Living and traveling alone as a woman is a very different experience from that of a lone male doing the same. I would like to believe that traveling and doing as I please while abroad merit the same intereactions and treatment for females as they do for males. However, my years of traveling in places that aren’t wealthy Western nations have taught me that, in fact, the world has a gender lens and my experiences will not be the same as a man’s. There are a number of dangers and risks associated with travel in general, regardless of gender. As a foreigner to a new place, you may not know your way around, the local language, or how day-to-day transactions should work (when buying water, how much should it cost? Is there a price tag? Must I barter? When hailing a cab, are they licesnced? What colors are they? Are there meters? When crossing the street , what are the rules? Does traffic or do pedestrians yield first? Are there crosswalks?). Because travelers or expats are usually not ‘in-the-know’ about the intricacies of the city or town that they’re in, they become more vulnerable to being ripped off, pick-pocketed, or taken advantage of in some other way. This risk increases when you physically stand out as ‘foreign’. No matter how good a blonde white female’s Arabic language skills may be while she lives in, say, Cairo, even the most fluent Amayan will not shield her from local Cairienes spotting her blonde locks from a mile away and immediately thinking, “foreigner.” The same would go for a the lone Asian-looking person walking around in predominately white regions of the U.S., etc.
And while all visitors deal with being the foreign ‘other’ when in the corners of the world that aren’t theirs, women face a certain breed of treatment from which men are generally exempt. My evidence for this is merely a collection of my own expereinces and narratives from fellow female travelers compared to the compilation of narratives from males who travel and live aboard. Women face more aggressive behavior, almost always from men, and are more vulnerable when navigating public spaces than men are. The examples from personal and other women’s experience are countless and varied, but they mostly involve instances of being followed, harassed, touched, groped, stalked, flashed, cat-called, and any other fill-in-the-blank form of harassment by men. These occurences happen most commonly in public spaces when women are alone but the power of two or four women doesn’t equate to much of any power at all and groups of females do not necessarily deter male harassment. What does seem to diminish male harrassment in public like magic is the presence of another male or males. Navigating the streets of Indonesia is so much more pleasant when walking with a man. The jeers, leers, and risk of harassment magically dissapate when in public with male company. I first realized this when living aboard in Morocco for a semester as an undergraduate. I will never forget the week my father visited me and the normal harassement on the streets I endured each day as a lone woman dissapeared with dad by my side. It felt like I was experiencing a whole new side of Morocco, one where I didn’t feel the need to keep my eyes on the ground and my steps quickened. This liberation was all thanks to being accompnanied by a male.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many beautiful aspects about the societies and cultures I have had the pleasure getting to know. Women are almost always treated with the utmost respect in private spaces – the home, places of worship, and places of work – and one doesn’t need to leave their home country to risk getting cat-called, at the least, and sexually assaulted, at the worst. But being a foreigner in general puts you in a headspace telling you that you are vulnerable and perhaps more likely to be a victim of such harassment.
The concept of women in the public sphere is always one that I’ve pondered while traveling, namely in Indonesia and north Africa, where society is highly patriarchal and there is some kind of underlying expectation that women in public spaces should have male accompaniment. This is extremely inconvenient for women who have to work and wish to venture out as they please. My current stint in Jakarta for the summer has introduced to me one new remedy for females to exist in a world dominated by men and that remedy is the concept of ‘women friendly spaces’. Women friendly spaces are exactly what their name implies – areas designated to only women (and small children if the woman seeking the space is a mother).
Jakarta may have a public transportation system that fails miserably at reducing its traffic, but it succeeds in making it safe for women to use for their work and daily commutes. Trains are equipped with ‘women-only cars’ and women only buses roll down the streets. While visiting Kuala Lumpur the other week, two female friends and I parked our car on the ‘women-only floor’. These two examples of women friendly spaces in public are pure genius in cities like Jakarta and Kulala Lumpur. Women friendly spaces are liberating for those who get to use them. I don’t mind at all commuting to work each day in the over-crowded Jakarta train cars because I know that on every train, there are women-only cars. These train cars are a safe haven. I like boarding the train each day knowing that I won’t have to worry about some sorry, misbehaving male taking advantage of the overcrowdedness of the train and groping me from behind. In Kuala Lumpur, when my two girlfriend and I walked back to the car late at night, we had no worries about males lurking about in the parking deck, knowing our risk of assault was virtually diminished.
UNFPA, where I am interning, and other humanitarian aid organizations are exploring women friendly spaces particularly for crisis situations. The idea here is that when there is an emergency situation, be it a violent conflict, an earthquake, or a flood, and uprooted populations are residing in refugee camps or disaster relief shelters, women are at an increased risk for sexual assault. Creating women friendly spaces for them reduces their risks of being assaulted. This concept of the women friendly space that originated from their use in emergency situations has translated well into general, non-crisis public spaces.
As awful as it is to feel that I will never be able to trek the world as freely and safely as a man could, women friendly spaces are an intermediary solution that allow women to be free. Until the risk of harm to women in public is completely gone in all societies, adding more women friendly spaces in cities like Jakarta can help give women the rights they deserve to exist and function in public spaces.