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Travelling solo part 1: Existing in public spaces as a [privileged] woman

Trigger warning, this includes content about street harassment (and some swear words).

First, I have to admit I am no expert on travelling solo, and hopefully I’ll write more positive pieces on this as it goes. Until now, most of my travelling has been with a partner. Still, for many reasons, we ended up going to different places on a few occasions, leaving me to spend a month in Turkey by myself, travel in France solo and have the odd days by myself in Morocco. It was during one of those moments that it happened.

For the first time in a few days, I went out by myself. As soon as I stepped out, I could feel the difference. Going somewhere with Vincent, I am much less aware of my surroundings, as most of my attention is directed at him -and whatever we’re chatting about. This time, there was no distractions. I also had to find my way back home later, so I let my stare wander. Two eyes were just not enough to soak it all in and I found myself noticing a million details I hadn’t seen the previous days: the man sitting on the corner of the street, waiting to signal the cars, the black silhouettes graffitied on the wall, the store selling A4 printer parts, the waiter carrying a coffee to a customer on the other side of the street (and spilling most of it in the process). It was a sunny day, the streets were loud, but I found great pleasure in the familiarity of the path I had taken the previous days, to go to one of my favorite places, ever since I was kid: the library. (Yes, I’m a nerd).

I was about 200 meters from my goal when a man passed by. As he crossed me, he throw me a ‘’Ça va?’’. I turned around with a faint smile, reassuring him that I was alright. I have to mention that, in Morocco, it seems to be the norm to stop everything you’re doing and make sure someone who might look lost is alright. Of course, this type of attention is harder to interpret in bigger cities, such as Casablanca. Is he trying to get money out of the cash machine he sees you as, or showing genuine concern?

I kept walking, thinking his question was answered, but he walked back up and asked the same question again: ‘’Ça va?’’. Slightly confused by his behaviour, I nodded yes, adding a ‘’Oui, oui.’’ He kept walking by my side and started mumbling something, which I was somehow supposed to understand. I tried my best, but I couldn’t even tell which language he was trying to speak, as the volume of his voice was just too low. He then said one word louder than the other and pointed in the direction of the library. I figured he might be asking if I needed a taxi, which is also normal behavior in Casablanca, so I said: ‘’I’m just going to the library’’, and kept walking. He caught up to me, again, and started mumbling, again. I was starting to get annoyed, and confused, and the sight of the library a few meters further felt relieving. Then, I heard a word, the first clear word I understood. I froze. No, he could not have said that.

‘’Quoi?’’, I asked him.

He repeated, the same thing. But it couldn’t be.

‘’Quoi?!’’, I said again, anger rising.

There was just no hope for confusion at this point.

‘’Sex’’, he said blankly.

(Sorry for the language, but this is the only way I found to express myself in such a context).

What. The. Fuck.

Shock, anger, and even more confusion spurred inside of me. What the fuck is he telling me?

My eyes found the library security guard, 10 meters further and I started walking away, for the third time.

Somehow, he ended up on my right side, and made a final gesture at me, making everything much clearer- too clear. I turned my gaze away, in complete horror. My whole body tensed with rage at the objectification it was being subjected to. My heart beat rose as I stomped away, and with every step I felt more powerless: ‘’What the **** do I do?’’. Should I have hit him? Still well under the shock, I couldn’t think straight, but I was already coming at the security check to enter the library. What do I do? Do I tell him? I swear I saw him rise when the man starting being insisted, he must have seen it happen, no?

‘’Sorry, I have to look inside your bag’’, he says in a soft voice, with a smile.

I open my bag. Is he completely unaware of what just happened or is he pretending to as he doesn’t know how to react – or worse because he thinks this is okay? Now is the time, say something!

‘’No problem’’, I manage to say, faking a smile.

I walk away, as it is expected of me. I say nothing. I do nothing.

I finally enter the library, but I do not feel the relief and comfort I usually find. Rather, I feel powerless, voiceless, and it brings the most bitter tears to my eyes. I want to scream, tell the police, tell everyone: this is not okay. I could walk back to the security guard at this point, but I freeze, and deep down I know why.

What will I tell him? A man asked me for sex? I can imagine where this script might go:

‘’Did he touch you?’’

‘’No’’

[Silence, making me feel like this is my fault and I’m just being oversensitive as he didn’t do anything].

I mean, it is true. He did not do anything. He just objectified me, destroyed my whole sense of security and monitored the way I dress, act and even walk until I manage to forget his horrible stare. He did, not do anything. He probably forgot all about this, 10 minutes later, while I am left with a hundred feelings and thoughts to process. He didn’t do anything, he just made it so much harder for me to trust strangers and interact with men without intense suspicion or without simply shutting everyone out. He didn’t do anything, just reminded me I can’t even exist by myself, because of the body I was born into.

