A woman standing outside with mountains in the far distance and zebra standing behind her

Being a woman impacts the way that I’m perceived in every culture I encounter. Sometimes, it’s a slight breeze around me. I can’t see it, and I almost can’t feel it until it catches a leaf or the end of my scarf. Other times, it’s a thunderstorm I can’t escape, aggressively obvious and a little terrifying. In India, it was a thunderstorm. 

I was there for a female empowerment tour, put on by A Classic Tours Collection and the powerhouse of a woman, Debika Sen. Our itinerary was a perfected blend of historic and modern culture. We would be hearing from strong Indian women who were championing their individual aspirations. However, as our journey unfolded, I found it hard to see the hope and empowerment around me.

I was exhausted from trying to fit into the ever-changing narrative of what a woman could or could not do. I felt the box shrink around me as I tried to navigate the space I was given as a woman. This was on top of all the other cultural adaptations I had to go through as a traveler. 

I felt the box shrink around me as I tried to navigate the space I was given as a woman.

It wasn’t fair. It had never been fair. This feeling of being boxed was familiar, ever since I was a child wanting to do the “boy things.” I’d get chastised for staying out late to explore, putting my safety at risk when following my adventures.

Why couldn’t I go where the men went? Experience things they were allowed to experience? From late-night walks to “boys’ club” toddy shops, I wanted to be there too. 

It was in south India that these questions rose up from a whisper in my subconscious to a loud dissonant cry. It was clear from the way we dressed to how hard we laughed at a man’s joke, this was a man’s world. We couldn’t even enter certain temples if we were menstruating.

It was clear… this was a man’s world.

I listened to the stories from the brave women making waves in their communities, and I felt guilty. These women were excited about what seemed to me like such small changes. Yet, I was frustrated about what was still out of reach. My discouragement was a privilege, preventing me from seeing the progress being made. 

This wasn’t just in India though. Women all around the world faced the complexities of empowerment and contentment. My issue wasn’t with India. It was with the female traveler experience.

My identity as a female traveler was baggage I carried in my suitcase. Faltering under the weight, I found my perspective warping into that of a victim. I couldn’t help myself. Perhaps that was one of the reasons I got on the back of a stranger’s motorbike as the sun dipped into the Bay of Bengal. I needed to believe again.

My identity as a female traveler was baggage I carried in my suitcase.

We’d met on the promenade of Pondicherry, and after some small talk, she offered to show me where she lived. As a curious traveler, I shrugged off any hesitation and accepted. I was tired of monitoring for safety. 

We flew through the bumpy streets as they got narrower. The wind whipped at her sari. She drove fast, tilting her head to the side so I could hear the history of the city and her life. My hands gripped the bike, my toes clenched tight within my shoes, and my eyes widened as we swerved past ambling goats and cows. The thought of death flashed in my mind, but I didn’t die that night.

Instead, I saw her apartment in a renovated slum and met the two dozen children she tutored for free. I was taken aback at this tiny woman’s drive for social change, starting with the children. Before I left, she handed me a beautiful sari of gold and black. It was a gift, she said. 

When I got back, Debika was visibly upset. Anything could have happened, she scolded me. I was foolish for getting on the back of a random person’s bike. I knew she was right. I was in a new city that I was totally unfamiliar with, and I didn’t speak the local language. My phone was almost dead as well. So many things could have gone wrong. 

But I was safe. Anything could have happened, that’s the truth, but my experience was wholly female. Perhaps, I would have less hesitation about getting on the back of a stranger’s bike if I were a man, but I wouldn’t have even received an invitation! I trusted my gut instinct and accepted the offer from a woman who was a walking testament of female empowerment. As I thought about the gift she gave me, deeply symbolic as the traditional female dress in India, I was grateful for being a woman. 

I was grateful for being a woman. 

My perspective shifted after that, and I saw my past travel experiences in light of my own womanhood. Taken aback, I realized how many doors had been opened because I was a woman. So many times I was invited into homes, hyped up in bathrooms and offered gifts of hospitality. Just on this trip, how could I forget the dinners together with the diverse group of women I was traveling with?

We’d lean in to hear taboo sex stories, swapped with hushed tones and bright eyes. Even the kitchen gossip and sari shopping were part of my journey because of my womanhood. The fact that these experiences happened in spaces assigned to women, like the kitchen, didn’t take away from their beauty. If anything, it made them all the more inspiring. 

There are restrictions and frustrations with traveling as a woman, yes, but there are tender, holy moments as well. Though society may have drawn us a neat little square to reside in—and until we completely remove that square—I am determined to take it and make it multi-dimensional.

I am determined to nudge the lines, challenge the boundaries and cherish the victories. No step forward is too small to be celebrated. No shared experience is too insignificant to appreciate. 

Have you ever traveled solo as a woman, regionally or internationally? How did being a woman impact your travel experience?

Images via Colette de Barros, Darling Issue No. 12

2 comments

  1. My dearest Iona, I love your piece on being an empowered woman. What you have stated in your piece, resonates with me, as a woman. I love being a woman, strong also feminine. As a woman, I have underestimated my strength and the ability to make the impossible possible. Thank you for joining me on this beautiful journey on rediscovering the power of being a woman. I am honored and blessed to have shared so much with you.

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