On rape and racism

“But isn’t it dangerous? You know, as a woman?”

This is one of the questions I’m asked again and again, when I tell people about my travels, and I’m getting more and more impatient in my responses. It’s not only that I’ve had to answer it a few too many times – it’s that, every time I get asked it, I realise more clearly that it’s a question founded on racism and xenophobia: to put it very bluntly, the assumption that as soon as I leave my own country, I am constantly at risk of being raped by foreigners.

And it’s getting worse. Over the past few months I’ve come across a few other female cyclists who have admitted to changing or cancelling their own plans to cross continents (including Europe), because of the perceived risk of travelling through these areas “as a Western woman”, or of “being the only white woman for miles around”. Now, I am not going to blame these women individually, any more than I’m going to blame the well-meaning people who like to label me ‘brave’ and ‘intrepid’ for going to places where the only thing that really differentiates me from those I meet is our skin tone and style of dress. They have made careful (though flawed) decisions regarding their own safety, much as I have done countless times during my travels, based on the information and advice I had to hand.

The problem is, information and advice are always filtered through the prejudices and beliefs of the people imparting them. A lot of people told me I was foolish for wanting to cycle through the Icelandic interior in winter, without taking into account my previous experience (considerable), and their own lack of it. (Thankfully I met the wonderful Emil, who trusted me to judge the risks for myself, and sent me off on some of the most brilliant days’ cycling of my life to date.) I spent months agonising over whether to travel through Balochistan, trying to weed through all of the (mostly very negative) advice I was given, most of which seemed to come from people who had never set foot in Iran or Pakistan. It was only when I got closer to the area in question that people (like the estimable Akbar, in Bam) were able to explain the risks to me based on concrete (and recent) knowledge, and to tell me that I would, in all likelihood, be fine – and I was. (And then, a couple of years later, I realised very belatedly that, even though I had survived, travelling through Balochistan had been a bad idea after all, more because of the risk to my hosts and escorts than myself. You see? It’s complicated.)

So let’s look at the prejudices and beliefs that are currently causing women to think twice about travelling solo. Doubtless they’ll have read the news coverage of the Cologne attacks at New Year, and they (and their concerned friends and family members) will have been affected, by the creeping tide of same-old-same-old racist propaganda that tells us white women are at ever-increasing risk of being raped by dark-skinned men, and it is the duty of white men to defend them, while they keep themselves patiently under lock and key, waiting for that far-off day when the world’s dangers have been entirely neutralized, and it is finally safe to leave the house.

This assumption is so troubling (especially when I see it in people I know and respect, or notice it in myself), that it’s difficult to know where to begin unravelling it. Shall I start by reminding you that despite the political myth of white women’s vulnerability, women of colour have historically been much more often sexually fetishised and exploited, and no one seems to make as much of a fuss about that? Or shall I point out that, despite all the current hysteria, refugees are still far more likely to have crimes committed against them, and perhaps if we’re so worried about women being attacked we should do something about the safety of the millions of refugee women, who are at far greater risk of violence, sometimes from the very policemen who are meant to be protecting them? Or shall I mention that, on average, two women are killed in the UK every week by their domestic partner, and that around 90% of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim? (So perhaps, next time a female friend of yours announces she is getting married, or moving in with her boyfriend, you should sit her down and have a serious talk with her. Is she aware of the risks? Does she really want to go through with this?)

Shall I alert you to the fact that actually a lot of men are raped too (there are 120,000 male rape survivors in England and Wales alone), and offer my anecdotal evidence that most of the men I know who have travelled long distances by bike have at some point been mugged, or attacked, or threatened in some way? (I never have been, in all my years of travelling.) Shall I tell you of all the times I have been groped or flashed in my home country, in the course of my day-to-day life, in motorway service stations, in parks, in crowded bars, on public transport? (I think most women will have similar stories.)

For god’s sake, let’s stop painting our own society as a haven of peace and safety, which it most definitely isn’t, and by the same token, let’s stop turning the rest of the world into a no-go zone, full of dangerous criminals. Rape, and sexual assault, and all the other violent crimes, happen everywhere. And that’s appalling. But what’s also appalling is how much our worlds will shrink if we don’t question the beliefs and prejudices we’re being fed by mass media and popular culture. Soon we’ll be too afraid ever to leave the country. Women are raped even in popular tourist destinations like Spain and Thailand, after all. Then we’ll read all the stories about commuters being groped on buses and trains, and decide it’s safer if we never leave the small town we grew up in. Then we’ll hear about teenagers being flashed on their way home from school, and we’ll end up never leaving our own home (where nearly 40% of rapes take place).

It is now more important than ever that we (all of us, not just women) travel beyond our normal boundaries, use the opportunities we have to go out into the world, and tell everyone else what we find there: that human beings are, with a few minor variations, more or less the same anywhere you go. That’s to say, mostly harmless, usually friendly, often extremely kind, occasionally irritating or unpleasant, and very occasionally violent and dangerous. Because you know how it works, don’t you? The more we isolate ourselves, the more fearful and suspicious we will become of anyone we consider ‘other’. And the more brutal we believe ‘they’ are, the more brutal we ourselves will become. You’ll remember the hilarious (but troubling) graphics back in 2014, that showed how British people living in areas of lower ethnic diversity were far more likely to support the anti-immigration policies of parties like UKIP. And it’s in the more remote areas of the world that I’ve encountered the greatest ignorance and prejudice – the otherwise friendly Alaskan who had a sign on his door that said “armed infidel”, in English and Arabic; the Xinjiang petrol-station attendant who couldn’t stop giggling and touching my hair and skin.

Please stop asking me whether it’s dangerous for me to travel alone, and think about the prejudices and flawed assumptions that lie behind that very question – which must be responsible for countless women reconsidering, revising, and even abandoning their travel plans completely. It loses sight of the extraordinary privilege of voluntary, independent travel. Really, you should congratulate me on how lucky I am – to be able to move across continents for the joy and the challenge of it, rather than because I have to. To be welcomed in the places I visit, rather than treated with hostility and suspicion. To have a passport that allows me visa-free entry to more countries than any other, and to have a powerful government ready to pull out all the stops to rescue me if something does go wrong. To command a level of respect I haven’t had to work as hard for as many other people do, and to know my complaints and accusations (if I ever have cause to make any) will be listened to and believed. To be educated, financially independent, physically strong and able, and to have grown up in a society that, despite its flaws, has enabled me to go out into the world and have my adventures. When you look at my privilege, compared to that of many of the people I have travelled among, it is beyond tasteless to suggest that I am the vulnerable one.

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