Although I wish this wasn’t needed, travelling and hitchhiking solo as a woman will make you *feel more vulnerable. There are a few basics that can help you *feel safe and comfortable.
*I insist on using the word ‘’feel’’, as nothing you do can actually make you safer (except locking yourself in an ivory tower protected by a dragon, and then again). Indeed, you are never responsible for other people’s actions and the assault or abuse you might be imposed. Thus, nothing you can do can actually prevent it. That’s the harsh truth. However, there are some things that do help me feel safer, which is all I can do to increase my well-being and mental health as I choose to exist unapologetically in this world. I thought I would share my thoughts on this as I am tired of reading irrelevant sexist pieces on safety and hitchhiking that only come down to don’t do it.
1. Learn the basics to be able to communicate where you want to go, and where to be dropped off and only get in a car if you feel like you understand each other sufficiently.
2. Know the road. Easy if you have a smartphone and data, but also possible without (that’s me), take pictures of the itinerary, know the names of the highways and exits, identify smart dropoff points (like rest areas if you need to keep hitchhiking). Note the names of the cities you will cross and reference points for your final destination, especially when going to cities -it could save you a 2 hour walk.
3. Adapt to the country. This can mean a million things. It can be as simple as knowing how to signal cars, whether having a sign is useful or not, how to indicate the direction you’re going (cardinal directions, pointing, city name, road number?) or getting to know the rules and regulations around hitchhiking. It can also be cultural, learning about the customs and traditions of the country, such as knowing how to greet people, how women are perceived and treated and yes, the dreaded ‘’how to dress as a woman’’. Now, I hate to write this last point. As I wrote previously, I will need feminism as long as the words ‘’as a woman’’ will dictate the rest of the sentence. I am also very sensitive and conscious about victim-blaming and I believe that telling women how to dress or act to be ‘’safe’’ does, when you get to the bottom of that thinking, reinforce the idea that women are responsible for how they are treated, objectified and/or abused.
This being said, it is also true that women are much more likely to be abused or assaulted (whether they are travelling or not, but we’ll talk about that later). So, although I hate it and know that I am never responsible for an abuser’s actions, no matter how I dress, I also know and recognize that I need to do everything I can to compensate the added vulnerabilities due to the fact that I am a woman travelling by herself. (Yes, that’s what not having a privilege feels like -and the only one I don’t have is being a man…).
This being said, adapting to the local culture, and dressing accordingly, is not restricted to any gender. It goes (a little) beyond the oppression of women’s bodies (where their appearance and clothing is much more restricted and scrutinized). There’s also a thin line between adaptation, dressing like the locals (which mostly means exposing less skin and wearing looser clothes, for westerners) and cultural appropriation. This is a line I cannot write about, and I still (and always will) struggle with. Should I cover my head or not? Should I wear my scarf like a hijab for Friday couscous or would that be offensive as I am appropriating a religious symbol? It’s not up to me to decide. You need to ask. Every time, everywhere.
The good thing about ‘’dressing as a woman’’ is that, both for travelling, hitchhiking and adapting to non-western cultures, it gets down to the same thing: wear loose clothing that covers as much as possible, which will keep you cool and protected from the sun –in dry climates. In Morocco, following advices from other solo female hitchhikers, I also decided to wear a scarf on my head, simply covering my hair. Although you are never responsible for an abuser’s actions, and therefore, you can never prevent this type of situation, people are generally appreciative of the efforts you make to adapt yourself. Beyond dressing to be ‘’safe’’, adapting your clothing, and behavior, to the local culture and customs is also about respecting the country you are in and creating a bond with the locals. You have to remember that they have 2 seconds to decide to stop for you or not, and they are stopping to let a stranger in. Seeing that you wrote your sign in the local language, or that you are wearing something any other woman could be wearing or just looking like you belong there will not only make you *feel more comfortable, but it will also make the locals feel more comfortable, and more likely to stop!
Basically, it’s about dressing in a way that won’t make people think about how you are dressed: it’s about making your body invisible. I know, I know. But it is the reality of it. In 2018, everywhere in the world, that’s what we learn women need to do to *feel safe- even if it doesn’t work.
4. Allow yourself to say no. Again, this can be achieved in many ways, but you need to feel like you can afford to refuse a ride, and be prepared to do it, without any guilt. I suggest giving yourself plenty of time, planning short trips, starting early-ish in the morning (I aim for early, but usually start around noon). If you don’t feel comfortable anymore, always be ready to resort to other means. For me, it would mean stopping in a café to plan another mode of transportation as I squat the free wifi, but whatever floats your boat. This could also mean (or make it easier by) being more selective on your hitchhiking spots, where you start andwhere you get dropped (aka no highways, unlike what Vincent and I did a few times –ok I admit I did it by myself too). It’s easier to say no, when cars are slowly driving past as they exit the rest area, with access to food, water, wifi and toilets behind you than when you’re stranded in the middle of nowhere (hello Albania). Basically, having options can help you feel safer, as it may prevent you from feeling rushed and agreeing to a situation you don’t feel comfortable in. Having a place to go, but also a place to go back to if all else fails.
5. The friend card. Thankfully, I haven’t felt the need to use this trick yet, but for added security, or simply for your peace of mind/to test your ride, you can ask to take pictures of the license plate/driver and send it to a friend (or say you will). Obviously, I wouldn’t get in a car with someone who refuses, and their reaction might give you more information than any other question would (taking into consideration that taking pictures is not that common everywhere). More casually, if in doubt, don’t hesitate to mention your travel partner waiting for you, or discussing your friends in different areas of the country you’re visiting.
Just to be 100% clear, this is not to prevent abuse, as anything can happen without ‘’warning signs’’, or without feeling incomfort prior –and we should never hold victims accountable for their abuse or for preventing it somehow. Of course, hitchhiking is a risk, as is every day you decide to step out of your house- or stay in, as most abuse happens inside the comfort and safety of our own houses. Abuses happen, all the time, everywhere. That’s a reality we have to live with, unfortunately. From there, the only thing we have power on is how we choose to exist in this world, and deal with it – and I, personally, with all my privileges refuse to let the threat of abuse keep me inside. I also believe that debunking that myth of strangers = abuse will be beneficial to all of us. As a society, we need to get over our disproportionate fear of strangers, and start talking about abusers for who they really are –us.