Do a quick Google search of “women traveling” and amidst links to tour companies offering their female-exclusive services (no doubt a reaction to the following), you get headlines like “Her Own Way — a woman’s safe-travel guide” or “The Realities Women Face When Traveling Alone, And How to Stay Safe” or “Top 10 Travel Safety Tips for Women” or “The 10 Safest (and Coolest!) Cities for Women to Travel Alone”.
Now do a quick Google search of “men traveling” and the top hits are almost exclusively about how to look good while on the road: “A Man’s Guide to Travelling with Style”, “Airport Fashion: How to Look Stylish While Traveling”, “The Art of Manliness: Dress Well While Traveling”.
What a drastically different narrative.
But this should come as no surprise. As women travelers, we know all too well the refrains we hear when we’re about to embark on our next adventure, most especially if that adventure just happens to be somewhere in a developing country. In fact, Wanderful just recently published a piece that addresses this very concern (and which actually prompted me to write this one).
How often have we heard our family and friends cite the endless headlines they’ve seen in the media? The kidnappings in Mexico City, the latest sexual assault or rape case in Delhi, or maybe it’s last week’s armed robbery in Cape Town. The perception of safety in these places is next to nil.
Of course, these fears aren’t entirely unfounded; there is basis for the concern. But often, they can be misguided and can fail to take into consideration the complexity of these places and the people who live there.
And sometimes, the places and spaces we deem unsafe to travel to aren’t always where we expect.
Kicking it in Mombasa
Three years ago, I traveled through Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda with a group of strangers-turned-friends for a service learning program focusing on LGBTI rights with Operation Groundswell. It would be my first time in East Africa and, of course, I had my own trepidations.
Despite my better judgment and experience, pieces of media stereotypes still lodged themselves into my brain. My friends oscillated between admiring me for my “courage” or berating me for going somewhere so “dangerous”. Aunts and uncles warned me of mugging, sexual assault, and rape. My ever-supportive (or at least simply resigned to my adventure-seeking ways) parents just told me to “be careful” with a grave seriousness.
So off I went.
I traveled around parts of East Africa for what ended up being an incredibly inspiring, challenging, hilarious, and mind-bending six weeks. I lived in homestays, took local transportation, and rented an apartment.
My team and I spent many sweltering evenings talking about social issues while learning to cook sukuma wiki or pilau with our new friends from Operation Groundswell’s partner organizations. I took many weekend afternoons walking the dusty roads to the nearby store to gossip with friends while I gnawed on the sweet, sweet sap of sugarcane. On other evenings, I’d skip over to another neighbor’s house to chat over a steaming cup of delicious chai. It wasn’t long until I felt at home.
[Tweet “”I gnawed on the sweet, sweet sap of sugarcane…It wasn’t long until I felt at home.””]
At the end of the service learning program, my new friends and I traveled to the beautiful coast of Mombasa, Kenya to cap our travels with some relaxation. We walked along the white sand beaches, explored the Islamic- and Portuguese-influenced architecture of the Old Town, and finished up our last minute shopping.
We stayed in the most affordable accommodation we could find: a party hostel filled with young North American and European backpackers who spent most of their days drinking by the pool and barely ever leaving the hostel premises. It was an entirely different vibe from everything else we’d experienced in the past month or so. After immersing almost completely in East African culture, it was a culture shock to find ourselves somewhere that felt a hell of a lot more like a frat house back in North America than it did the coast of Kenya.
On our last night in Mombasa, my girlfriends and I were sitting at the bar in our hostel enjoying our Tuskers (Kenya’s national beer) and chatting. I skipped out of the sightseeing with the rest of the girls to finish up an article for a magazine I was freelancing for at the time, and so I was eager to celebrate. Plus, in just a few hours we’d be on yet another long, dusty, and hot bus ride.
We rehashed our day’s events in the midst of the loud music, beer pong, and late night swims—all while laughing at the ridiculousness of what was going on around us.
Then, out of nowhere, a guy came up to me and started stroking my back. Ugh. Gross. I turned around to throw him some serious shade and figured he’d get the message. He smiled a sleazy, drunken smile. I did not engage. I just ignored it and turned around to keep chatting. But his hand was on my back again and before I could do anything about it, he had unhooked my bra. In front of everyone.
I turned around to see him smiling triumphantly, and his friends laughing in the background. I felt embarrassed and humiliated as I fumbled around, trying to re-hook my bra as fast I possibly could in this bar full of strangers. I felt so violated.
What do I do? Do I say something? Should I say something? In my humiliation, anger, and shock, I couldn’t calculate the proper response (if there even is one in a situation like this).
So, I stood up and yelled at his face. “Don’t you dare ever touch me again!” Then, I grabbed my beer, poured it all over his head and said, “You like drinking, right? Drink this!”
