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Why every girl should travel

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Credit: Jason Blakeye, Unsplash

When I was 13 years old, I traveled outside my home country, Brazil, for the first time. My godmother, her granddaughter, and I went to Turkey to visit my godmother’s niece in Istanbul. For an incredible month, I got to know the beauty of such a diverse place, so different from my home, with these great women. Today, over 10 years later, I can still recall the astonishment I felt every day exploring Turkey.   

Ever since that trip, I’ve felt addicted to traveling, and have been privileged enough to travel all over the world. In a few months, I’ll backpack through Europe with my mother, with whom I’ve never traveled so far away before. In preparing her for this experience, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned and why traveling has meant so much to me. Essentially, I’ve realized that my experiences with travel have been inextricable from my gender; traveling has made me the woman I am today.

From a young age, girls are taught that we should be tender, kind, obedient, and otherwise passive. Adhering to these characteristics paints the picture to ourselves and others that women are fragile and need to be taken care of. Since I was a teenager, people around me have told me to be careful, to limit and police my body and my actions, to keep safe. I knew I was supposed to avoid going out late or by myself and was reminded over and over again of all the dangerous things that could happen to girls just because of our gender. When girls are constantly sent this message of passivity and fragility, it’s pretty easy for everyone, including ourselves, to believe that we are defenseless.

But once I started traveling, I realized that all of these lessons about femininity are wrong. Instead of avoiding doing things we want to do because we have accepted the world is a dangerous place for women, women should demand that the world stop hurting us. Unfortunately, while traveling I have faced difficult and even scary experiences related to the fact that I am a woman. I have been stared at by creepy men and on some occasions even felt threatened. But traveling, and especially traveling alone, made me realize that even though women still face threats, we’re not inherently dependent on others for our safety. In fact, when you’re alone, you don’t have the option to rely on dependency. You’re forced to grow and evolve to guide yourself through a place and onto another. That feeling of independence is powerful.

In addition to a new understanding of independence, I realized that the gender role to which I had formerly adhered limited the way I thought about myself and my ambitions. Before going on an Egyptian exchange program as a volunteer in 2011, my life pretty much felt like it had been defined for me. I was going to study journalism, start working, get to know someone special, then start a family. That was the plan. Then, I spent six weeks in Cairo with international university students doing workshops about human rights and democracy in a country that was living these subjects with urgency thanks to the Arab Spring movement. This experience, in a place so different from everything I had previously known, showed me that there are always new opportunities to grow, that there was so much out there in the world that I could do but had not even considered.

In fact, every trip I have taken has influenced how I view my options regarding my career, the languages I speak, the people I fall in love with, my friends, and activities I love to do. Most of us feel curiosity to try new things, but often are prohibited by feeling we might be shamed by others around us. In my case, I was constantly told to “behave like a girl” while growing up, which conditioned me to spend so much time overthinking what I could or should say and do so that people wouldn’t think ill of me. I believed that “good girls” don’t go on too many dates, use bad words, speak loudly, or sit with their legs open, and I acted accordingly.

Traveling to places where I knew nobody put my value on other people’s opinions into perspective. When you’re in a place where you’re a stranger, the stakes are lower to do things you always wanted to do, that you think might bring you joy. I kissed guys I never saw before or afterward in England, tried on bright outfits in India, danced until I couldn’t feel my feet in Egypt, spoke my mind freely in Guatemala, and wandered, lost in the streets of New York City. Sometimes these choices made me feel embarrassed, other times they made me feel invincible. But they never made me feel regret and always helped me feel more confident about being my true self.

Of course, while the world is full of beautiful places, every place also has problems that harm people. Only by facing these issues can the world change, and for this reason when I have traveled I have embraced the positive effects while also bearing witness to those dealing with negative realities around the world. In India, I attended a conference in a five-star hotel, but also walked around some of the poorest parts of New Delhi. In Colombia, I went to nice restaurants and parties, but also dedicated many hours to visit vulnerable communities. In Turkey I lived among people I knew and loved, but also got into conversations with strangers to understand their point of view about their country. Basically, traveling opened my eyes to a number of different ways people exist in the world and helped me understand what I can contribute to improving those conditions.

Of course, international or extended travel isn’t financially accessible to everyone. But you don’t need to go far to learn those things: Just going somewhere alone for even a few hours if that’s possible can do the trick. For example, when I was 17, I moved by myself to a new city nine hours away from my family to attend university. I arrived a scared teenager, but returned four years later a grown-up woman who knew how to take care of herself very well, thank you very much.

Every woman who travels, no matter for how long or how far from home, presents her strength to the world. Even through all the different kinds of fear I have experienced while traveling, I have never wanted to stop: I only felt more desire to create a safer world for women. And that’s why I travel: for me, for my mom, for every girl out there who deserves to be respected.



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Regiane Folter
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