• June 2023
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The Male Luxury of Safety

A recurring question I get as a woman who travels alone is: Are you ever afraid? This question has taken many forms, appearing as the following queries: Don’t you think it is smarter to wait until some of your friends want to go with you? But, didn’t something bad happen to some woman at some time in that place you are going? Recently, a male poster in a travel group I belong to on Facebook remarked that Black women, particularly, allow the vague possibility of gender violence and racism to restrict their movements around this incredibly beautiful planet. Something about this man’s well intended advice to “don’t let fear stop you” bugged me. As I and several Black women in the group called him out on his rather dismissive tone when discussing a very pertinent reality for women in general, but for women of color, specifically, I found myself thinking about the many “Are you ever afraid” questions I have fielded over the years from concerned family and friends. A part of me agreed with this man’s posting that the fears we imagine turn out to be far worse than the actual experience once we have the courage to live it. However, there was a quiet condescension underlying his repeated “No, I know gender violence is a reality, but, I am just saying…” He was somewhere on the opposite side of the spectrum than my friends and family. While they assumed any foreign country a woman explored on her own held the ceaseless potential of gang rapes and kidnappings, he seemed to blithely downplay that gender violence with a touch of general devaluing of black life does, in fact, loom over Black women’s travels even when there is no real or perceived threat to them.

In Zanzibar, when a man identifying himself as a “police officer” stopped my tour guide and me, I was not terribly concerned. Although it was Ramadan, I was aware that I had not fully covered myself like the local women. I was a tourist. In the biggest tourist trap in Tanzania. I have never traveled to any conservative culture where the locals actually expected me to completely model their customs and expectations, even the ones pertaining to female modesty. It seemed to be understood that I should not ignore the customs, but making effort to be more modest in my dress (even by Western standards) was enough to show respect. Hence, my ankle-length maxi dress with no V-neck or any similar cleavage-exposing cut struck me as perfectly fine.

“The dress is too tight and your shoulders are exposed.” The police officer had been conversing back and forth in Swahili with Sole for a few minutes before I assessed that the tone of their back and forth was sedate enough for me to stick my nose into the problem.

This dress is tight? And no disrespect, but a whole lot of women are strolling around wearing spaghetti strap tanks.” I was truly flabbergasted as I had worn this dress all day – through Stonetown, the Spice Plantation, Prison Island – with no looks of disapproval from men, absolutely no side eye from the Muslim women I passed who were fully covered from head to toe.

There is annoyed backtalk from Sole, who tells this man that I am not his girlfriend, but client. That of course I am not dressed like the Muslim women around me because I am a tourist like everybody else. That he is wasting our time. The call to prayer has just gone off, which means we can finally eat. “We are very hungry and were heading to the Square.”

“Get in the car so we can drive to a less crowded area and I can talk to both of you further.”

I look at this “police officer” who is not wearing a uniform and his two companions who do not strike me as remotely official. My eyes turn to the vehicle in front of me that does not have the words “Zanzibar Police Department” emblazoned on them. I think about the assumptions this man has made about my life. The confusion he will undoubtedly feel when I tell him the following: “Sir, I don’t get into cars with strange men in my own country, where I actually speak the language fluently. I don’t plan on taking up this habit in a foreign country.”

Sole explains that this man is the leader of the “community police,” which I translate into, The Captain of the Neighborhood Watch. I still look at all the men present as if they are mildly retarded to truly expect me to just hop in a car with four strange men.
I can tell that they have no idea of the gravity of what they have asked me to do. The Neighborhood Watch Captain says that he has been given the responsibility to “watch out” for foreign women during fasting because locals take the laxness in following the dress code personally during this period. There have been incidents of neighborhood men harassing women who do not at least cover up their arms.

Sole tries to reassure me. “There is no reason to be afraid. They are harmless and you are my responsibility. I will not let anything happen to you.”

Oh, how simple it all is in the world of men. Hakuna Matata, Sole is advising me. My concerns are unfounded. There is no reason to think anything untoward would occur. Why would I not trust him to protect me? This man who I only know because five hours ago, the hotel said: “This is Sole. He will show you the city.” Why would I even think that these men I do not know who may or may not have been elected by a community of people I do not know would hurt the very person I am not even confident they were actually instructed to protect.

“Look, I am not getting in your car. I will drape these trousers I just bought around my shoulders and answer any questions you have.”

30 minutes later, the Neighborhood Watch has been given about 10,000 shillings and I have been chastised again by the captain. Sole and I are eating dinner on the Square. He is still grumbling about how much of a pain in the ass the community police were, pointing me out to several food vendors who agree with him that there is nothing inappropriate about my attire. While they are all up in arms about the injustice Sole is decrying, I am thinking about the ease with which I was told not to worry about my safety. The befuddlement as to why I, a woman traveling alone in a foreign country, would be hesitant and downright defiant about getting into a car with almost half a dozen strange men and being driven off to some unnamed place. This confident posture of Hakuna Matata when it concerns your body – your right to it, your agency over it. What an enviable luxury it must be to assume that everyone, everywhere believes you have that right, will allow you to dictate what can and cannot be done with your very person.

As I finish my grilled squid, I remember the posts of the women in the Facebook travel group: “I always google violence against women before I go anywhere.” “It must be nice not to have to think about your personal safety all the time and just, like, pack some trunks and then be on your way.” Repeatedly, Black women spoke about the very real message they get all around the world: Your body is available to anyone who decides he wants it. To do whatever he pleases with it. I think about that brother who kept following up his “support” of Black women’s right to feel safe with that very revealing conjunction: “I hear what you ladies are saying, BUT…”

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