Picture: Streetside, downtown Copenhagen, Denmark.
Safety is something that is always on my mind. Wherever I happen to be, I look to the local women to show me how much range I have.
In a new place, how free women (like me, or not) are to walk, speak, dress, etc without inhibition, is the greatest reflection of how I can expect to be regarded as an individual. Do women and girls walk alone with head high, regarding the world in the eye? Are they comfortable in their surroundings? Or do they step watchfully, taking the shortest amount of time between origin and destination? Do those who are brown like me, have the same liberties as their sisters who are a lighter color, or do they actively downplay the spectacle that is their skin? How do they converse with men, familiar or stranger? And in my default position as a foreign visitor these days, what are the other tourists doing? How comfortable is everyone else with that behaviour?
Sometimes I get the odd question from women (and men) asking me if such and such a place I’ve been, is safe. I’ve asked the same question of destinations, to women who travel alone. The answer that I have given, and that I’ve frequently been given, is “_____ is as safe as anywhere else, as long as you use some common sense.”
That statement made no sense to me in the beginning, when I was all geared up to be the intrepid (chicken shit) explorer (hermit). I’d only ever travelled between Singapore, where I’m from, and Australia, where I lived. I had no common sense when it came to anything unfamiliar.
But I realized that the lessons of my childhood were of the greatest service, when figuring out where I was in an unfamiliar social landscape. I started out looking to the people most like me, to see where they stood, and how far I could extend myself without repercussion. “They are different from you,” was a refrain I frequently heard when growing up. “You cannot do what they do.” And that remains true in many respects. There are things men can do that I can’t. The are things lighter skinned women get away with that I never would. There are things locals do that I shouldn’t. My position as a traveller also gives me access to things others don’t have. It is a combination of have and have-not, intersecting with are and are-not. It’s not simple, but it isn’t too difficult. And it is always insightful.
And it has been mostly true (for me) that one place is as safe as another, as long as I adapt dress and behavior, as I am taught to by the people that live there. It really is common sense sometimes: sensitivity to what I don’t have in common with others, and what I do.