Last week, a woman and mother of two from New York City was found murdered in Turkey. She was there on a solo 3 week trip, trying to hone her new found interest and skill in photography. It is a horrible story of untimely death.
It’s a story that needs to be told, but not for the reasons that everyone keeps saying. First, let’s all try to understand that as awful as the issue of violence befalling female solo travelers is, it’s constantly sensationalized. I’m not trying to take away the absolute tragedy of this story and others like it, but women who are hurt, killed, or go missing (especially abroad) become story lines that the world media grabs onto, despite the fact that statistically, you’re more likely to be hurt or killed in your own city in a car crash or by someone you know than you are abroad. We collectively ignore that fact because it’s difficult to look at our society here in the U.S. and accept that women can be in danger anywhere they go, even their local supermarket.
It’s a lot easier and more typically in line with history to pinpoint and discuss something the woman did (or didn’t do) as explanation for a tragedy that befalls her; in this case, traveling alone. The song and dance goes something like this: A woman gets raped? Well she shouldn’t have been out at a bar alone. A woman gets sexually harassed at work? Well she shouldn’t have been wearing a dress like that. This phenomenon isn’t unique to women, either; we do this with most victims of any kind of violent or sexual crime, in the awful practice of victim-blaming.
This story was no exception. The narratives that emerged after this news broke were variations on a disturbing phrase: She shouldn’t have been traveling alone.
Unsurprisingly, I have a few things to say about that. Why are we vilifying a woman for grabbing life by the horns and pursuing something she loved? Why, instead, is the narrative not some variation on how awful it is that people in general, and women specifically, end up victims of needless crimes that rob them of their lives or sense of safety?
I will go see the world. It’s mine as much as it is yours. It’s women’s just as much as it is men’s. You telling me that it’s something I “shouldn’t” be doing is just another should in a life full of them, and frankly I’m sick of people shoulding all over me.
You “shouldn’t” wear stuff like that out; you “should” get married and have babies; you “should” avoid traveling alone. It’s exhausting and infuriating all at once. I have a brain, a heart, desires, dreams, goals, loves, and curiosities, and most of them involve traveling and seeing as much of our beautiful planet (and maybe one day Space?) that I can. And I refuse to live my life feeling as though someone else is writing the script and I’m merely an actor in the movie of my own life.
I’m not going to tuck tail between my legs and never leave the comfort of my own home, city, state, or country simply because sometimes bad things happen to women who travel alone. Bad things happen to women in the safety of their own homes, college hang outs, and places of employment too. And in all those scenarios, they are not the problem.
When I first decided to start doing some solo travel, I expected support from the people in my life who already knew me as a fiercely independent person who is intelligent enough to do it safely. Instead, I was met with a mixture of shock and disapproval. Granted, much of the reaction came from places of concern and love, something I appreciated, but it got me thinking: a man making a proclamation that he was embarking on solo travel might get a quick lecture about safety, but otherwise the reaction would probably be a hearty old “Good for you!” The disparity is blinding when you start to think about how differently men and women have to view the world and exist within it.
The fact is, the world, no matter where you are, can be a pretty scary place for women at times. As much beauty and goodness I have seen, I know that it’s not always perfect. Without being overly dramatic, a fear of bodily harm and violation means that you can’t ever really let your guard down, unless you’re in the rare place you know is 100% safe. And it’s true that hardly any place is 100% safe for anyone, but women have a heightened risk of being victims of assault, both by strangers and partners, as well as sexual violence.
Some cities and countries are worse than others. While I understand the limits of what I can do as a female solo traveler, it doesn’t mean that I have to accept a collective viewpoint that I shouldn’t be engaging in the practice at all. And of course I advocate for safety above all else while traveling, and I’m not recommending that any woman travel to a place in which she’s not comfortable or would feel she’s at an unacceptable level of risk. Nevertheless, what I’ve realized in all my years of travel is that much of the world is good, decent and kind, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s not generally safe for women to explore simply because sometimes bad things happen. This just reinforces the patriarchal idea that women should only be allowed in certain spaces or, to put it another way, we find a way to discuss women’s behavior over the behavior of the people that would harm them.
How can we expect women to become stronger, more independent, and more knowledgeable about the world and the positive changes that need to be made if we keep trying to restrict them from a thing like traveling the world, something that promotes those very things? How can we in good conscience look at ourselves, friends, and daughters and collectively accept that the world isn’t at their fingertips, like it is for men?
Again, I’m not naively saying that women should haphazardly embark on solo travels to places they know to be unsafe. Despite my own desires, there are certain places I would not go simply because I don’t think any amount of my own intelligence and safety-conscious efforts could actually keep me safe. My problem isn’t with accepting this truth right now. My problem is with accepting that it will always have to be this way, and even more importantly, the way we continue to discuss this issue collectively.
A big part of the problem is the narrative; the story, the tagline, the words we use to get the story to jump off the page, the lesson we put out there by our comments on social media and to each other in everyday conversation. So much of how we talk about things informs how we continue to view them and how we will view them in the future. There’s no longer an excuse to be unaware of the brush with which we paint women’s issues: the problem is always the women, not the people who hurt, objectify, harass, insult, and discriminate against them. Even what we call it, “women’s issues,” is a misnomer. These really seem like men’s issues to me. And this isn’t an issue unique to women, either; racial minorities are all too familiar with this phenomenon.
What I would have hoped to see after the story about the NYC woman killed in Turkey would be something like “How awful that a woman has to find herself fearing for her life while traveling alone.” Not “She should not have been traveling alone.” If we want to fix the world, we have to fix how we talk about it. We have to fix the narrative.