Editor’s note: The featured photograph was taken at Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang, Malaysia. Tracy documents her travels on her Instagram, you can check it out here.
“Are you travelling alone? You’re a brave girl.”
“You can’t go there. It’s too dangerous for you.”
“Why are you by yourself? Don’t you have a boyfriend?”
These were some of the reactions I received from Malaysian locals when they realised I was by myself in Penang last month; all the while I was enjoying the heritage buildings, taking photographs of the brightly painted murals or sipping on my iced chocolate in the atrocious humidity.
People in Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia, and even Australia (just to name a few) were astonished when they found out that I like to travel independently. I can never quite understand their reactions. They tell me how courageous I am to be wandering around in a foreign country by myself, but behind that, there is an immense feeling of pity, concern and judgment as well. It is experiences like these that impose a very heavy feeling in my heart, as I am sure is the case for other women as well.
I am an Australian-Vietnamese woman who was fortunate enough to start independent travel at a young age. This has always been the norm for me, rather than the exception. It started when I was 15 – when I decided to leave my way of life behind in Thailand and move to Australia for the sake of my future. At around the same time I decided to set myself a personal goal of doing an overseas trip at least once per year, even if it meant I had to travel by myself. I am also immensely grateful that my family is my strongest support network, and that they are proud of what I do and where I travel.
In many places in the world, there is still an underlying premise that women should not live life on their own terms, that women should not occupy public spaces, that women are vulnerable and prone to danger. In a lot of countries, women my age and younger are expected to drop their education, get married and have children. This is a very frightening reality. For many observers, travelling alone as a woman is seen as an act of boldness and rebellion. Despite this, women are increasingly choosing to travel abroad alone, but are still a rare sight for the locals in many of the countries that they visit.
It is important to recognise and understand the intersection of travel and feminism, and to create more equal opportunities regardless of gender identity.
Women travelling solo are often made overly aware of their body’s limitations and vulnerabilities in a foreign environment. Myriads of women’s travel guidebooks and blogs, although espousing the autonomy of modern independent female travellers, perpetuate in their writings that solo travel for women is all about challenges and harassment. The Blonde Abroad encourages women to “travel in the day whenever possible” and to “drink to enjoy yourself not to get drunk”, while the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller website urges women to “avoid unwanted attention”, “be social safely” and “be cautious about relationships”.
Although travelling independently is like second nature to me now, society still somehow manages to instil fear in me. Even though I know the world is a safe place, I have been told over and over that one day things may get out of control if I am in the wrong place at the wrong time. Society has told me that I am expected to travel with my family, my friends or my boyfriend – anyone who will make me look stronger and less vulnerable. There are some countries I would love to visit that are not considered ‘safe’ for a woman travelling alone at any time. I am, admittedly, often very reluctant to wander off the beaten track. I would not hike up a mountain in rural areas, visit local villages and tribes, share accommodation with strangers in a hostel, or have a drink or two at a bar after sundown. Ironically, I could be just as unsafe here in Australia as when overseas.
While it must recognised that there are places in every country where it is not safe for a woman to be alone, it is important that we also fight the fears, constraints and structural inequalities that continue to impact women’s lives, every day and everywhere. We must not be afraid to challenge the stereotypical gender roles that dictate where we should go or what we should do in life. And travelling independently as women does exactly this – it challenges and empowers.
However, having different people, particularly men, tell me that I am overly brave for travelling alone as a woman does not make me feel empowered. For me, empowerment is about meeting new people, gaining new insights into foreign cultures, learning how to read a map, picking up a new language or doing things that I would not have the chance to do in Australia. Empowerment is when I walk into a terrarium cafe in Penang and spend an hour talking about the different origins of Malaysian chocolate and plants with the storeowner. Empowerment is when I see snow for the first time in Seoul, brightening up the night like city lights. Empowerment is when I am laughing with a group of Burmese women in Bagan because I offer to take a photo for them, and then somehow get dragged into the photo myself. Empowerment, most importantly, is about getting lost, finding myself and voicing this narrative to other women.
Women should not have to be tied to any of these social constructs and out-dated perceptions. It is important to recognise and understand the intersection of travel and feminism, and to create more equal opportunities regardless of gender identity. I travel because it is part of who I am, not because of the sex I have been assigned.