Culture as it pertains to travelers can be a touchy subject. Residual colonizer guilt is an enormous yet unspoken aspect of the way travelers from the so-called first world feel that they should approach the different cultures they visit. Adding to the guilt is an underlying sense of urgency about the way unique cultures seem to be rapidly fading into an increasingly homogenized world.
Out of these worries, the “good traveler” is born; the kind of traveler who goes to great lengths to be perfect on the road, the “I do as the locals do” types who never let an analytical remark about a place slip out of their mouths.
To a certain extent, it’s a noble cause. But the problem with the rules of being a “good traveler” is that they seem to be standardized for the whole big and varied world. This can easily lead to disregarding a culture’s serious issues under the guise of respecting the culture.
In particular, this mindset can be incredibly blind to women’s rights around the world. When it comes the institutionalized covering up of women (including cultures that don’t hold men accountable for their actions and insist that women are the ones responsible for their safety by dressing “appropriately”) and barring women from certain activities or going to certain places, it’s incomprehensible that so many people—including women who would never stand for that at home—enable it with the line, “It’s just their culture!”
But behind what we see and experience as travelers is likely a much worse scenario for the women who have to live with it every day of their lives and have no set date to leave. As travelers, we only see the outermost layers of institutionalized or accepted oppression and violence towards women, and we have the privilege of knowing we will eventually hop on a plane and leave.
Of course, I don’t recommend that you put yourself in harm’s way by disregarding local customs when you travel, and don’t think that you alone can show up change things. But rethink the way you talk about oppressive cultural norms in your discussions and your travel writing. Don’t be afraid to be honest and call oppression what it is. And think about who you’re really empowering when you say, “It’s just their culture!” Are you supporting the true heart of a culture or a patriarchal establishment that wishes to maintain its power?
Culture is not a stagnant thing that we should expect to infinitely continue as it is. Culture can be many beautiful things–art, music, food, a different way of interacting with people. It absolutely does not have to be oppressive. And as Desmond Tutu eloquently states in this video, traditions were created by humans, and they can always be changed by humans: