***The below blogpost shows my experience of just a couple of days of travelling alone. Although it is written about the region within the borders of Greece, I have had similar, and worse, experiences in other countries.***
My friend Albin once told me how he had taken a succession of ferries from Turkey to Italy. So when I was planning to head to Turkey again, I also booked ferries. It sounded like a more romantic way to travel than hitchhiking on grey motorways through the Balkans.
My first ferry is from Ancona, Italy, to Patras, Greece. The massive ten-floor ferry is not in the slightest bit romantic, and it is, of course, a very capitalist experience. My 72€ ticket doesn’t even get me a reserved seat, let alone a bed. People around me drink beer whilst the Italian news channel shows footage of a ‘black bloc’ rampaging on the streets of Milan.
The boat’s full of men, most from the Greek region and they’re walking around in packs. I feel really self-conscious: they all stare at me as if I am a product that they are sizing up to buy. They don’t seem to see a human, but rather a female, and therefore a sexual object.
At midnight I find a comfy spot to sleep in, near two couples and no groups of men. I take out my sleeping bag, and just as I’m about to go to sleep, a man asks if he can sleep one chair along from me. I can’t really say no. He asks me where I’m from, and to be polite I ask him where he’s from. Turkey, he says. As I get ready to go to sleep, his eyes follow my every move. He stares at me intently for twenty minutes or so. So I get up, go to the reception desk and ask how much extra a cabin is. 111€, they say!
I decide not to move to another part of the boat – after all, why should I have to? – but for a couple of hours I lay awake, one metre away from the man, pissed off that I have been made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe. Just because I am a woman and I am alone, it does NOT mean I want company, I think to myself. Fuck patriarchy.
The man is Turkish, but he could well be from anywhere else, and in my years of travelling solo I have found that men in many regions can act like this (except for in Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Finland and Scandinavia, where I never seem to get problems).
Years of travelling solo have, on the one hand, given me a greater faith in humans. I have met so many women and men who have gone out of their way to help me, host me, feed me, or be compassionate and friendly. But on the other hand, my experiences of being harrassed by men have also made me cynical about men’s intentions. I don’t want to feel this way. I want to spread positivity and smile at everyone. I want to live in a world where a smile won’t be mis-read as a come-on. Unfortunately I don’t live in that world, and instead I scowl at certain men in order to protect myself.
I spend the next day in Patras, Greece. It’s a city of contrasts, with smoggy streets in the city centre, and beautiful old lanes up on the hillside with the smell of fresh flowers filling the air. Anarchist posters and squats and an Anti-Authoritarian May Day party are just a few streets away from made-up people getting drunk in gentrified bars.
A day later I catch another ferry from Athens to Rhodes. This ferry has more of a diversity of people on it, but there’s still a good number of young macho men wearing sunglasses and tight T-shirts staring at the lone female.
I remind myself that I don’t know what they are thinking, so I shouldn’t jump to conclusions about them. And besides, I think, if I feel resentful and guarded all the time, I’m going to be miserable.
As I sit reading my book on the deck, ignoring the stares, a young guy in his twenties talks to me. We exchange a few sentences and then I go back to reading. He doesn’t have any intentions other than to be nice, I happily think to myself. But then he stands a few metres away, staring at me.
Half an hour later he walks up to me again and says something. I say a short reply and go back to reading. He then leans on the ferry deck, his body facing me, and stares at me once again for a long time. I look up from my book and I scowl at him. He smiles at me and continues to stare. I shake my head and look away.
Another half an hour later, he talks to me again.
“STOP TALKING TO ME!” I shout at him in front of other people. It’s probably not the best tactic, but I’m really fed up. He’s doesn’t come near me for the rest of the journey.
These incidences on the two ferries may not seem like much. But this is behaviour that women have to tolerate every day. Most men don’t go through life being sized up and objectified in the same way as women do.
As females, we are taught from a young age that the world is a dangerous place for us. “Don’t walk alone at night!” we are constantly warned. And when women and men hear that I travel alone, they are shocked and say, “aren’t you brave?” Travel guide books warn against women travelling alone. And then the media reports the most distressing stories of rapes and murders.
And so male-domination is upheld and women continue to be the fearful, subservient sex: too timid to do things alone. If we were to break free from these fears – if we were to realise our limitless potential – then the male-dominated society would start to crumble.
This is one reason why I travel solo – to break free from society’s conditioning that tells me that because I am a woman I am the weaker sex.
So I think the common rhetoric that the world is really dangerous for a woman is nonsense and reinforces men’s power. However, I do recognise that the world is really sexist, and experience has shown me that I do need to be on my guard sometimes. I will always be viewed differently as a solo woman traveller to a solo male traveller.
The answer to these problems isn’t to stay at home and live in fear. And the answer is not to only travel with a companion. Instead, as women we can realise our potential, break the stereotypes of what a woman should or shouldn’t do and challenge patriarchy.
If you’re a man who is against sexism and patriarchy, then you can also challenge men around you when they are being sexist. And we can all look at small actions or words that we do or say in daily life that are sexist.
Instead of telling women that they shouldn’t do something because it’s not safe, let’s look at the core of the problem – patriarchy – and all work together to abolish it. Let’s start doing this in the communities where we live, where we have the most understanding of how we can change it. Let’s ensure that our children grow up to be free from the chains of sexism and patriarchy. In the meantime, I’m trying to learn to travel with an open, friendly mind and heart whilst being slightly on my guard.