Traveling alone is different if you are a woman than if you are a man. Among the many recommendations for women listed on travel sites and in travel guides are the following: if you walk alone, avoid walking through crowded spaces where there are many men they might touch you and you won’t even know who did it; if you smoke, avoid doing it in public, men will think you are a prostitute; don’t go out alone at night; if a man harasses you and won’t stop, tell him that you are waiting for your husband who is coming back in 5 minutes, if the guy insists, point at any man and tell him, convincingly that the stranger is indeed your husband.
Through my work, I have visited many countries, from Bangladesh to Tanzania, through cities like San Francisco, Bogota, Ulaanbaatar, Lombok, Mexico City, Johannesburg, Delhi, Istanbul or Copenhagen. A few months ago I spent several weeks in an extraordinary Asian country, where its exuberance and culture is just as impressive as its economic downfalls and natural disasters. For the first time in my life I dared to take the train in this part of the world instead of a taxi and proudly discovered the excitement of traveling in rusty wagons with male stewards spotlessly dressed who serve you an indescribably delicious lunch.
But I could not fully enjoy it. I had read the numerous recommendations for young women traveling alone, recommendations for women who by all means have been raised in freedom, restricted and conditioned, and who can and do travel around the world. I followed the instructions. I picked out the guy who could potentially fake being my beloved husband. While we all waited on the line that led to a battered desk from which a clumsy man sold tickets, I kept thinking how if any man bothered me, I would not hesitate. I would point to this man that I had carefully selected and say in a deep convincing voice he is my husband.
And then…well then of course, I would have to walk towards the half-decent man and with a very assertive tone –without scaring him away, I would say something like: hey (smiling), you don’t know me and you probably have a family, or maybe you are divorced or widowed, for all I know you could be gay…and well, you probably don’t want to talk to me (big smile), but you see, you look like a decent man and here I am asking you to pretend that you are my husband (serious look) and that you are willing to defend me from any other men, beast or…
While the line kept moving I started laughing at myself thinking how can we get to this level of fear and paranoia? How can I go from being so happy and excited to be in the middle of a wonderful place full of exotic birds and magnificent temples to being so worried? Everything was going well on my trip until I focused on these recommendations that supposedly try to warn, protect, alert and save women from being harassed, raped, murdered or disappeared.
The recommendations are flawed anyway. What if the alleged half-decent man turned out to be worst than the supposed attacker? I decided that if any man looking like they had bad intentions came closer than I felt comfortable with I would scream, scream about losing the tranquility of traveling by myself without feeling that any man, in any corner is a potential attacker!
At the International Network of Women’s Funds where I work, we aim to put an end to the fear of men that women are raised with and that sadly, limit women’s sexuality, choices, civil status and liberties throughout the world. Our members mobilize financial resources to fund initiatives that seek to protect, promote and guarantee women’s human Rights.
During International Anti-Street Harassment Week it’s very important to remind ourselves that this form of violence against women (and some men) is very common and prevalent from San Francisco to Lombok. Millions of women have to deal with street harassment on a daily basis and the impact that this has on their lives not only makes them feel bad and guilty for possibly provoking such aggressions, but it also makes them decide due to security reasons not to go out alone, limit the times of the day when they do go out, avoid certain places and even, stop going out at all, quit their jobs, stop wearing what they want…stop living how they want.
Changing our preferences, limiting our movements or our life choices won’t stop street harassment against women. What should and must change is the attitude of those men who believe that they have the right to offend, criticize, touch, stalk or look lewdly at women. Understanding that street harassment affects women and men — who are seen as a mass of potential harassers and aggressors — and that it is a violation of women’s human rights is key to promote a culture of respect.
From April 12-18th a series of public actions to denounce and counter this specific form of violence will take place, including the pasting of 65 Stop Telling Women to Smile posters around Mexico City’s transit system. To learn more about this issue and how can you join please check out: Stop Street Harassment.
Lucía Carrasco Scherer is based in Mexico City where she is Director of Programs at International Network of Women’s Funds, a network of 42 women’s funds worldwide that fund women-led initiatives to advance women’s and girls’ rights in over 170 countries. She loves traveling alone.