In January, Sarai Sierra, a 33 year old mother from New York, went missing in Istanbul. Last weekend they found her body, covered with a blanket and hidden inside a cavern in the ancient walls. She is believed to have died from a blow to the head, delivered by a blunt object. Her clothes were torn as she attempted to defend herself. She was still wearing her earrings and jewellery, but her smart phone and iPod were gone.
Despite the obvious tragedy of a young woman, a mother, being robbed of her life and taken from her young family, some commentators to the online media coverage of this story seem far more concerned with the fact the she was an attractive woman travelling alone in a foreign country when she died than with the fact that this violence was committed against her.
Comments on the NBC coverage express a general lack of understanding and disdain as to what Sarai was doing travelling to a place like Turkey unaccompanied, with bold statements such as ‘a woman has no business travelling alone’ echoed by many. One reader found it appropriate to comment ‘No way I would even let my beautiful wife out the door to travel to any country alone’ (I hope for the sake of women everywhere that this guy is speaking hypothetically and no woman is actually having to suffer being married to someone so stupid and closed minded).
Apparently, travelling to foreign lands and having amazing experiences is just not an appropriate thing to want to do alone if you are a woman. Astonishingly, one of Sarai’s neighbors back in New York actually attributed her desire to travel without her family as part of ‘an early mid life crisis’.
I read these comments in sadness and disbelief, and despite myself a cold trickle of fear seeped into my heart. As a young woman in the planning stages of solo female travel it is easy to understand how tragic events like this are construed as an example for women as to why they shouldn’t travel alone. In the comments of a few, in closed minded ignorance, the many amazing benefits of experiencing travel alone are negated and reduced to an unnecessary gamble that any woman must be mad for considering. It is attitudes like this that make women believe they will be better off staying at home than going it alone – even if that means missing out on the trip of a lifetime.
Any woman who has planned a solo trip will have encountered the questions, disapproval and plain misunderstanding of others. When telling people of my plans I am generally met with the same responses; from ‘you’re so brave, I couldn’t go alone‘ to the pitying head tilt – ‘have you got no-one to go with then?‘ or a graphic recounting of various horror stories involving women being kidnapped by hairy troglodytes in remote locations and dragged back to a cave, never to be seen again, delivered with a warning frown and furrowed brow.
When I was preparing to set off on my first trip to Vietnam at the age of 18, this line of questioning was frequently targeted at my poor parents (‘you’re actually LETTING her go THERE? On her OWN?! I would never let MY daughter do that’). It’s ignorance borne of a fear of the unknown, but it makes it that much harder to maintain the resolve needed to get on that plane – like making the decision to travel solo doesn’t already take enough courage.
I am not an idiot. I know that there are dangers to be aware of when travelling alone, and that some of those dangers apply more directly to women than to men. However, as long as appropriate measures are taken and a normal amount of common sense is applied I don’t believe that those dangers are any more real than those faced simply walking out of the front door in the morning. If we all lived our lives around fear of what could happen, no-one would ever experience anything.
What happened to Sarai is horrifying and very sad, but could have just as easily happened to her at home in New York as in Istanbul. Perhaps the people who are so eager to comment on her choice to travel should instead focus on the grief of her family and the inherent problems of a world where millions of women are murdered and sexually assaulted, in the UK and US as much as anywhere else. Gender based violence is a global issue – it has nothing to do with which country a woman chooses to visit and whether or not she is accompanied by a burly man to ‘protect’ her. Put simply, the issue here is not solo female travel, the issue is the person who harmed her.
Declaring that Sarai’s murder was in any way a result of her daring to be a solo female traveller is fundamentally wrong, in the same way that it is wrong to assert that women who choose to wear revealing clothes are inviting rapists to prey on them. To say this implies that a woman should curb her passions, ignore her dreams and hide her beauty away, or risk being attacked, raped or killed – and that isn’t a world I want to live in.
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