[dropcap size=small]C[/dropcap]urrently I’m researching women who travel in the Middle East and I’m continuously directed to NPR’s March article “Which Place is More Sexist: The Middle East or Latin America?” The article questions whether nations that regularly objectify nude women (Brazil) can be equally as oppressive as nations where women are expected to wear a hijab (Syria). The article uses rape and murder statistics to discuss issues of women’s safety in different regions. For me, the piece also serves as a reminder of frequent travel-related questions: What places are safe for female travelers? and Is it safe to travel alone as a woman at all?
Yes, it can be safe to travel as a woman — even alone, but you can’t be naïve about it. If you want to be safe, there are four major things to consider before going anywhere:
1. Where are you traveling, and what do you know about the place?
2. What are you doing there?
3. Do you attract attention / do you stick out?
4. Can you get help from authorities if you need it?
1. Where are you traveling?
Location makes a HUGE difference. We all know that. But you may be surprised by which places are safe for women and which aren’t. I know women who don’t think twice about traveling to Miami or New York City but who are afraid of going alone to Switzerland. However, annually there are more reports of female rape in the city of Miami, which has a population of 2.5 million, than in the country of Switzerland which has about 8 million (see footnote 1 below). Because the U.S. has some of the highest reported incidents of rape of anywhere in the world, it may actually be safer to travel than to stay in some American cities.
It’s also important to note that places where women are considered “oppressed” are not necessarily unsafe for females. Sometimes regions where women’s rights are limited are considered very safe (i.e. the country of Jordan). In many eastern countries, like those where Sharia law is practiced, laws pertaining to women were historically created in effort to protect women, and they still do. (Whether women need protection is a different story and whether Sharia laws have turned into forms of oppression depends on the region and who’s interpreting those laws.) See footnote 2 below.
Other nations (like India) often get a bad rap because rape incidents in that country are spectacularized in tabloids. We look at the gruesome gang rape in Delhi and warn women to never visit the place. But what about the unacceptable rape case that took place months before in Ohio? Or how about the lesser-known gang rape that took place in Texas? Are we also advising women to stop visiting Ohio and Texas?
“We’re horrified by news reports of rape in India, and we feel lucky we don’t live there,” says MORE magazine in the article “Is India the Rape Capital of the World?” “But the country with the highest rate of sexual assault isn’t India, it’s [the U.S.].”
TIME also covered the subject in “Why Rape Seems Worse in India Than Everywhere Else (but Actually Isn’t.)”
I strongly recommend these articles to any woman interested in traveling east. Personally I feel that yes, women are often treated like second-class citizens in India. Yes, the chauvinism is so thick in Delhi that it’s nauseating, and yes, this can make the region uncomfortable to visit. However, it doesn’t make the country unsafe as a whole. Regardless of where you’re going in India or America, you’ve got to do your research. Ask about safety from people who have visited where you’re headed. Ask travel agents what areas you should avoid, and don’t do things that are considered unsafe. This leads us to the next consideration:
2. What are you doing in the place you’re traveling to?
Are you planning to be out on the town at night? Are you exploring religious places of worship? Have you checked out the hostel that you’ve booked to make sure it isn’t a party hostel?
Take the going out at night example. Whether the place is a shady part of D.C. or Italy, there are areas where women typically don’t go out at night, and, if they do go out, they certainly don’t go out alone. Know whether you’re visiting one of these places. A night on the town is safe in many parts of Paris. It’s not safe in many parts of Mumbai or Miami. I’m going to state the obvious here: Don’t test whether a place is unsafe by going out on your own. Finding out the hard way is unsafe.
What do the activities you have planned look like in the places you’re visiting?
Clubs are typically not safe for women wherever you go. However, clubs where men significantly outnumber women are more unsafe, as are clubs where you’ll stick out like a sore thumb because you’re foreign. Market places are typically very safe in the states (i.e. local markets, farmer’s markets, etc.) but they are not as safe in places like Haiti or other developing countries where it’s extremely easy get lost or taken home by strangers.
3. Do you attract attention to yourself? Do you stick out?
You are more likely to get hassled if you attract attention. Find out what the cultural norms are in terms of custom and dress. If you’re going to a country where most women wear head covering and don’t show their legs it’s best to do the same. In such a case, err on the side of modesty. If you’re going to a tropical country where little clothing is typical, be aware of that too.
Consideration for norms is not only precautionary; it can also be a sign of respect, and cultural respect is likely to increases the chance that locals will feel comfortable interacting with you.
While I am a proponent of bringing as much to the travel game as you hope to take away — because local folks can well be just as interested in visitors as visitors are in the locals — the benefits of simply blending into the culture that you’re visiting cannot be underestimated. Doing so gives you an intimate look at the local culture that might not be granted to outsiders — and it may even help keep you safe in places where outing yourself as a wealthy tourist makes you a target for pickpocketing and other crimes.
– Independent Traveler.
Read more: “How to Blend in with the Locals: 20 tips.”
Finally, consider this:
4. Can you get help from authorities (or someone else) if you need it?
This question can be tricky to answer.
The terms “police corruption” and “police misconduct” are so common they have Wikipedia pages. There are instances at home and abroad where authorities have proven themselves inaccessible. They may be untrustworthy, or there may be another obstacle, like a language barrier. The best way around such a problem is to know someone you can contact wherever you’re staying. If you’re going to Sri Lanka (for example) and a friend says they have family there, ask politely to have that family’s contact information. Then reach out to the family before going. This may sound like a strange thing to do. However, if you’re reaching out to good people, and you explain to them that you know their relative and that you’re looking for someone trustworthy in case of emergency, locals are usually more than willing to help a well-intentioned traveler. An additional advantage to knowing someone is that you can ask them whether their authorities are reliable. When I was in Delhi, I had an Indian friend tell me NOT to rely on the police and to call her in case of an emergency. “The police,” she said, “will do more harm than good.” This is valuable info. Especially if you’re from somewhere where you are used to being able to rely on the police, it’s good to know when you can’t. And, in such cases, have a back-up person or two.
None of this information is meant to scare women, and it certainly shouldn’t deter women from travel. If women let themselves believe that traveling is unsafe for them they perpetuate this belief and limit themselves and others. Traveling has taught me that women are vulnerable everywhere. Go travel, but be safe. Know your surroundings. Know what activities are normal and acceptable in the places you’re visiting. Do your best to blend in and be respectful of the local culture. Have someone you can ask for help if you need it.
Footnotes and other good articles:
1. The population and rape statistics for Miami were collected for the years of 2009 & 2010 from the annual FDLE (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) report. The population and rape statistics for Switzerland were collected for the years of 2010- 2012 and were collected from the Swiss Federal Statistical Office website.
2. For more information on traveling as a woman in the Middle East refer to: “Women’s Travel in the Middle East”, “The Middle East: Not Just for Men,” and “Jordan: The Perfect Introduction to the Middle East.”