Posted in people restless spinster

On rape and racism

On rape and racism Posted on February 20, 201650 Comments

“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.


  1. Superb blog, addressing head-on some of those deeply ingrained prejudices which can stop us exploring our own neighbourhoods properly, let alone the rest of the world.

  2. I love this post Emily. People worry about me walking around my own English provincial town, to get from a to b, if it’s after sunset. The perception that it’s unsafe to go outdoors, never mind abroad, if you’re a woman alone is an insidious way of keeping us timid and hidden, when in fact it’s insulting to suggest that men are people we should fear. I’ll read this post again and again.

  3. THANK YOU! Thank you for writing down exactly what I would want to say to everyone who has questioned my safety, but couldn’t find the words for. Can’t wait to direct them to this piece whenever the question comes up again.

  4. I think people who do not travel and do not rely on others and who do not open themselves and who watch too much television, are perhaps more prejudiced. I am not going to defend myself, just say that is is actually more safe to be out there than being here at home where all the things they warn you for happen too.

  5. “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 history repeats itself in Germany – the areas that have the least numbers of foreigners are most xenophobic. And show most support to PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans aGainst the Islamisation of the West).Coincidently all of the last couple of days outrages have happened in former East Germany .

  6. Brilliantly said. In my 10,000 km cycle touring in Eastern & Western Europe last year the few times I was offered sexual attention from men a firm no was enough.

  7. Love your writing Emily, and that you are not afraid to address issues head on. Had I (as a male more than capable of looking after myself) listened to others, I would not have experienced the so many and different cultures and people who have changed my thinking, and life, forever.

    And yes, although I too travelled the world by bicycle, the greatest crimes against me were still back home in my own country.

  8. Hear, hear! When I was making plans to cycle solo across Canada, there were numerous comments about my apparent courage. One woman in particular suggested I was quite out of my mind, that it was far too dangerous a proposition. I replied, “But, it’s CANADA”, meaning that I am a Canadian, I speak the two official languages, I have friends and family scattered across the nation, and I know how to navigate the phone, transportation, and medical systems. Her answer was, “Yeah, that’s what I mean!” Her rural back-woods perspective doesn’t even allow her to contemplate leaving her little corner of Canada, because there might be immigrants, or poor people, or strangers, or people with accented English, or someone wearing a weird hat, or any sort of ne’er-do-well lurking. Imagine living your life with that amount of fear all the time!
    Of course, as all cycle tourists know, the thing that is constantly mind-blowing is just how damned friendly people are, and how well treated one can be by strangers when one travels on a bicycle.
    As an aside, I only met ONE other solo female cyclist during that 8500 km trip. A crying shame.

  9. Wow. This is so incredibly spot on. I want to print it and hand it out to everybody who is asking me this question. It feels like end insult sometimes. I ride with my male partner, he is the fact why some friends and family are only “slightly” freaking out about us going to places where they think the bad people live, simply because they have never been there and assume that unknown places and people are evil. Yes, what we don’t know, scares us. That’s a human thing. But rather than giving in to fear and hatred we should consider getting to know, in order to lose the fear.
    And I loved that you addressed male rape victims, who seemed to be completely forgotten by society. Worse, they aren’t even seen as victims by society, and they really don’t have many places to address to.
    Thank you for this brilliant write. Keep on riding,

  10. Excellent article! It seems to be a human trait to be fearful of the unknown. I live in one of the safest cities in the world and people think I’m nuts cycling in the dark! Happy travels!

  11. Really good piece. Unthinking prejudice based on fear of the unknown can so easily become reified, become a part of tacit, unexamined ‘common knowledge’.
    Fuelled by intentional misinformation from media with ulterior motives, this spreads fear as an almost unnoticed underlay to the fabric of life. and of course, it has been shown many times, that increased fear tends to encourage people to vote for ‘strong’, populist, controlling politicians.
    ‘Consciousness raising’, although a phrase associated with hippy idiocy, is actually the best antidote to such unfounded and unexamined fears, and this piece raised mine! Thanks!

  12. I consider myself an empathetic, unprejudiced person but I won’t pretend these questions never crossed my mind. You’ve opened my eyes to assumptions and prejudices I didn’t know I carried. Thank you so much.

  13. Hi, I found your blog last week from your recent Guardian article, and I’ve really enjoyed reading it. A friend recently posted at link to this New York Times article “Why Do We Teach Girls That It’s Cute to Be Scared?” which is about how many women are conditioned from an early age to be frightened of things, and I thought you might be interested (if you haven’t read it already)!

