I recently wrote an article titled Solo Femal Backpacker Safety Tips aimed specifically at female travellers to address some of the safety concerns many women are worried about before they set off travelling around the world. I use the term solo female backpacker in that context on a practical level to target it toward that specific group, but it is a term I hate using.
Because it is just as safe for women to travel independently as it is for any man, and any stereotype or assumption that states that isn't true, is in my opinion, wrong.
Solo Female Backpacker is an identity assumed by many women who travel around the world independently. On the surface there is nothing wrong with that, on a basic level it is simply a descriptive term, one that is used to describe independent world travellers who happen to be female. Nothing wrong with that. It is also a term that is often used to motivate and inspire women, and again that can be a positive thing, to an extent.
Where the term solo female backpacker starts to annoy me is the assumption it creates and reinforces that women are somehow automatically at more risk when they are travelling, that somehow they are in more danger. The false assumption that it is more dangerous for women to travel the world is wrong, and by extension the paradigm that is created around that pretence that women have to be braver, stronger, tougher than their male counterparts just to take the step of travelling independently is wrong too. It annoys me when women adopt that stance when they begin to use their gender as an extra badge of honour when travelling, as an extra identity that somehow consumes their own. What is the point? They become a 'solo female backpacker' and that is it. There is simply no need for any niche label that identifies - and by extension excludes - gender. The term should be solo backpackers, not solo female backpackers. You don't hear of men calling themselves solo MALE backpackers, do you? In my recent article with that exact title I got a lot of interesting responses precisely because the male gender identity seems so strange and unnecessary.
Those who assume the solo female backpacker identity may think that they are somehow empowering women by proving that they are brave enough or strong enough to face the daunting challenge that is world travel. They may think that they are proving a point by showing that as a woman they can travel the world as well as any man.
They are not.
The prevailing wisdom is that somehow just because they happen to be female the fact that they have dared to go it alone and travel the world somehow elevates them above the norm, somehow makes them braver and stronger than everyone else. Of course it is much more difficult for women to travel isn't it? So of course women have to be braver and stronger than men to conquer that mountain.
That is absolute rubbish.
The sheer term in my opinion is far more degrading to women than anything else. It reinforces the 1950s 'helpless woman' stereotype that by now should have been consigned to the scrapheap long ago. Shouldn't the fact that as an individual they are inspirational just by travelling the world independently be enough? Shouldn't they be judged on the accomplishments they achieve along the way and not their gender? Why does gender need to be brought into the equation at all? Shouldn't the question be why do women still feel the need in the 21st Century to be 'empowered' to do something when they are as capable of doing it as anyone else?
Part of the problem is the perception that it is far more dangerous for women to travel than men, that somehow that magical appendage between men's legs wards off danger and keeps them safe on their travels. This is a stereotype unfortunately reinforced by the mass media, as they salivate over every unfortunate story of any woman falling victim to terrible circumstances while they are travelling knowing that it will create a visceral emotional response in the public and sell more papers. They don't tell you the fact that those incidents are very rare or report on any story of things happening to solo male backpackers, because that isn't even a niche label. They don't tell you of the absolute vast majority of women who return home safely and without incident from their travels, because that won't sell papers, will it?
Yes women as a result of this media reinforcement need to be reassured, they need to be encouraged to take those first steps into independent world travel. But so do men. Of course women should take heed of safety tips and advice, both general and country specific, but men should too, because in reality there is very little difference between the two. With the exception of a minority of specific practicalities, the majority of safety advice given to women can be applied to men just as much.
Perpetuating the ideology that it is dangerous for women to travel independently and alone does absolutely nothing to normalise the fact that women are perfectly capable of travelling independently and safely. Wearing the term solo female backpacker as a badge of honour is just as bad as the mass media salivating over juicy horror stories of women being attacked while travelling just so they can sell a few more papers.
Solo independent travel is not about being scared of what may happen. It will make you stronger and more self confident, more self aware and more open minded. It will open up a whole new world of possibilities for you, one full of new and amazing discoveries, and it will absolutely and irrevocably change your life for the better. Regardless of what equipment you have down there.
Follow Michael Huxley on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bemusedbackpack