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Travel writer, check thyself

February 2, 2009

A book review by way of mediation on gender and travel:

Love on Tehran’s roof, by mfakeri on Flickr.

Colin Thubron seems like a good guy to write a travel book. In Shadows of the Silk Road, he’s endlessly interested in details and is not afraid to walk away from his theme if it’s necessary.  He starts with excellent background info on the places he’s visiting and complements it with a well developed sense of curiosity (although it’s potentially the cat-killing kind) and a gift for conversing with strangers. But then, arriving in Tehran, he writes this:

As for the women, framed in chadors leaving the face bare, they seemed scandalously exposed. I stared at them rudely as they passed. They had feathery brows and dark, swimming eyes and lashes. Many were softly beautiful. Some wore a brazen hint of lipstick or eye-shadow. They might have been naked.

Thubron wants to bring us to places that don’t get mentioned in Western daily life. He goes to Uzbekistan and makes it interesting. So I am disappointed and completely thrown out of his narrative when the first thing he talks about in Tehran are mysterious women covered in their oppressive clothing. Is anything else of importance going on in Iran? I can’t think of anything else that might be concerning to those possibly-naked ladies. The more we hold up clothing as the symbol of #1 Reason of What Is Wrong in these places, the more we’re discounting the people who deal with this and more life-threatening issues on a daily basis. It’s misplaced democratic chivalry.

Make no mistake, the Iranian (and Saudi) regime’s forcing of clothing standards on women makes me crazy, but fighting the culture wars by imaging them naked is not even other side of the coin. It’s the same thing. I assumed Thubron was aware of the variety of benefits he is afforded by being male in the societies he traveled in, but that passage made me think otherwise.

I first encountered this gap in understanding in Cairo. A couple of American guy friends were recounting their night: on a lark, they’d walked into the slums of city, walked into a shisha cafe, watched the soccer game and been invited back to a house. This sounded like a suicidal endeavor to the female members of the discussion. Even the bravest among us would have never been invited into the cafe (with few exceptions, they were male-only). As much as we tried to rationalize it, we were automatically in more danger on the streets of Cairo.

I felt frozen, paralyzed by a whole city intent on judging me. Maybe this is harsh – maybe I bought too much into the wilting, symbolic Western woman fearing for her life. It’s a shame, because I do feel like I missed out on a large part of the city. But when Egyptian women are being violently stripped naked on your own street – you tend not to want to explore outside.

Thubron, British and in his 60s, would have no reason to think about what is and is not possible for a woman traveling in his position. Unfortunately, I’m just as frustrated by the replacement tropes: wacky, free-spirited lady travels the world! Listen to her misadventures! Nod in agreement as she misses her first-wordly treasures, but ultimate comes to learn the nobility of simple living! Why must women travel the world as through a chick-lit novel, commenting only on what seems appropriate to their gender? I worry about the women in Tehran, but I also worry about if their family members in jail, what their jobs must be like, if they allowed to have one at all. Thurbon has taken real people (whom in other parts of the book, he listens and portrays women of all ages in their circumstances, not as a symbol) and turned them into his own protest fantasy against puritanical edicts.

I’m well aware of having argued an impassable situation here. Male travel writing is not accessible (or at least distracting to women who know the complications of being female in less trodden lands), and female travel writing is announced as such, separated, and falls into a comfortable “we can do it too, ladies!” pattern. 

I guess I’m looking for two things: a.) a world in which male and female travelers would have the same access to off-the-path locales without inequitable gender-base risks b.) more good travel writing that looks at a place as a whole and resists the overwhelming urge to romanticize it (at least fight it – I’m not sure it can be done wholly). The latter, I think, is easily possible, the former, well, a whole bunch of things would have to change. Worthy of a fight, however.

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