Throughout a woman’s life, she will encounter many people who will tell her where she belongs: what she should do with her life, her time, her desires, her body.
In fact, most of the people she meets will do this without even being aware of it - more often than not, though, they are.
They want her to know what they think of her, and to feel the weight of their opinion… Whatever it is. Everyone has a different set of expectations for her.
I was almost unconscious to this before I traveled. I fielded questions about my past, my present, and my plans for the future with anxiety, trying to anticipate what my questioner wanted to hear and answer them well enough so that they’d leave me alone.
Everyone had a different opinion of how my life should be, and keeping up with each one was exhausting. I was so caught up in measuring up to social expectations that I had no thought of measuring up to my own. I just wanted people to be satisfied so I could continue on, unjudged.
When I traveled, though, I finally realized what this was doing to me. I saw social expectations that were different from my own, and they forced me to reflect on my own culture.
My first time abroad was a trip to Israel with my dad, and my second trip brought me to Israel again for a Christian study tour. I lived in Jerusalem’s Old City for three months, and the world I encountered there was such a jumble of contrasts that it began to wake me up.
I’d already known that travel could present a larger set of challenges for women than for men. Much of life already does, depending on your location in the world.
I had been told plenty of tips in preparation for my trip: don’t make eye contact with the Arab men, they’ll think you’re interested in them. Don’t walk alone in the Muslim Quarter. Be sure to wear modest clothing, but try not to look like a local or you could get caught in a terrorist attack.
From this advice, I knew it would be difficult to adjust to interacting with the cultures I was jumping into… But I didn’t understand how difficult it would be until I’d settled in.
The social expectations I found in Israel changed with each people group I happened to be with at the time…. Orthodox Jews, Christian Arabs, Israeli Arabs, Eastern Orthodox Christians.
For an even bigger culture shock, these expectations were woven into the fabric of my daily walks down the street! It was like nothing I’d ever experienced in suburban California.
At first, it was exciting! I was relieved to be among strangers: I owed no answers about my life plans to anyone! I could reinvent myself if I chose to! But soon I discovered that people could tell me my place in more subtle, visceral ways, often without ever using words.
Walking down the street, I discovered that women were expected to move out of the way in a crowd, even if it would be easier for the man walking the other way. Men were the rulers of the streets; and according to them, it was my place to get out of their way.
When walking to the grocery store, I was told to smile by men I couldn’t look at. Apparently, it was my place to appear pleasant to strangers.
When walking outside after dinner, two men in a doorway offered to buy me for the night, like I was a prostitute. To them, I was an object existing for their pleasure.
When visiting holy sites, whether run by Catholics or Muslims, it was mostly my female friends and I whose clothes were under scrutiny - we were people to be policed.
When I was alone in a church garden, a man wandered in off the street and groped me. I was his prey.
I had never been treated this way before. I knew that it wasn’t right: I wasn’t any of those things. I, too, am a person. I deserved to be treated with as much respect as they gave other men.
As I continued to struggle with the culture, I was struck with realizations about my own culture: I don’t owe people an explanation to justify how I live my life. I don’t need to apologize to them for not going away to college and getting a degree, for not having a career by the time I’m 25. It’s not their place to tell me mine.
I was a valuable person in my own right, a person made in the very image of God. I had a right to respect…. And when I got home, although I struggled to look men in the eye for a few weeks, I realized that I had the right to give my very own answers to the questions people asked me - not an answer they wanted to hear. Now that I’d had time to consider my life in my own way, I was starting to have those answers.
I appeal to my fellow women traveling alone: you are valuable.
You have dreams and hopes, and you are capable of pursuing them… And you can do it without making apologies. If you don’t know where you belong, go find it!
Travel to new places, immerse yourself in new cultures, pursue different opportunities, go solo at least once! You will find where you belong, and learn how strong you are along the way.
I won’t lie to you: it can be frightening. It’s always uncomfortable in one way or another and can be dangerous if you aren’t prepared for what you encounter. But the riches you stand to gain are riches of the soul and spirit.
You will be struck by contrasts you didn’t even realize existed, and forced to rethink every assumption you ever had… And when you embrace the challenge, you will discover a little more of who you are, and who you want to be.
You’ll learn your own heart and find your own answers, simply because that is all you have. You will discover where you want to be, and find the strength and peace to get there.
I understand the fear, but as someone who also understands the freedom, I urge you to travel if you can.
Now that I’ve traveled more, I am more confident. I still have room for growth, for discovery, for developing who I am - but I know who I am. I know my value. I have a place in the world: my place is wherever I want it to be! And I want you to pause and consider: so might yours.
The third time I went to Israel, this time in a solo travel, I walked down the same streets. Old friends greeted me, as did the old challenges.
One day, on my way to the post office, a teenage boy was walking the way I’d come. There was plenty of room in the near-empty street, so I stayed on my course, looking around me and enjoying the morning.
It soon became apparent that, wherever he was going, he would walk too close to me, just to enjoy making me move out of his way… But this time, I was ready. I continued onward, prepared to move a little if he moved first, and avoid a collision - but he didn’t move. So I didn’t, either.
When we collided, I frowned in disapproval as he looked up at me in surprised disbelief. I shook my head at him to say “silly child, move out of the way next time,” then dismissed it and went on without looking back.
To all women traveling alone out there, let's do this.