By Darah Ghanem
Few know what it’s like to travel solo as an Arab woman. Our stories are rarely told and our experiences are often overlooked. As a female travel writer from the Middle East, I hope to challenge stereotypes about Arab women by sharing my story. So when Roam Magazine accepted my offer to write this piece, I was over the moon. Stereotypes of Arab women are associated with our “lack of freedom”. We are usually reduced to stories of submission and complacency forced upon us by “male guardians”. I want to offer an alternative story that voices our experiences, particularly those related to solo travel — an activity that I consider to be revolutionary in an of itself.
Let’s be real. Right now, travel is trendy. The majority of today’s social media content is travel related. If you scroll through Instagram alone, you’ll find thousands of accounts dedicated to sharing travel content. From Cuba to Japan, no culture seems too far or foreign in our socially connected world. But upon critical examination of today’s travel craze, one will notice that it is a predominantly “white” exercise. Even historically, travel was a European activity linked to settler colonialism. When travel-for-pleasure became popular in the late 19th Century, it was accessible only to wealthy European families. Fast forward to modern times, travel continues to be an activity pursued by young Europeans trying to “find themselves”.
That said, you can imagine that an Arab woman’s travel experiences aren’t a hot topic. In the next few paragraphs I will try to give you a peak into the life of an Arab female traveler by sharing my own experiences. It should be noted that, although this piece is particular to Arab women, solo travel isn’t easy for women in general. There is a vulnerability that comes with being a female traveler (“is it okay for a woman to walk in the street alone after midnight?” is a genuine question I asked Emmanuel, the cook at our Casa Particular in Havana.) The difficulties faced by female travellers from “other” cultures are even more challenging, and particular to our race, religion and nationalities. The below snippets are real life accounts that I hope will give an accurate depiction of our experiences.
“Where are you going? Why?”
— Everyone I know
Even since I became independent of my family, travel became a goal in an of itself. Rarely do I travel with family or friends. I go solo hoping to collect intimate stories and connect with people in places I know nothing about. Being an Arab woman of course, this raises many questions among family, friends and the society at large. Where are you going and why? Is there someone you are going with? What’s taking you there? These questions are accompanied by a raised eyebrow and a confused look. What is a 20-something Arab woman doing in Colombia? I brush these questions off with a lighthearted laugh and a shrug. “I’m going with my camera” is my usual response.
But if we critically dissect these questions you’ll find they are not entirely innocent — they assume that curiosity and adventure are inherently dis-interesting to Arab women. That is of course entirely far from the truth. On an equally critical note, now that I’ve fulfilled my education and have a stable career, anything outside these social-accepted achievements would be futile. Although I appreciate that education and career are an encouraged set of accomplishments for Arab women, I do wonder, why is it that I continue to be asked when I’ll get married instead being asked when I’ll climb mount Everest? I know few Arab men that face the same limitations.
“Where are you from?”
“O.K. Stand to the side please.”
— Immigration officers when checking my passport at border control
Immigration is easily the most difficult part of travelling solo. The puzzled looks of civil servants, often confused as to why I am travelling alone, are familiar to me. Despite being surrounded by solo female travellers at airport immigration — usually in their backpacks and yoga pants — I am often the only girl asked to wait around while an immigration officer returns with my passport.
This experience happens despite my obtaining entry visas that require extensive security checks. As an Arab passport holder, I can only gain entry to 46 out of 196 nations in the world. If you compare that to a German or American — who have access to 158 and 156 nations respectively — Arabs are grossly immobile. We have to go through gruelling and restrictive visa processes with highly unpredictable outcomes making our movement subject to the whims of border agencies. Even as I write this piece, my passport is on hold at the Italian embassy, putting me on a nuanced “travel-ban” of sorts. In essence, my movement is limited. And even when my movement is granted, my solo journey is seen as a potential threat. Ease of movement is taken for granted by so many, but to our part of the world it’s a human right.
“If I was your boyfriend, I wouldn’t know how to handle you”
— Male friend over coffee
The above quote came from a male friend with the intention of making me laugh. Although I’ve had similar interactions in the past, I felt this quote was particularly telling. But beneath the surface, this sentence reveals how men truly feel, particularly about the Arab female traveler. To them, solo travel represents the opposite of what an Arab woman should be. Solo travel symbolises independence — its about self-reliance and autonomy, and that’s something that Arab women shouldn’t be. How can a woman be so defiantly self-reliant and carefree? Or maybe it symbolises a type of self-love that society often asks us to neglect?
It’s important to note this interaction because despite the reactions of men around me, I never let their disapproval define me. Despite the world’s insistence that Arab women aren’t empowered enough, what’s more empowered than choosing to love yourself over the attention of a man? This is partly why I believe solo travel to be revolutionary in and of itself.
“What are you applying for exactly?”
— My travel agency in Washington D.C. after explaining my visa process to Colombia
While registering to explore Colombia, the agency organising the all-female trip couldn’t understand that I needed an entry visa. All the women joining the trip were North American or European, making their entry relatively easy. I spent hours on the phone with the Colombian embassy, filling out forms and providing documents, some of which required the agency’s intervention. Their questions frustrated me because I felt that even fellow female travellers did not understand what it took for me to get to where I wanted to go.
Red-tape and bureaucracy aside, travelling with other women is noteworthy. There is an air of privilege in the travel community — particularly among white travellers — that views “other” cultures as an opportunity to feel “cultured” themselves. Travel becomes about exclusivity and status as opposed to learning and connection. I’ve often felt out of place travelling with white female travellers. I knew they were not comfortable with how I danced, talked and laughed with locals. To them, I am supposed to be a prop to the place they come to, not a part of the expedition. In the eyes of the world, Arab women don’t explore — we are not emancipated enough.
At first my experiences triggered a lot of anger inside me. Why does no one understand me? My family, immigration officers, airport staff, fellow female travellers, male friends, and the list goes on. I used to cry in frustration at airports and hostels. But now, I want to share my experiences with the world, hoping that I can shatter stereotypes and create a community of Arab female travellers through my writing.
The above experiences prove that travel is, and will continue to be, a luxury that many can’t afford. Travel is expensive and time consuming, and its not only afforded by those with access to financial resources but also access to free mobility. Not many know what it takes to be an “othered” woman trying to explore the world. Despite our gross under-representation I can safely say that Arab women are some of the most empowered, independent and curious in the world.