follow us down the street asking if we want a “companion” for the night? Our vacation spot is their tragic destination.
Why do we guys traipse through this world like it is our candy store?
Because we can. It’s one clear example of male privilege: that most of us can go anywhere anytime and not give a shit. That we men can go to a place and not even notice the way women are being treated there! That we can experience a place that treats women like dirt as if it were still an Eden. A paradise where we can play obliviously while women die.
I have met a number of heterosexual couples who have travelled together in India. And when I have spoken to them about what travelling in India was like, I usually hear words like:
Amazing! Incredible! Life changing!
And that’s wonderful. But I have also had the experience -- over and over again -- that as the conversation continues, the woman (often speaking out of earshot of her male travelling companion) will soon drop the Amazing! Incredible! Life changing! language and talk painfully about the harassment, the groping, the hassling of her as a woman -- simply because she was a woman trying to make her way in a culture where misogyny runs so strong.
When each member of the couple feels free to speak honestly, the men and the women typically report fundamentally different experiences of their time in India. The guys loved it! The women, not so much.
So what can we do?
What can we do? We can work to empower women globally through cooperation with international feminist organizations that have partnerships with groups that allow local woman to shape their own destiny.
And on an individual level, if you have the money for foreign leisure travel, why not go to places where women are treated even better than in your own country? Make an active effort to learn something there, and bring those lessons back with you! Rather than going to some place that you only imagine to be a paradise, why not go to places that actually are modern Edens? But real Edens -- untroubled by patriarchal teachings. Where man has not fallen. And where woman is still honored.
And I am not talking about limiting travel to rich countries. Yes, poverty and privation play an immense role in contributing to social misery. But you know what? Most of the cultures that Peggy Sanday identifies as being rape-free are themselves quite poor. Certainly much poorer than Europe or North America. So it ain’t about money. It’s about honoring women. About honoring the earth. About honoring nature. About cultures that see everything in creation as having a sacred place. Including women.
And if enough people do this, pretty soon it will have an impact. Tourist industries in misogynist cultures are highly sensitive to drop offs in numbers of visitors. (Tourist numbers are already way down in India due to the high profile assaults that have occurred there this year.) If they take a hit in the pocket book, those governments will take notice. And when they begin to understand that travelers are staying away because of the misogyny, they will take action.
And things for women will start to change.