  14. Dear Emily
    Strong powerful stuff which needed to be said and heard. This stirs thoughts and emotions so deep in me it almost hurts. I was born in Iran and grew up there, had an amazing childhood enjoying a lot of freedom. But I have been groped in the streets of Tehran, have gone through thousands of sexual comments and herassments just walking on the streets. I have suffered, but now have the privilege of living a free life, travelling with no concerns here in the UK but life takes me back to Iran a lot for work and and also next year for my life’s biggest challenge, a huge undertaking which involves travelling alone across a wide area in Iran. I had to think long and hard how unsupported I wanted to do this. Conclusion: If I was a white European, I would have no concerns travelling solo in Iran! In fact I think the whole nation will try and keep me safe. No one will dare mess around with me as the consequences will be so huge! BUT as and an Iranian woman (and looking very much Iranian) still subject to Sharia law, travelling around in remote places, I won’t feel the same security like you do. Just like I have been sexually herrassed dozens of times in cities, the risk might be very low for being raped while I am on a trail but if it happens, I will not get the protection that you would out in a country like Iran. I will not be rescued. I will instead will have to answer hell lot of questions why I was where I was or if I had done anything to attract the danger! My life potentially be ruined. Like everything else in life equality is non-existent even in the degree of safety we feel as two different women from different countries.. Everything is relevant.

    1. Shirin, thanks for sharing your thoughts – I hope one day travel through Iran for Iranian women will be just as hospitable as for western women. I know of many Iranian cyclists that have cycled through Iran, but when I think about it, they are all men, and most people I met in the cycle community in Iran are also men. I did meet a lot of women which are quite liberal, but still restricted. I do think that some areas in Iran might be more welcoming than other areas? It’s such a shame because I really enjoyed cycling through your country. I guess, though most women like to think we are equal with men, we still have a long way to go, and there are places where women unfortunately are more vulnerable than men 🙁 Good luck on your solo travels in Iran. x

  15. Meh. While there may be a hint of racism, sexism, whatever-ism you want… it is mostly just ignorance. Lighten up!

    By the way, people are NOT the same everywhere you go. If you believe this, you are seeing what you want to see. People are very, very different. And those differences are what make the world so interesting….. and so incredibly beautiful.

    To say that the minor wife of a Samburu headman wants the same things as the trophy wife of Subaru executive is, well, ignorant. We are different. Not better. Not worse. Just different.

  16. Spot on Emily, and really well put. When I first started to cycle solo I had countless people telling me I would die/be gang raped/both/worse. After a while I noticed that most of the most hair-raising scare stories were being told to me by not very well traveled white married men who genuinely struggled to conceive that a woman might just be fine out there in the big friendly world without a men pretty much like themselves….. All my travels have confirmed that 98% of the world is friendly and the 2% of idiots, well you can find them anywhere! Thanks for writing this. Katex

  17. Hello Emily,
    fabbo, fabbo, so well spoken darling.
    It pleases me no end, reading yours and other recent comments of this nature. It is wonderful that the tide of evidence is there for us all to grasp and carry forward….that is, we are all so lucky.
    It also shows the power of subversions, either media driven or socially, that drag our freedom to exist as free thinking, intelligent creatures.
    My god, ride…we should all ride, everywhere, all over the globe. If the resultant exercise nourishes brains, to be so wonderfully open and smart, as yours is without doubt, then these silly questions will cease.
    Good luck to you sweet girl. Continue and long may you go.
    Best wishes
    London. UK.

  18. Hello Emily, I was so thrilled to read this. I have been wanting to write something similar myself, but just haven’t figured out exactly what to say or how to say it.

    I am a solo female traveller from Canada, of western European descent (in other words, white skin, blonde hair), and I’ve spent years travelling alone in India over the past 10 years. I publish a travel blog about my journeys in India, and try to encourage other women to overcome their fears and give solo travel a try.

    In the wake of a couple of high-profile and horrific rapes in India, ignorance coupled with the latent sexism and racism of the media, fuelled a frenzy of fearful stories. I found myself in the middle of a global controversy, and pretty much stuck between a rock and a hard place.

    When I defended India — based on my personal experience of travelling there with almost no negative incidents — I was seen as anti-women, and not politically correct about hoisting the Stop Violence Against Women flag. People accused me of downplaying the dangers of travel in India because I was making money from travel blogging and selling tours.

    But if I joined the media fear frenzy, I would find myself contributing to the racist and scintillating stereotyping that the media thrives on — the dangerously luscious idea of white skinned women being ravished by brown skinned men.

    I couldn’t do it. I care very deeply about women’s rights and empowerment — my birthday is on International Women’s Day, for gawd’s sake! But I couldn’t choose supporting the media outcry if it meant adding to the racist stereotypes.

    I was attacked by other white female travel bloggers, and actually lost some friends. And I know it’s because the heat got turned up really high, and many people (including me) said and did things impulsively that they later regretted. One traveller and yoga teacher from the USA actually said, on my Facebook page, that it was just a matter of time before another friend of ours (also an India traveller) was raped. It was outrageous.

    But in spite of my deeply felt and staunch support of women, I still maintain that a lot of the fear mongering is driven by racism, and also by a sexist desire to keep women at home. Where, as you pointed out, they are less safe.

