The biggest lessons I have learnt in 2018 have been pertaining to gender roles within cultures. Gender roles are something I didn’t have to consider in my family – my parents both worked, both cooked and cleaned; my brother and I both played hockey, both had jobs from a young age, both moved away from home to attend university, and both have well paid careers.
I have always been aware that I live a vastly different life as a woman in Canada than many women around the world live. But nothing could’ve prepared me for the culture shock of gender roles. And, specifically, how women are treated.
India presented challenges. It is busy and hectic and people stare at you for no reason. Well, there is a reason. That reason is that I have light hair and blue eyes. In India it is not rude to stare – it simply shows curiosity and interest. Through this experience I learnt that I detest being looked at for prolonged periods by strangers. It may be a cultural norm in certain countries, but that is one thing I did not get used to. I would rather be left to fend for myself in the busy streets of a foreign country than have men stare at me for a while and then approach me/follow me (or better yet, yell from afar) asking – “lady, where are you going? what are you doing?” The unfortunate thing was, it did not seem to matter how modest my clothing was, it was never modest enough to keep the staring at bay. It was also common place in India for people to take photos of me, sometimes with my permission, sometimes without. Which bothered me to no end. I had absolutely no way of blending in in India and the millions of Indian citizens frequently saw-to-it that I never forgot I was a foreigner.
In Turkey every guy is a Casanova. Every single day that I went out I was asked on a date. And this is not me being vain and saying “oh I’m so beautiful, everyone wants to go on dates with me!” No. Men would literally approach me on the street, sometimes follow me for a while creepily, ask me what I’m doing, why I am alone, etc. and then proceed to ask me on a date. Of course, I always declined. I don’t need to get murdered over here. But EVERYTIME the guy would not take no for an answer. If he had offered to take me for coffee and I said no, he would counter offer with an alcoholic beverage. No, thank-you. How about dinner? No. And the list goes on. One day I was sick and told the guy “I am sick, I don’t want to go for a drink” and he said “well if you’re sick I will take you to the doctor!” face palm At some point enough is enough. It makes me wonder if this is how dating is approached between two Turkish people? Is this diligence and perseverance a desirable trait in a man through the eyes of a Turkish woman? Or is it because of my clearly being a foreigner that they feel the need to behave this way? Either way, I did not like it and was made extremely uncomfortable on numerous occasions during my week in Istanbul – to the point that I pretended I could not speak English when someone spoke to me on the street for fear of them never leaving me alone.
Some countries pride themselves on the segregation of genders, and how this protects their women. This happened in India and Nepal especially. It was almost comical at times. If you disregarded the suggested segregation people think you are confused. Nope, just don’t feel the need to ride in the “women’s coach” on the local train. Just a few examples of this segregation in day-to-day life include; on the bus men ride at the back and women in the front, at the airport women must go to a separate line for security checks, in school boys sit on one side of the room and girls on the other, and I’m sure the list goes on. The effects of this gender segregation later in life result in the sexes not knowing how to interact with their opposite. In my opinion, that is where problems arise. If a man has only ever spoken to women who are his family members, of course he will lack the skills to uphold a proper conversation with an unknown woman. The segregation in these countries is meant to keep women “safe”, but really it just feeds the problem further. If women must sit at the front of the bus to avoid being groped and raped by the men at the back of the bus, wouldn’t it be prudent to simply teach boys not to grope and rape women? I understand that in some instances there are religious requirements for genders to interact separately at certain times. But, a lot of the “unspoken rules” of segregation I witnessed had historical influence, rather than current or ongoing relevance.
Being stared at from afar is one thing. Having people “sneakily” take pictures of you is annoying. But when a man stops you out in public, licks his lips, and looks you up and down – shudder – there is NOTHING more degrading and dehumanizing. I am not blind. I can appreciate an attractive person out in public but never have I ever felt the need to stop them and say “I just needed to tell you, you’re so handsome, you needed to know this”. Never. This is a PSA for men – STOP DOING THIS. We as women do not need your validation. This is completely unnecessary. What adds to the degradation when a man is openly checking you out and using forceful words to express your beauty, is when you have a look of disgust on your face and you are not appreciative of the comment and the man says “it’s a compliment”. And then, the man has the audacity to get mad at you for not taking their crude looks/words as a compliment. I hate nothing more than this entire scenario.
Some of the recent countries I have been to – India, Nepal, and Turkey – are obsessed with marriage and patriarchal hierarchies. At the ripe age of 24, it is appalling to people that my father has let me exit my childhood home and country, to travel alone, and that I have no boyfriend or husband. For all of the feminist progress that has been made in some parts of the world, there are other parts of the world that are largely untouched by this movement. Women are still at the mercy of the men in their lives – whether that be father or husband – and it is completely unheard of for a woman to live like I do. It makes me appreciate the privilege I hold just by being born in the country that I was, to have the upbringing, knowledge, and confidence to be independent. Though feminist movements are reaching to these corners of the Earth, there are some cultural barriers that may never be broken. I’m not sure that the women want the barriers to be broken – because the women I spoke with are not ignorant to feminist figures in the world, they are rather educated when it comes to feminism, which confuses me a bit. The women I spoke to about gender roles simply stated that if they don’t cook and clean no one will. That they take pride in their homes and in caring for their families. Which is noble! And I can appreciate the work that goes into maintaining a household. But even as these women were saying this, they had commerce degrees and aspirations to travel and hopes and dreams, that would not be fulfilled because this dream of being a homemaker will now come above everything. I can’t speak to every woman’s thoughts, but I sense a bit of fear of the unknown when it comes to breaking down boundaries to allow women more independence. Which is fair, if you’ve always had someone to look to for reassurance, it would be a scary thought to have no one but yourself to turn to.
I wrote most of this post six months into my travels. I decided not to post this for fear of sounding bitter, feminist (with a negative connotation), and, above-all, scaring my family and friends. Men harassed me more times than I can count. I had to say “no”, “stop following me”, “no”, “my friend is waiting for me around the corner” (a lie), “no” more times than I can count. I had, what felt like, millions of eyes on me, preying on me, waiting for me to have one drink too many, get a little bit lost, drop my phone. In hindsight, I have no idea how I made it through some of the situations that I was in without being kidnapped, taken advantage of, hurt, etc. I went to countries with vastly different cultures than Canada. I wanted to be put in uncomfortable situations. And damn, was I uncomfortable sometimes. Being a solo traveling woman is hard.