I was so excited to finally visit Egypt. The pyramids! The tombs of Luxor! The Egyptian Museum! Yet, most people I told about the trip didn’t share my excitement.
Between the raised eyebrows and platitudes to "be safe", the general consensus among my peers was that that travelling to Egypt on my own, despite my vast travel experience – much of it solo – was not so much adventurous, but reckless. I shrugged it off and went anyway, but this attitude left me feeling uneasy. When the male receptionist at my Cairo hotel joked that I "won’t need this again" when I handed over my passport to be photocopied, I almost fainted. I had done enough research to know that this was a safe, family-run hotel. Yet in that moment I second-guessed myself because I was on edge.
More women than ever are embracing solo travel. And I champion it. I even wrote a book about it. But this movement is only celebrated to a point. While women tend to be applauded for embarking on Eat, Pray, Love–style solo trips, women with more adventurous travel aspirations are commonly viewed as risk-takers. With tragic incidents involving female travellers typically followed by a flurry of articles about how dangerous is it to travel as a woman, it’s not surprising. It’s just a shame that these attitudes still prevail.
There’s a dearth of clear statistics on violence against women travellers, meaning it’s difficult to get a clear idea if women do indeed face heightened risk. There’s no doubt, however, that some travel destinations present greater risks for women than others, and many women travellers, regardless of the destinations they choose, will face challenging situations on the road. I won’t deny that I felt uncomfortable when men stared at me as I wandered the streets of Cairo. I felt violated when men filmed me with their smartphones as I explored tourist sites in India. And a shiver runs down my spine at the memory of the man who tried to force himself on me at a Tel Aviv beach – in the middle of the day!
But gender-based violence happens everywhere. When it happens at home (which statistically is more likely in most countries) the outrage is typically focused on the perpetrators. When I realised that the man staring at me across an otherwise empty Sydney train carriage was masturbating, the (male) police officer I reported it to didn’t ask why I was using public transport alone at 6am. Though when women fall victim to sexual assault and other foul play while travelling, the woman tends to be criticised. Why did she travel there alone? Why was she out at that time? Why was she talking to strangers? What was she wearing?
Don’t get me wrong, solo women travellers can still be reckless. Travelling to a conflict or disaster zone for the purpose of tourism, or travelling anywhere without researching your destination and being aware of the safety risks and how to avoid them, is reckless behaviour for any traveller. But there is no good reason why a well-prepared woman traveller should be viewed any differently to a man who aspires to explore more challenging destinations.
It angers me that solo women travellers are forced to be extra vigilant, and I find the constant need to evaluate potential dangers on solo trips exhausting. But the payoffs are more than worth it. Navigating the weird and wonderful corners of the planet on my own has helped to boost my confidence, my independence, my decision-making and problem-solving skills. These skills have made me a savvier traveller, and a more capable human. With benefits like these, we should be supporting solo female travellers, not questioning their judgement.
Reshaping the narrative
Travel has traditionally been viewed through a (white) male lens that celebrates boldness.
Bold, adventurous women, on the other hand, have had to fight to be taken seriously. Take American journalist Nellie Bly, who in 1890 became the fastest person to circumnavigate the globe despite her editor arguing that "no one but a man" could achieve such a feat. Or American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, who was often asked about her clothes, her marriage and recipe tips during 1920s interviews. And let’s not forget British explorer, diplomat and archaeologist Gertrude Bell, whose accomplishments in the Middle East in the early 20th century were arguably more important than those of her colleague T.E. Lawrence. Yet Bell didn’t receive so much as a passing mention in the 1962 blockbuster Lawrence of Arabia.
These bold, adventurous women are now celebrated as pioneers, remembered not only for pushing the boundaries of adventure travel, but for challenging perceptions of women who push the boundaries of solo adventure travel. The sooner we start viewing today’s adventurous solo women travellers through the same lens, the more empowered these women will feel to achieve their travel goals. And with any luck, the more female travel icons we’ll be able to add to that list.