Absolutely too drunk to respond, he simply laughed and walked away. As I looked around the room, I was surprised to find dropped jaws and the biggest, if not the only, collective stink eye I have ever experienced in my life. Men and women alike stared at me with such horrified astonishment. I could hear the whispers: “What a bitch.”
Me?! I thought to myself in disbelief and defiance.
But after that show of strength, fear crept in and made itself at home. I was, after all, staying at the same hostel where this guy and his friends were also staying and could, at any point in the night, go into my shared dorm room.
[Tweet “”Fear crept in and made itself at home…I spent the night on edge, feeling vulnerable.”””]
I spent the night on edge, feeling vulnerable and threatened.
I crossed paths with him in the common areas twice again that night and averted my eyes. Just in case.
I made sure to stay with a girlfriend at all times because I didn’t want to run the risk of being alone with that jerk around. Just in case.
And I didn’t go to my dorm to sleep until I had another friend hitting the sack as well. Just in case.
Challenging Our Assumptions and Preconceptions
For the six weeks I spent traversing East Africa, not once did I ever feel unsafe or threatened by the local men around me. Not once. Sure, there were the awkward marriage proposals that many of my travel buddies had to ward off and the catcalls that come part and parcel to being a woman in, well, anywhere, really. But they were never real threats to our safety.
The people I met in East Africa welcomed me wholeheartedly into their homes and always looked out for me. I felt that same feeling of community and family that reminded me of my original home in the Philippines, but that we so greatly lack in North America.
It was only there, in that hostel full of North Americans and Europeans in Mombasa—the very people I find myself most familiar and comfortable with—that I ever felt so unsafe during my travels in that region. The man who sexually assaulted me was not Kenyan or Ugandan or Rwandan. He was a Dane.
Now, I am not saying that rape or any kind of sexual harassment, assault, or violence is never perpetrated by East Africans. Nor am I saying that all men from Denmark are sexual offenders. Absolutely not. And this story is most definitely not meant to instill even more fear around women traveling to unfamiliar places. Rather, this is a call to challenge our assumptions and preconceptions of where “safe” is. It is a reminder not to put a blanket judgement on any particular ethnicity, culture, or country for such offenses.
[Tweet “”Share stories that call into question common stereotypes of people and places.””]
So prove them wrong.
Not just by doing your research before going abroad and practicing common sense safety practices, but, just as importantly, by sharing stories that go against the grain. Share stories that call into question common stereotypes of people and places, that defy our prejudiced expectations, and that create a more dynamic and nuanced perspective of the people and places we encounter on our travels.
Images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of Justine Abigail Yu.
This is BEYOND infuriating. He unhooks your bra and you’re the bitch for not standing quietly and smiling at him?!?! That is so incredibly gross and awful and I’m sorry people are such complete assholes.
Loved this piece, and thank you for sharing it!
Thanks, Mariana! That was my exact thought…I’M the one who’s at fault here?! Ugh. I was so grateful to have my girlfriends there with me that night!
Loved your piece about navigating race and identity too! So glad these conversations are happening!
Thanks for taking the time to read my story, Jessica!
I’m actually impressed that you reacted so reasonably to that jackass. I know if it were me in that situation, I would have reacted much more violently.
So glad to see other travelers recognize that the blanket judgments of “dangerous” that we give other cultures not only strips that culture of nuance and history, but also encourages women to let our guard down in places that have the implication of being “safe” but are actually just as dangerous as anywhere else.
Hi Ima! I’m honestly surprised I even reacted in any way! I was so stunned in that moment, I almost didn’t do anything – which I’m sure happens to many women because it’s just such an unexpected move.
Thanks for reading 🙂
I have so much to say– starting with why your friends didn’t help you out more. No one helped your approach the hostel staff to get this situation under control? You had to wait for accompaniment to bed, instead of someone asking what you needed, or you letting them know your fear.
Personally, I avoid hanging around drunk men, tourist or local for this reason– All you need is 1 bad drunk guy to ruin your evening. The vast majority are fine.
I know we women like to think we can go everywhere and do anything, but bars are definitely the place I’m most cautious of when traveling. There’s often someone who gets out of control after drinking too much.
So frustrating that these situations happen, as it changes your whole outlook on safety. And, it’s good you reacted so dramatically. Hopefully all the other women stayed away from that guy, too.
Great piece, Justine! I’m glad you wrote this. sometimes, when we’re trying to combat racism against our host countries or sexist implications that we shouldn’t go “anywhere dangerous” it can feel like staying quiet is the correct, empowered thing, but I don’t think it helps us to feel silenced, any more than it helps us when folks are alarmist.
Hi Justine and thank you for sharing your story. Unfortunately, safety is something we do have to consider when traveling.
As a female solo traveler and a womens self defense instructor I’d like to share a safety tip of my own which I hope your female readers will read, remember, and share with many other women and girls far and wide.
