The Blog

Should Women Travel Solo?

The fact that violence against women is endemic, not only in Turkey but in all parts of the world, demonstrates yet again that we haven't come as far as we'd like to think.
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As a woman who has spent the better part of 40 years traveling solo, I find the story of Sarai Sierra's murder devastating and grieve for her family. But the media outcry that followed it is sensationalist and in some instances shameful.

Sarai, in case you've been off the grid, was a woman from New York who apparently set out to photograph the sights abroad and whose body was found near Istanbul's Galata Bridge the day she was due to fly home.

While few facts have emerged, the flights of fancy found in some of the comments to news stories can make you wonder whether you've stepped into a time machine, backwards.

Some of what's being said...

• "Her two young sons should have been her primary focus in life, not traveling to a foreign country to take pictures. Responsibility and parenting go hand in hand."
• "This woman deserved what she got."
• "Women should never travel alone."

This type of reaction has been beset by ignorance, prejudice and even xenophobia. Media coverage and comments about Sarai's murder uncover a clear subtext: She had it coming, and none of this would have happened had she stayed home where she belonged.

Some of the comments are downright sexist. If she had been a man, how many commenters would have implied "he should have stayed home with his kids" and "he deserved what he got"?

Hardly any, I suspect. And that, in 2013, is repulsive.

Sarai could have been any of dozens of women travelers I know who have visited Istanbul solo, as I have, as you may have, enjoying encounters that are benign at worst and joyful and enlightening at best. To me these encounters are brief windows that open into other cultures and are the reason many of us choose to sometimes travel on our own, away from the cocoon of a partner or a group.

Regrettably, travelers do run into violence, solo or in large groups, and men, as statistics bear out, encounter violence even more often than women. There are muggings, thefts, aggressions and yes, murders, though extremely few: We just hear about them at length when they happen in so-called exotic locations and to women.

That's precious little consolation to Sarai's family but the stinging reality is that her murder could have been committed -- with greater statistical probability -- right near her New York home, and by someone she knew.

Does this have anything to do with solo travel?

The fact that violence against women is endemic, not only in Turkey but in all parts of the world, demonstrates yet again that we haven't come as far as we'd like to think.

Mariellen Ward of Breathe Dream Go tells us the creation of #WeGoSolo, the wildly successful Twitter hashtag that encourages women to travel solo, is evidence that we still need to shout out our rights because we cannot take them for granted.

Christine Gilbert of Almost Fearless concludes, statistics in hand, that traveling may well be safer than staying home, especially if you happen to live in the US. Travelers do die abroad, but mostly from road accidents and drowning.

And Jodi Ettenberg at Legal Nomads ties it all together by placing emphasis where it belongs, not on solo travel but on violence against women.

The media's microscopic examination of Sarai's life - how much she spent, where she went, the backgrounds of the people she met, what kind of camera she used - may be necessary for the investigation but also hints she might be guilty of something. Accusing the victim is a classic ploy of blame and a disguised or misguided effort to control the rest of us.

Sarai's murder should never have happened. That it did wasn't her fault. The mere thought that any woman exercising her independence and self-reliance could be blamed for the subsequent violence against her is an insult.

And so far, I see no reason to stop traveling solo. In fact...#WeGoSolo.