    Obviously, I cannot speak for women who are actually from other societies, and it was very enlightening to hear from Shirin, from Iran. Women in India will have a very different experience than I will, and I know it. I speak only as a global traveller. And I think more travel and curiosity, and less fear and suspicion, will make our world a better place.

  19. And in my country, these are the same people who have all the guns. That is what scares me.

  20. Extremely well articulated! I have been met with similar attitudes when I tell people of my solo plans. My personal experiences have been completely different from what others feared they would be…so far anyway. Cycle on!

  21. Thank You Emily. What a fabulous rant! Mind if I share it? Just about to set off on my own solo Odyssey and looking forward to it – but already bemused by the number of folk telling me that I’m ‘brave’. I do appreciate that we’re all ‘different’ though – that being one of the biggest reasons I want to go explore…

  22. Spot on! As a female who sometimes cycles solo (though on a far less intrepid scale) I get colleagues commenting on my safety/sanity for attempting solo jaunts even just in the UK. After describing a solo cycle from London to Bath along a canal tow path (dotted with lazy ducks and many cake shops) I got the concerned query ‘You did that alone? Surely it’s not safe. That’s very brave of you.’ I had to laugh, as the main ‘dangers’ I faced were overgrown blackberry bushes and dogs being walked on those extendable leads.

  23. Female and over 60… Great to see in print exactly what I would have written if I had made the time… I was 63 last year when my Kiwi girlfriend of similar age and I met up for one of our occasional backpacker trips. We travelled road, rail and river using local transport for 3 months in S E Asia. We stayed in budget accommodation and ate in eateries run and frequented by local families. I continued for a further 3 months hopping from friend to friend in States and Canada. The only violence I experienced was in the well-heeled city suburb of Calgary, travelling home by car one evening with my brother (random teenage gang hurling rocks at the car from the safety of well-groomed park and hoodies). Just wanted to say that age should also not define what you do.

  24. Hi Emily!

    Great post on a subject that needs way more sensible open discussion.

    I wrote a couple of similar pieces on my blog over the course of my America trip because stupid racist sexist comments seem to be pretty much the first thing out of a lot of people’s mouths in the face of a solo woman traveller.

    I hope you don’t mind me linking to those posts below.

    1. Both of these posts are brilliant – and I think the first one was what (somehow, via someone), originally led me to your blog. Thanks for linking to them here. 🙂

  25. ‘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.’ -well said Emily.

    Travel gifts you perspective. For my part I’m often met with shock and surprise when I explain that no, my bicycle wasn’t stolen over the course of six years, no, not even in Africa. I remind people that I live in OX1 and work in SE1 – postcodes that occupy 1 and 2 on the list of bicycle theft hotspots in the UK, with almost one thousand reported and many more unreported robberies each year. Which means I won’t cycle through anywhere in six years of travel with a higher rate of bike theft than my home town. People should worry more about me commuting to work by bike than pedalling around the globe.

  26. Thank you so, so much for writing this. I could not have written it better myself. As a fellow lover of solo travel, and of cycle touring, and solo cycle tours, I cannot thank you enough! You have really captured my experience and frustrations. I am going to share this over and over and over again, until people get the message.

  27. Superb!! Couldn´t agree more. And I like the fact you´re balanced here. You don´t need to deny that there is SOME danger in SOME areas to SOME people SOME of the time, but go on local knowledge and research (Not the same as naively finding out for yourself).

  28. Thanks for that. I’m cycling solo north out of Lima. My Spanish is pretty good but I’m still apprehensive. Check out my blog:
    I’m working on my next post and would like to link yours to mine. Hope that’s OK

  29. Couldn’t agree more – we all need to get out there and convince ourselves that other people are not inferior or strange (or at least, not stranger than we are!).

    I’m crossing Uzbekistan by bike (solo) at the moment, on the way home to the UK, and the people here are just as friendly, helpful and welcoming as they’ve been everywhere else around the world.

    The sooner we all work out that we’re all just people, the better…

  30. So familiar situation … I am a solo woman traveller. Though I’ve done only one 9 days on a bike travel so far. 😀 I’m looking for more and next one will be 3 weeks on a bike in July 2016. I’ve nearly done this mistake – wanted to cancel my trip across Europe this summer. But then I thought – hey, that’s been my dream for so many years – travel by bike! Am I going to refuse it only because someone keep trying to tell me that every person I will meet is a devil? Noooo way. Yes I understand I am on a risk because I am a woman…but I’m not looking at everyone as at potential evil. I’m not gonna sit at home for the rest of my life fearing of my own shadow.

  31. Great article! We women are no more vulnerable, whether as a woman travelling alone, or being a female in your home town (actually in my case I’ve had far more bad things happen to me in my home town than on my travels). It’s just perception and fear of the unknown. Unfortunately, I think people (women included), will continue to ask you whether you’re safe or scared during your travels. I travelled through Iran with my partner, and even then I was asked whether I felt vulnerable as a woman. I felt more scared and vulnerable to stray dogs chasing us and attacking us in Turkey, and that had nothing to do with my gender.

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