I recently received a message on our facebook page from a fan who made a great point: We don’t talk about women enough.
“I want to offer a critique as to your choice of article topics. As two men traveling alone, how does gender impact your daily decisions? Can you imagine what precautions you would have to take were there a female component to your journey?”
Thinking about it, I realized she was right: we often fail to show how gender roles play out in places we’re traveling. Needless to say, there’s a lot to discuss. So Morgan and I decided to take up our fan’s cue and share some of the ways we think this trip would have been different had we done Postulate One as a pair of females. We came up with four broad categories:
Access to Culture
Right off the bat, being female would have barred us from some male-dominated institutions along our route. A couple examples: Women are not allowed to enter the traditional tea houses of Turkey – especially those outside large cities. Similarly, workingmen’s bars in Indian towns are usually devoid of estrogen. In both cases, they are regarded as sanctuaries for men, and trying to enter one as a woman would provoke a fierce response.
What’s important isn’t that female travelers would miss out on Turkish Chai or Indian Malt Liquor; it’s that these institutions were central to our understanding of how those societies operated. They were where tales of hardship were exchanged in stories or drowned in alcohol; they were where business deals were made, and family allegiances cemented. They were where men let their guards down to talk about politics and religion and sexual desires in a candidness that wasn’t appropriate on the street.
In one Turkish village, we asked a man what his wife did while he spent hours at the tea house each evening. The tea house was the only business open late at night.
“She waits for me at home,” he responded.
As female travelers, we’d probably have been resigned to our hotel room.
Pursuing stories as journalists would have been different as females. To begin with, I admit that we probably would have covered more female characters. A glance through our stories shows that the vast majority of characters are men, partly because access to them was easier and we related more. But in some countries it also would have been difficult to gain the trust of male sources who aren’t used to female strangers asking them personal questions. Again, I go to India – where interviewing men from a cotton farming village about their alcoholism wouldn’t have been appropriate. By the same token however, the wives in Brahmanapally were too shy to talk to us, and maybe if we were females they would have opened up.
Additionally, the majority of nonfiction authors we’ve read in our free time are men. Out of the last 24 narrative journalism books I’ve read, only 5 have been authored by women. Much of this has been unconscious, but the result is that many of our stories follow suit, covering topics more appealing to guys – like our story about boxing in Thailand, or extreme mountain climbing in Georgia. There are many topics we’ve missed out on that two female journalists would have picked up.
Morgan and I don’t have to deal with things like catcalls or being slapped on the ass, and oftentimes our lack of subjugation means we fail to see it happening to women right around us. It comes as a shock, then, when we see it so palpably. One example:
On the way from Kashgar to Urumqi, in China, we shared our train’s bunk compartment with a family of two parents and two sisters. In the compartment next to us was a middle-aged businessman who kept coming over to flirt with the family’s youngest daughter. He was disgusting, a Grinch-like grin spreading over his face whenever he looked at the girl. The whites in his eyes disappeared behind black pupils shining with lust. When he sat next to her, he leaned his smirking face into hers and caressed her hair. She fell silent and began to pout. It was sickening. It was blatant harassment, and completely inappropriate.
But I was amazed how NO ONE did anything about it. A couple of times the girl’s mother shouted at the man, which would temporarily deter him, but he always came back. The other businessmen in the compartment next to us ignored it, as did the girl’s father—which I found particularly strange. Meanwhile, the girl’s sister assumed the same worried, pouting face of the victim’s, but also failed to step in to her defense.
This went on throughout the 30 hour train ride until I could barely stand it anymore. As the man wrestled with the girl’s hand to maintain a place on her thigh, I felt the urge to sock him in the face. Being outside my own culture, I refrained. Instead, I got an opportunity to interfere more subtly when the man stood up to use the bathroom. I swiped his spot so he couldn’t sit next to the girl. I thought I was doing her a huge favor, and looked at her expectantly for some kind of visual “thank you.”
She didn’t understand what I was doing at all. Instead, she stood to offer me her spot. She thought I wanted a place closer to the window.
For me, the situation was memorable not only because of the girl’s passivity, but because it was such a blatant case of gender discrimination. But I only saw it because it was so proximate. I believe female travelers would be much more attuned to such occurrences, and would probably find it even more difficult not to interfere when they saw abuse.
Safety is an obvious concern for female travelers, and we’ve met plenty who’ve told us how careful they have to be when walking the streets at night. I mean, look at us – even we got mugged in Romania, and two females in the same situation would have faced even greater danger. It’s also telling that out of hundreds of bicycle tourists we’ve met, we didn’t find any solo female cyclists, and only one pair of females cycling without a male companion.
Beyond safety out on the roads or in cities, though, we believe the biggest change would have been in couchsurfing. As two guys, Morgan and I simply don’t worry about our safety when we use the website to search for hosts. We’ve stayed in over 50 homes with few incidents. But as females, the level of discretion would be completely different.
The best example I can give is a Couchsurfing ‘meetup’ (a sort of gathering of travelers organized through the website) that we attended in Bangalore. The meeting was set in a popular expat bar, and we went there expecting to meet a diverse community of local ‘surfers.’ When we showed up, there were plenty of people there – perhaps 40 – but none of them were female. It was a sausage fest.
Speaking to our friend Naomi later that week, we found out why.
“It’s disgusting” she told us. “So many people here are using that site as a sort of dating tool. Those men you saw at the bar – I know them. Half of them were looking to pick up chicks.”
I joked that I might be doing the same.
“That’s not funny.” She said.
And I saw she was right.