I have been teaching Krav Maga to women and girls for over five years and we teach a very effective technique which I feel should should be in every woman and girls arsenal. We are a women only event, run by women, for women, and there is an extremely effective technique what we teach to women of all ages, which I feel we should all share as far and wide as possible.
The technique is the “groin grab” self defense technique which is to be used against a male attacker, which is now taught in many womens self defense classes, and there is actually a little trick to it…
To execute this technique, you’re going to take your hand and quickly grasp between the attackers thighs underhand. Its going to feel like you’re “cradling” the testicles. Quickly grab hold of, or snatch the testicles and dig your fingertips into the fragile skin BEHIND the scrotum. Then, once you have a good grip, you turn your hand into a vice, with your fingers digging inwards, around the back and over the top of the testicles. If you do it right, you should feel the testes INSIDE your hand which is holding the scrotum. You want, whenever possible, to hook your fingers over and around at least one testicle. One of them is enough.
Then, with your hands in a claw and your fingertips latched around the testes, you turn your hand sharply, as though you were turning a doorknob. Simultaneously, squeeze hard and pull the testicles away from his body as fast and as hard as you can. DO NOT LET GO OF THEM. This is very important. What happens then, is that your assailant usually screams out in pain and then tries to grab the wrist of your hand holding him in a futile attempt to try to get you to release him. DON’T. He then quickly loses one of the natural advantages he usually has over us (his strength) within a matter of seconds. Vomiting, curling over, collapsing and convulsing is common. Shock and unconsciousness can set in within 8 seconds. If he initially starts to fight back then you tuck your head in and keep squeezing his testicles until he faints. This only takes a matter of seconds. When he collapses, which he will, you get away to safety as quickly as possible and call for help. I’ve heard of two older women who dragged their attackers to a place of safety while holding them by the testicles. It may sound odd but testicles are so vulnerable and sensitive that this technique also works very well for women. I also like to share the story of the woman who was threatened with the words “do as I say or else…” by the younger man who attacked her, but she turned the situation around and he eventually ended up collapsing and begging her to phone the police while she maintained a tight grip on his testicles.
It’s never too late to perform this technique at any stage of an attack, and that even includes the option of reaching down if he’s on top of you, but it is easiest to do when the testicles are exposed and closest to you where you can grab hold of them. I’ve actually met several women in my life who have fought off their attackers in this way and one did it when her attacker was on top of her and raping her at the point he lost control. Don’t ever hold back. Some women scream while they are doing this, and some women think of a loved one being harmed to help overcome any bad feelings of hurting someone else even if they are being hurt themselves. Do whatever you have to do if you feel it helps.
If done properly, and done with enough force, this technique can even lead to the testicles rupturing. It’s actually easier to do than most women believe, and just about all of us have the capability to injure an attackers testicles in this way – whether we are young girls still of school age, or whether we are great grandmothers. We, as women have no part of our bodies as vulnerable as a mans testicles. After all, if you think about it testicles are just small objects of extreme vulnerability to pain squishiness wrapped in a delicate layer of skin which offers them no protection at all from this kind of counterattack by a woman. Most importantly, this fact holds true no matter what size your attacker is, nor how strong he is. And no matter how angry he is, and how much he’s threatened what he’s going to do to you, he’s going to drop. Don’t let anyone (usually men who are very uncomfortable with thoughts of women beating them in combat) try to convince you otherwise.
I once worked with a group of Somali women who informed me that grandmothers, mothers, and daughters between generations shared this powerful method of fighting off men. They even have a name for it in Somalia and they call the move “Qworegoys”. They were surprised that women in the West didn’t seem to share this information as much as they expected them to, and even more surprised that most women didn’t even seem aware of this technique.
I know that this advice would have been a difficult read for many women, but our lives are worth far more than a rapists testicles and we should be prepared to do whatever it takes to get away to safety. Please help to share this advice with as many other women and girls as far and wide as possible in any way you can help. It could one day be a life saver.
Thanks so much for writing this piece. It infuriates me that the guy unhooked your bra and thought it was a great joke – don’t get me started on that.
But it’s interesting about perceptions. I’m currently based in Fiji and many people have warned me about not wearing revealing clothing, to not go out at night alone and that domestic violence & sexual assault is common.
Although I haven’t been out at night by myself, it’s been strange getting used to how everyone here is super friendly. Random people say Bula (Hello in Fijian) to EVERYONE and strike up conversations with anyone. At first I was worried about the attention from these men, especially those who start asking personal questions quite quickly or ask where I’m staying. But I quickly realised, here the attention doesn’t discriminate between genders. Both women and men are equally friendly to passing strangers on the street. And it is simply just being friendly.
Its hard to explain but it’s not at all like street harassment from guys back home. I feel happier walking down the street full of road workers in Fiji and being warmly greeted by everyone here, than walking past a construction site back home in “safe” New Zealand.