Travel for women is a fine balance between risk and adventure

Click to follow
The Independent Travel
Eleven years ago I backpacked through Egypt with two friends, all of us wearing the shortest of shorts and the skimpiest of tops. Although I could see local women dressed completely differently, part of me thought "Why should I cover up when men don't?", and another part of me, "I'm a tourist so I don't have to". I also had three weeks to get brown and I wasn't going to reduce my tanning potential for anyone.

The result? We got followed for the entire time by endless groups of young men. In a small Nile village young boys ran up to me and pushed their hands up my shorts, and on a bus journey across the desert an old lady spat at me and moved her teenage son to the other end of the bus. At the end of the three weeks I had a sun-tan, but I'd had a terrible time. Egyptian friends I've met since aren't surprised: "Tourists insist on the freedom to do whatever they like, but then they complain when they get into trouble. They can't have it both ways. It's common sense - if you're in a country where men never see women's arms and legs and you go around wearing shorts and tank-tops, of course you will be followed."

The potential for tragedy when cultures collide has been demonstrated shockingly over the past weeks. There is no suggestion that Jo Macheder was behaving at all provocatively when she was murdered by a monk in Thailand, but it has brought the issues facing women travellers into sharp focus. Parts of the travel media do little to promote cultural awareness. The Big Trip series presently running on BBC2 shows - and by default recommends - precisely the sort of behaviour that can create problems for women travellers: two skimpily clad women gadding around Asia as if it were merely a hotter and cheaper version of Ibiza.

Now that I'm less worried about getting a sun-tan or asserting my feminist principles wherever I travel, I have opted for trousers or long skirts and T-shirts in non-Western countries. Safety-wise, covering shoulders and knees certainly helps not giving the wrong signals to local men, but the perception of Western women as "easy" is a difficult one to counter.

Appropriate dress is just one of the many issues women have to deal with when travelling. Maggie Moss is joint author of The Handbook for Women Travellers and joint organiser of the Women and Travel, Getting Going and Staying Safe seminar which will be held tomorrow at the Independent Traveller's World exhibition in London. She believes that women travellers tend to have a greater cultural awareness and put higher importance on "meeting local people" than on more traditionally masculine concerns such as seeing the sights, or taking part in physical activities like canoeing or mountain climbing. She adds that "for many older women, who never really had a chance to travel in their Twenties and Thirties because they were too busy being wives and mothers, this is their chance to travel. About one third of the participants on our courses are older women who want to travel in a thoughtful way".

Obviously one of the most important aspects for women is safety, and balancing this with a thirst for adventure can often involve difficult and risky choices, especially when travelling alone. Whether to take a lift alone with someone, accept an invitation to someone's home and whether to pretend you are married are all common dilemmas.

Travelling alone is something most women throw their hands up in horror at the thought of - until they've done it. In my case I was forced into it when my friends ran out of money in America and returned home. I stuck it out and had the best time of the entire trip, meeting far more people than when I'd been stuck in a group. The fact that a woman travelling alone is considered unusual in most cultures also means that lone women have the advantage that local people often want to take them under their wing, often showing more hospitality than they would to a lone male traveller. Indeed in many cultures, being alone is so strange (especially for women) that persuading people to give you some personal space can become quite a challenge.

Given the right degree of cultural sensitivity foreign women can often have the best of both worlds when travelling, being allocated a status of honorary men in men's environments and being able to enter women's environments automatically. On my most recent trip to Egypt, I visited Siwa, a remote oasis town in the north, and sat inside a house with a group of local women, drinking tea and admiring the bridal shawls they had been embroidering for years. Traditions are strict here: women veil themselves when they go outside and are not allowed to speak to men outside their family. Our fellow male travellers stood outside and waited, and occasionally we passed out handicrafts for them to see while we carried on talking to the women. We had been allowed for a short while, to enter into a world that is kept totally invisible to men. Not for the first time, I felt very privileged to be a woman.

The seminar, Getting Going and Staying Safe, takes place in Islington, London tomorrow as part of the Independent Traveller's World event. The next takes place on 5 Oct. 0117-929 4123 for details

Comments