Something I really do not spend a lot of mindshare on is my gender. I love being a woman; I am proud of it, I wouldn’t change it for the world. But, I simply don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it.
During all my travels, it has become clear that the rest of the world sees me as a woman, first and foremost. Some of the my most colorful memories are directly related to the fact that I am a woman, and I am thankful for each and every one.
Here are just a few cherished nuggets…
Traveling in Africa (Mali and Ethiopia specifically) as a solo female traveler allowed me to interact with local women and children in a way I would not have otherwise been able to. I was alone, so the interaction felt intimate and non-intimidating. And because I’m a woman, there weren’t any social taboos preventing the women from touching me, inviting me into their homes, handing me their babies, inviting me to cook with them.
Girls braided my hair, boys held my hand so I wouldn’t fall on steep hills or in rivers, women invited me to dance at weddings and try on their clothes. I had given embarrassingly little thought to what it would mean to travel alone as a woman in Africa, and I am glad I didn’t.
Instead of feeling afraid or self-conscious I was ready to embrace these moments of joy.
Road tripping through Morocco gave me some slightly less pleasant, but nonetheless, memorable moments. And, as every traveler knows, sometimes the worst experiences make the best stories and most vivid memories. This is true about my Moroccan experiences.
An old woman threw stones at me because my calves were exposed (I am sure my blond hair didn’t help), teenage boys spit at me (I assume for the same reason), a man tried to buy me from my boyfriend (who was posing as my brother), and a woman pressured me to marry her son and take him to America.
I safely pin-balled my way through this series of bizarre events, heightened in their craziness by my dysentery and our rental car’s breakdown in the Sahara. While these experiences only occurred as a result of my gender, I also believe (maybe in a sexist way) that, had I been a man subjected to these insults, tensions would have surely escalated. Instead, I accepted them as cultural phenomena and moved on.
In Portugal, my friend Ellen and I were invited aboard a warship, and given a private tour of the bridge. The ship was open for public tours, so the fact that we were invited aboard had nothing to do with our gender. But, all the other tours were groups of twenty-five people, and none were invited to the bridge.
Just moments earlier we had been lamenting that we had spent our entire weekend in Portugal without getting on a boat, and if we hadn’t been women, I think the weekend would have ended boat-less as well.
There were three gender-specific moments in Zanzibar. Two occurred in Stone Town. One was in the market, where I was given a tour through all the meats, fruits, vegetables and spices. The first section we went through was the seafood section, and the smells were overpowering — as were some of the images of fish being hacked to bits.
But when we got to the meat section, I found myself wishing we were still with the fish, as the bloody cow heads were lined up to be made into soup.
I didn’t even notice, at first, that my guide kept abruptly pushing me down all these different aisles, trying to avoid a man who was chasing us through the market, trying to touch me.
What could have been a terrifying experience wasn’t because as soon as I noticed my pursuer (who was clearly not mentally competent nor aware of what he was doing), I also noticed that all the vendors and the shoppers were forming human walls to keep him away from me.
If I had not been a blond woman, I would not have been this man’s target. But, I also believe that if I had not been a foreign woman, I would not have received the protection and aid from over thirty strangers.
The second Zanzibar experience was in a museum. Two teenage boys wanted me to take their picture, which I did as they posed with their arms around each other. Then, they each want to take a picture with me.
The one posing with me first asked, “Can I touch you?” I think he meant, “Can I put my arm around you like I just did with my friend when I posed with him?” But it was a strange question to be asked, especially in such a Muslim area, where women are not supposed to be touched.
So, by saying yes, what was I saying about myself? But, this was all processing in the background while we posed since I immediately said “of course” and proceeded to smile for the pictures. I am sure it was just two young boys who were excited to practice their English and pose with an American lady. But, had I been a man, I probably wouldn’t even remember the incident today. And actually, the boys probably would have been too intimidated to practice their English with me as an adult American man, so I wouldn’t have had the experience at all.
The final Zanzibar experience took place at my resort later that day. I changed into my bathing suit and took my camera to the beach to photograph the intricate rock formations, aqua-blue water and baby powder sand. The rising tide caught me by surprise and I was faced with a dilemma: the safe move (from a drowning-and/or-ruining-my-camera-prevention perspective) would have been to get out of the water and walk back to the resort through the town.
