issue 245 - July 1993
When I was a university student in 1984, daunted by the prospect of travelling alone through Asia, I signed on for a three-month trip with Encounter Overland from London to Kathmandu. But six weeks after crossing the English Channel, I and two other disgruntled women left the group in southern Turkey. Our gleaming orange-and-blue converted British Army truck aroused curiosity but made impossible any real exchange in the villages where we stopped; local people were regarded with intense suspicion.
A few nights before we left, a debate about women’s rights erupted in our camp. As we headed south the group’s handful of European, Australian and North American men began to express fears about the women’s safety. By the time we reached Istanbul our driver warned ‘the girls’ that in Muslim countries the group would be jeopardized if we ventured into town without a male escort. Many women were affronted by the assumption that we were unable to judge this for ourselves. One Australian woman, who had recently been working for a development project in a predominantly Muslim village in Indonesia, felt particularly insulted that her experience had been completely ignored.
Our concerns about safety were exploited. While men operated on ‘Orientalist’ assumptions about lecherous Arab men who treated ‘their’ women ‘like dogs’, they failed to realize they were flexing their own patriarchal muscles. Since most women automatically weigh the potential danger in any public space, whether it’s on a Birmingham street or in a Botswanan village, we were already more sensitive to the different cultural expectations in the countries we were travelling through.
Yet until very recently women wishing to travel independently have been encouraged to equate venturing abroad with male conquest. European history is littered with examples of intrepid male explorers and only very recently have the chronicles of their female counterparts been unearthed. While researching my book on the history of female cross-dressing I discovered dozens of women who had donned trousers, taken a male name and fled the restrictions of their homeland. Isabelle Gunn, an Orkney woman, joined the Hudson’s Bay Company as ‘John Fubister’ in 1806 and canoed 1,800 miles along the Red River; Alida Landaal, fearing harassment if she travelled alone from Amsterdam to Paris in 1814, donned a man’s suit and was then pressed into the French army; a century later, the Russian Isabelle Eberhardt crossed North African deserts disguised as an Arab boy, Si Mahmoud.
When women travellers weren't literally masquerading as men, they were often treated as honorary male guests in countries where considerations of race overrode those of gender. They escaped the rigid expectations that their own society placed upon women and found an unprecedented freedom on their journeys.
Rather than forging a new tradition of travel, however, they emulated their male counterparts, couched their observations in no less racist terms and often exploited their hosts.
These early travellers remind us that women are not inherently more enlightened once they leave home. Maggie Moss, co-author of The Handbook for Women Travellers, also rejects the essentialist argument that women are more responsible travellers and advocates a ‘green’ code of tourism. This forms an important component in the seminars for women travellers that Moss runs with Polly Davies at Marco Polo travel in Bristol.
A recently widowed hairdresser from Oxford who attended the seminar was inspired to go abroad for the first time and has now canoed down the Zambezi River. ‘It’s opened up her eyes to so many possibilities,’ says Davies. The seminars, however, are about more than personal liberation. They are also important in educating women about how to respect local customs, and social structures.
There are also advantages that women travellers might gain from being perceived as less powerful than men. Davies describes the ease with which she befriended women on a journey through Iran where men completely dominate public space. This segregation, however, meant that women invited her into their homes where she once witnessed a demonstration of removing unwanted body hair with cotton thread. Despite the language barrier this grooming session provided Davies with insight into women’s lives that would have been denied a male visitor. ‘As a woman you can be treated as an honorary man, but you’ve also got the advantage of seeing what goes on in the home.’
Although a propensity towards responsible travel is a product of socialization rather than biology, the restrictions that Western women face have spawned creative alternatives. Women make up more than 70 per cent of members at Earthwatch, a charitable organization which sends paying volunteers to assist in scientific research. Mark Goodhand, Earthwatch systems manager, says women are often attracted because the programme ‘offers a safety element’ and an opportunity to use research and conservation skills.
Frances Alexander is the founder of Women Welcome Women (WWW), an international network providing accommodation for women travelling independently, with members from 47 countries. Alexander says women are more concerned about making friends and exploring other cultures through the relationships they develop. But the network, which provides access to free or very cheap accommodation, implicitly acknowledges that women’s opportunities to travel are often more restricted by familial responsibilities or economic disadvantages.
Like Polly Davies' example of befriending women in Iran, WWW offers members valuable contact even if they can't travel. In a recent newsletter, Mandomi Elly Sikawa, from Arusha, Tanzania, praises her three North American visitors, while Sandra Yeo, a Yorkshire teacher describes how she was moved by the Romanians' plight to visit Eva, a WWW member in Oradea. Yeo learned ‘what it must be like for a woman my age living there in those conditions’. Helena Herrera from Bogotá describes the significance of a Florida vacation; ‘I had to get away from Colombia: too many problems... the drug traders are kidnapping people and it really is a bad moment for us.’
These organizations allow women a greater degree of control both as travellers and as participants in the informal travel industry. In Greece, the socialist government’s Sexual Equality Secretariat recognized women’s key role in providing services for tourism by establishing Women’s Agro-Tourist Co-operatives throughout the country. The co-ops have helped rural women to gain a degree of financial independence. Often illiterate or semi-literate women who may never have left their village are given a bank loan and can keep a five-per-cent commission on the stays in their homes. According to one co-op organizer the enterprise has ‘opened the women’s spirits... The other dimension is that the co-ops do nothing to harm the environment, they blend in as well as doing something for the women. From my experience, when I mention it to British women, they love the idea.’
Despite the growing enthusiasm for women-only tours and home-stay networks, however, the majority of women are still consumers of highly commercialized package holidays. However for women who travel, the opportunity to challenge the equation between tourism and exploitation remains a significant possibility. As travel writer Jo Stanley commented, ‘What we’re doing as women travellers is putting ourselves on the front line and challenging the idea that we are confined’.
Julie Wheelwright, a freelance journalist and broadcaster, is the author of Amazons and Military Maids: Women Who Dressed as Men in Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness (Pandora).