Taking time to travel abroad is an exciting proposition. It naturally faces us with a range of curious questions and when those questions relate specifically to cultural or gender topics, they potentially offer few answers … at least initially. The days of the internet allow us all to ‘ask Uncle Google’ for other opinions and we can derive a broad knowledge base formed from a little or a lot of research and doing this can go some way to assuage our insecurities and knowledge gap in one of the most carefully considered areas of travel.
So, what does it mean to be culturally sensitive in the face of gender politics? What does it mean to be a woman in regions of the world which may have different religious and/or socio-political norms than the country one has been raised in? What responsibility do I, as an individual entering another culture, have? All of these questions are just the tip of the iceberg with regard to understanding a new situation and then assessing the behaviours which can then follow.
The question of gender can be a particularly loaded one for people looking at travel destinations and can quite easily create an anxiety which stops solo travellers or couples from stepping into particular ‘unknown’ social and cultural situations for fear of behaving ‘inappropriately’ or for causing ‘offence’.
As an individual I am very conscious of my ‘solo female traveller’ status and can be concerned with how I present my socio-political standpoints which may unwittingly in fact be to the detriment of the very people I want to support and negatively reflect the views of the people I meet.
For example, I have been very conscious, whilst travelling in countries where I – potentially erroneously – see wearing a head covering as a negative part of my visit. My concern for and focus on not supporting a gender ‘imposed’ behaviour was challenged when I asked the women whether they would prefer that I wear a headscarf or support them in not doing so. This, of course, provoked a wide range of discussion and answers.
Some women surprised me by saying that they preferred me to wear it as it showed my respect to them and their culture, some said that as a tourist I could choose and they appreciated being asked, their position and culture considered. Some women I have been in contact with through social media prefer that I support them by not wearing it. The answers vary from country to country, region to region, and with the personally unique slant of the person I was engaged with. Sometimes I would and sometimes I wouldn’t wear a scarf, however, I felt very much more comfortable considering and clarifying the situation rather than relying on my assumption of what ‘should’ be done.
People I have met whilst travelling have also deliberately challenged gender-related social convention as part of my visit. I have found myself sitting on the floor in a restaurant, talking about the local region, language, and politics surrounded by men and been very conscious that this is a position not granted to the local women and that by inhabiting that role, once a particular taboo has been broken it is potentially easier for other women to also challenge. Transgressing norms in the ‘non-gendered’ role of ‘traveller’ or ‘tourist’, I believe, has benefits for everyone, when done with a conscious, respectful, and positive attitude.
The importance of considering the issue of gender and conceptualising its impact on the people you meet as well as on you, as a traveller, is more important than a simple answer of ‘do or not do’, and this discussion has not even factored in any gender-specific regional laws which may or may not govern behaviour.
Issues like this are complex and rarely clearcut. The assumptions we each bring to a situation as a result of our social history, our willingness to suspend a sense of being ‘right’ and the capacity to entertain the possibility of a situation outside ourselves being presented to us as the ‘right’ way to behave in any given situation all impact on its outcome.
This is, of course, then coupled with our individual capacity to assess how it measures up with our moral compass. When travelling there are many intersections between things we think we know, what we think of as ‘right’, and the sensation of being completely socially adrift. There is nothing wrong with this, uncomfortable as it might be! Safe levels of discomfort are in fact a demonstration of growth. Knowing when to challenge your limits is equally necessary for personal, emotional health.
When looking at all of these situations it can sometimes feel like the sort of emotional minefield which anyone in the right mind would be sensible to avoid. It can start to feel like there is no way not to make an error of gigantic proportions, and maybe you will. Volunteers and tourists are often cut a substantial amount of slack with regard to making mistakes and not understanding their new situations, however, this is no excuse for not doing a decent level of research and taking respectful steps to understand and integrate to some level into the culture you have chosen to put your energy into.
Errors and mistakes also hold the key to growth, new knowledge, and ongoing evolution of our development as individuals. A healthy dose of objective humour can make things easier and ease us through this ever-evolving growth process. Which after all is what we all aim to do when we travel, isn’t it?
In many ways, the best approach is to do your research, prod a little deeper into your ‘self’ understanding, and then throw it all up in the air -suspend disbelief- and expect the unexpected. An attitude of simply rolling with the unknown will soon have you relishing experiences you never imagined and growing, emotionally, beyond your own expectations.