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How to Be a Feminist and a Respectful Tourist

A delicate balance that leaves you wondering. Image by Flickr user Johnragai.

A few months ago, I used some space in here to look at the tightrope feminists are often asked to walk in our daily lives and how much critical thinking can go into the seemingly innocuous choices we make (heels vs. flats? girl vs. woman? politely refusing an advance vs. yelling and screaming?). The tightrope becomes more painful, more complex, when more significant factors are considered.

Betty Friedan, for example, wrote in her autobiography that she deliberately excluded lesbianism from her portion of the second-wave feminist movement in the U.S. because she felt that it was too controversial and painted all feminists as man-hating, thereby diminishing the movement’s chances of economic success for all women.

Tightrope feminism can easily become a tool for marginalization and oppression.

I’m revisiting the topic not to discuss marginalization, exactly, but because my recent sojourn to Turkey highlighted, for me, another way in which tightrope feminism becomes complicated by global power dynamics.

From a cultural perspective, Turkey is incredibly varied and complicated, with a potent mix of European and Muslim values informing codes of conduct and social mores. Gender-based violence and patriarchal behavior is as commonplace there as it is everywhere. It wasn’t overly different from anywhere else I’ve ever been. Perhaps wearing a wedding ring provides a certain amount of protection from catcalling and similar acts of aggression.

Brief moments of silent power struggles over physical prowess.

These were always minor moments, couched in completely reasonable explanations. We would be climbing from the yacht to the motorboat and a hand would be proffered to guide me in my steps. A steep rock section would present itself on our trail, and the same hand would wait to assist each woman down its face. Someone would hold my elbow while I climbed in and out of the kayak.

There was never anything inappropriate or sexual in the touch, and it was always offered at times when assistance could be useful. As a fiercely independent, physically powerful individual, however, it irked me to realize that the hand was almost never offered to Nick or our other male passenger. When the water was choppy or the ladder slick, it certainly was; but routinely? No.

I’m one of the first to admit that my independence can easily cross the line into ornery stubbornness, whether warranted or not, in almost any situation, and especially if I think that there’s reason to “prove” my capability in any given area (especially physical prowess). In cases like the ones above, that meant that I would prefer to use my hands to grip the ladder down, use my hiking poles to clamber over the rock face, and make peace with the fact that I might fall out of the kayak.

It extended into non-physical activities as well while in Turkey. All shopkeepers seemed to experience a microsecond of shock when we walked into their stores and I was the one who started speaking. It comes down to the fact that I loathe and resent feeling powerless.

But what are the concessions I need(ed) to make while traveling? Were there ways in which I was compromising a culturally respectful approach, a healthy interchange of expectations, or the chance to develop rapport between me and the strangers I was encountering?

Do we need help when we travel just because we're women? Go Girl columnist Erica investigates.

Does it look like I need help? Image by Flickr user Hollylay.

Consider:

–Every time I refused a proffered hand, or spoke first, there was a sense that I had somehow diminished someone’s masculinity — either theirs or my husband’s. As a guest in a foreign land, how much should I have accounted for that before saying no?

–As a visitor, a guest, to what extent is it my right to be my (abrasive, demanding, strong-minded) self, and to what extent do I need to set myself aside and observe local behavioral standards?

–At what point does my privilege as a foreign tourist — my ability to act outside those standards — actually damage the rights and well-being of the women for whom those standards are a daily norm?

–Conversely, to what extent does my behavioral compliance with those standards also damage opportunities for feminist empowerment within the country?

–What additional thinking did I need to do before deciding which battles (hands) to pick and which ones to ignore?

I don’t think there are simple answers for any of these questions, and to a certain extent they’re self-serving; after all, one of the biases I carry as an American is the assumption that all eyes are on me and my behavior wherever I go. Some of these questions matter more in certain areas, or with certain people, or during certain activities. Sometimes these questions are of minor significance because I’m just one of seven billion people crawling all over the planet.

But sometimes they matter tremendously, and balancing respectful tourism with feminist consciousness is an incredible challenge.

Erica Laue
Erica first set foot on a plane when she was ten months old. 28 years, 18 countries, and four continents later, the travel bug’s still strong in her veins, and she's become increasingly engaged with issues of power, gender, sex, equality, and access around the world.

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