However, I had been warned that outside of the resort, I needed to be modestly dressed. While my bathing suit was indeed modest by resort-wear standards, it was not modest by rural Muslim village standards. So, my other choice was to brave the rising tide and waves, now crashing against the rocks.
I opted for the latter, especially given my fresh memories of the market and museum.
Had I been a man, I could have safely walked back through the village and probably taken hundreds of awesome pictures along the way. But, I would not have the story about how I risked life and limb (and camera).
As you can see from these few anecdotes, my travels would be very different if I weren’t a woman. As much as some of them were a little trying at the time, I am immensely grateful for each experience, as both a life lesson and a colorful tale.
In writing this post, I have realized I actually do think about gender more than I knew. So much so, in fact, that I have developed my own set of expectations (okay, maybe biases or stereotypes is more accurate) for how I will be treated by men in different cultures.
I used to think the USA was gender neutral. I grew up here, and because of that experience, I am fortunate enough to assume that I will be treated as an equal member of society. No one looks twice at me driving myself, paying for myself, walking by myself.
I have learned that is not universally true around the world.
A case in point is the Middle East.
I took at sightseeing trip to Israel, and then went scuba diving in the Red Sea. When I got to Israel, I started to understand what it would really be like to be somewhere gender neutral. (Disclaimer: I know this may be offensive to Israeli men, but I am only recounting my experiences.)
In Israel, my friend Valeria and I were pushed, shoved, had doors slammed in our faces, were expected to carry our own (very heavy) scuba tanks and kayaks, and even had tall men push us aside at a concert so they could stand in front of us and get a better view.
These are behaviors I take for granted as being frowned upon in the “gender neutral” USA. It made me realize that the USA is not really gender neutral, and I am okay with that. I don’t mind living in a nation that is “gender aware,” where the taxi driver will help me with my luggage and my male friends will offer me their sweaters if it is cold outside.
I decided (because I am always doing root cause analysis in the back of my mind) that, in Israel, the fact that Israeli woman serve right beside men in the army is, perhaps, why there is such gender-blindness in how men treat women in public. I don’t mean to imply that I am against women serving in the U.S. military – quite the contrary.
But because 100% of the population serves in the military in Israel, and woman are enlisted along with men, my theory is that has changed the societal norms for that country. Thoughts?
So, coming from Israel where we felt genderless, it was a complete shock when we crossed the border into Jordan. On the one hand, we were looked after. Our dive masters carried our heavy tanks, took care of our fins, and offered to escort us to dinner afterwards.
They were protective and kind, and fun to be around. On the other hand, I had one of the most traumatizing experiences of my life there. When my dive master, Akmed, and I were coming out of the ocean after snorkeling, a man was walking by with his two sons. The man asked if I would take a picture with his boys (2 and 5 years old). I said yes, by now used to being my own walking tourist attraction.
But, his sons were terrified of me: a foreign speaking blond lady wearing just a bathing suit (in a conservative Muslim country where woman’s bodies are modestly covered). They started crying, and screaming, and pleading, and grabbing on to their fathers’ legs, trying desperately not to be forced any closer to me. I smiled and started to walk on, sure that Dad saw how bad an idea the photo was.
Nope. The father started to physically force the boys closer to me, and their screams raised to bloody murder level, as huge tears poured down their faces and snot streamed out of their noses. I kept walking, and the father started yelling something at me and Akmed. Akmed shook his head no, and told me to keep walking. Apparently the dad wanted us to help wrangle his hysterically terrified children, and now wanted me to pick his younger son up for a picture.
We escaped into the confines of the dive center, with the children’s inconsolable wails and the father’s angry shouts audible through the walls.
It’s a lesson in being careful what you wish for. I claim to want gender neutrality, but when I experienced it, I was irritated at the disrespect and wanted to be seen as a woman. Hours later, I was treated very differently for being a woman, and longed to disappear into the cloak of gender neutrality.
Those contrasting experiences within one trip highlight the magic of travel. Travel isn’t just an opportunity to learn about the world, it is a chance to learn about yourself. And, in some cases, what I’ve learned (about a place or about me) can be confusing, or uncomfortable. In all cases, I am a better person for having learned it.