A Guide to Facing Sexism when Travelling
The thing that is both brilliant and exhausting once you have swallowed the red pill of feminism is that there is no going back. Once you have become aware of the gendered power dynamics operating in our society, you can’t help but notice sexism everywhere around you. It’s like trying to forget a huge Game of Thrones spoiler that someone told you because your surname is Stark and they thought you would like to hear news of your family. Or trying to see the shiny legs in this picture, once you have realised that they are not covered in oil but in white paint:
You are welcome for that mind-blowing analogy.
Anyway. Moving on.
When you are a feminist, you are a feminist everywhere you go. At Uni, at work, in bed, at family dinners with Uncle Robert and his “just kidding, where’s your sense of humour?” microaggressions.
And so yes, you are also a feminist when you travel or live in a foreign country, and that can lead to some violent culture shocks. Because there are still many countries in the world where the State institutionalises inequality, many others where sexism may seem a lot more blatant than back home. Which is normal, because our minds notice inequality a lot more when it doesn’t require us to question our own habits and comfort zone. This is especially true in countries of the Global South, which we have been trained by racist, neo-colonial societies to see as less “developed” than the West.
I studied in India for two years. Once I fell asleep on a night bus and was awoken by the man next to me, casually caressing my nipple. Another time, one of my classmates told me that as soon as she had finished her degree, her parents would set up an arranged marriage for her. They had allowed her to study only because it would help her get a “better quality” husband. The Landlord of the flat which I shared with two girls and one boy would refuse to speak to us if the “man of the house” wasn’t there.
Some years later, I was in Cuba for an internship, and I got surrounded by a group of men who were harassing me, whilst explaining that I shouldn’t be upset by it because street harassment was just a way of “celebrating a woman’s beauty.” Cue skin crawls.
And every time I felt like doing this:
But the thing is, I might take my feminism with me wherever I go, I also take my privileges, as a white woman from a wealthy country who has enough money to travel and a passport which allows her to visit almost any country she wants. And that is a helluva lot of privilege.
I’m from England, a country which has been telling others what to do for centuries. Denouncing sexism in less privileged countries often makes me into the oppressor. Arriving in a country I know little about, telling men how to behave and women what they should be angry about is neocolonial, entitled, oppressive, it is not useful and it is not my place.
I will generally have no idea of what the real problems are or what is at stake for the women living there. I told my classmate to refuse to get married and to run away and travel the world with me. She replies that she has to accept her parents' decision, or she will lose her entire family, everyone she loved. “What would you do in my place?” she asked me.
So what can you do when you encounter sexism when travelling? How to take care of one's self without being oppressive?
First things first: stay safe. If someone assaults you or harasses you, there is no excuse. You are entitled to respond angrily, to slap him, to get the hell out of there, to yell until someone comes, if you feel like doing so; if you feel able to do so. It is your body, everywhere, and you get to decide what to do, how to react, if you feel violated. Your body is one place where you are fully entitled to set the rules.
On a larged scale, you are not the one that is going to change things. Set any saviour instincts aside. There is enough work to do in your home country, where you are more legitimate to act, so save your energy for that. Remember that when you are travelling, you only live oppressions in an indirect way, because you are never fully a part of the system. You can always choose to leave, for starters, plus you are often treated differently because of your privilege. Had I chosen to go to the police about the guy who groped on a bus in India, they would have taken my complaint seriously, because I am foreign. If I had been Indian, especially if I had been from a lower-cast, I would not have had the right to the same treatment. You might experience an echo of the sexism in your host country, but you will never truly experience the sexism that the women from there experience every day. Because of that, you are an ally to their cause and not directly a fighter.
Feminists from all countries need to unite, talk, share, lend each other a hand, but also collectively strive not to reproduce other forms of domination. Ie what White Feminism has done since, well, forever.
Feel frustrated and powerless because you can’t take action? See if any local feminists would like to meet up to share your different experiences, see if you can attend meetings or protests, respectfully, without taking up too much space, and learn about all the cool stuff that is happening in the world.