When I came back home, and told Vincent, he said ‘’If I was there, I would have [insert violent threat here]’’. ‘’No’’, I replied, ‘’you wouldn’t have done anything, you would have been just as shocked.’’

Truth is, you never know how you will react. One thing I know for sure, denouncing, even just to the security guard, even for a minor event (in the sense that, despite the initial shock and associated feelings, it was a relatively minor event), even with a complete stranger, even in the street (where I couldn’t be accused of ‘’putting myself in that situation’’) was just too hard. People and society need to understand how saying something initially, as you are still under shock, is unconceivable, and the more you wait, the easier it becomes just not to say anything.

For me, experiencing this in a foreign country made it even harder to even consider denouncing, as you have no idea what is considered normal or not here, or how these situations are treated and received. ‘’Slut shaming’’ as is called the act of making a victim feel responsible for the aggression she experienced, is also not the best incentive. After feeling diminished to an object, the last thing you want is another man (as most security guard and police officers are men) judging you and deciding if you say the truth, while questioning your appearance and your integrity as a person. Victims are never responsible for the actions of the aggressor –I cannot stress this enough.

In sharing this, I guess I just want to help people understand a little bit better how these events can be experienced, how hard it is to say these things and how we can help – as witnesses: intervening, asking what is going on, saying something despite the discomfort we might feel, and as listeners: understanding and not judging, or jumping to ‘’Well, why didn’t you scream or say something?’’.

Now, to go back to travelling alone as a woman, I would love to say I feel just as comfortable wandering the streets, hitchhiking or meeting new people by myself as I did with Vincent, but it’s just not true. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying women can’t travel by themselves or that it’s not as safe. It’s just the opposite, we should travel more and more by ourselves, and as we do, we are all breaking barriers and pushing the boundaries of what our society represents as (and makes) do-able for women. The truth is, it takes a lot of self-growth, confidence and resilience to travel solo as a female, in the world we currently live in. We need to be constantly on our guards and think twice about everything. Being the only woman in the room can be also very tiring, as you feel constantly watched, and therefore watch yourself constantly.

Personally, I never –in one month, walked in a café in Istanbul. Why? Every time I felt the desire to, I stopped right at the door step, when I saw 12 men’s heads turn towards me. I backed down every time. Of course, I could have done it. I could have made friends and had a great time, but I chose to wander the streets where I could easily avoid the stares as I kept walking. I just felt so out of place. That’s me. I know I still have a lot of work to do. I wish my gender would never influence or determine what I feel comfortable doing, but it does.

The hardest part of wandering solo as a woman is needing to be suspicious of people. I love people, and I believe in the good in people. Unfortunately, when a man comes up to me when I’m alone, no matter which country I’m in, no matter his age or what he looks like, I tense up: ‘’Ok, what does he want.’’ Unfortunately, unless proven otherwise, I feel like I have to assume his motives are based on my physical appearance, and protect myself. That means, be polite and listen, but be careful not to show too much interest and stay cold- build that wall between you. Every interaction becomes like a potential threat, you have to keep as short as possible, and feel relief when nothing goes wrong. The problem is, although it ‘’allowed’’ me* I didn’t have negative experiences in Istanbul, I also didn’t have meaningful interactions or make friends with the locals- I was too busy keeping them at bay. I left Turkey with the feeling I missed out.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a question of country, nationality or religion, it’s a question of humanity and learning to treat each other decently, rather than seeing other beings as a mean to use or a good to buy. This is not a call for fear and isolation, but a call for action, education and recognition. You know people who make sexist jokes and make you uncomfortable as they disrespect woman in the streets? Talk to them. Actually, that stranger who just did, talk to them, if you feel comfortable and safe to do so. That woman you know who’s been travelling by herself, no letting fear and the added challenges slow her down? Send her your love and appreciation, ask her how she is, make sure she knows she can talk to you. Be there for her. Maybe in a few years nobody will write about this anymore, maybe someday everyone will be able to walk the streets as safely as men today.

[Foot note: This is considering the fact I am a white, cis, able, standard looking female whose only oppression is being a woman. I will never be able to comprehend the level of oppression experienced by most women, and how remote of a concept safety in the streets is for most women. Point is, yes we need to talk about these issues and fix it, but this is only the tip of the iceberg.]

* This is what I initially wrote. Instead of erasing it, I wanted to share my reflections around this, and how I still have to watch myself not to promote harmful ideas. Saying my behavior ‘’prevented’’ me from negative experiences reinforces the idea that a victim has control over the aggression, as if certain behavior could have prevented it. This is completely false. This was just a way for me to feel safer and avoid interactions, that could turn into potential situations like ‘’getting hit on’’ or people trying to sell me stuff by pretending to be a friend. As my later example shows, I couldn’t prevent myself from verbal aggression, even if I keep interactions short, even if I walk in the streets in broad daylight, even if I cover myself from chin to toe.

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