The winter is setting in, giving me cause for nostalgic ruminations on this year’s summer holidays, and, indeed, all the holidays that came before. During the course of my misty-eyed musings, I realised that holidays were different before I became a feminist.
You always hear vegetarians complaining that it’s difficult for them to go on holidays. They’re all: ‘I went to France and told them I didn’t eat meat. Then the waiter brought me a salad with a severed human head in it.’ But those Veggie McSandwiches don’t know how lucky they have it. It might be tricky for vegetarians to go on holiday, sure – what with the continentals maintaining that anything that isn’t screaming as you masticate it is meat-free – but how about feminists? How can you know if your planned destination is the equality equivalent of Gloria Steiner’s pencil skirt or Hugh Hefner’s underpants?
While I do not have the resources, the structure, nor the supercilious tone of The Lonely Planet, I am going to put together a feminist travel guide all the same. Each country reviewed will receive a score out of five hairy vaginas, and the most feminist friendly tourist destination will be awarded the prestigious (if imaginary) golden labia trophy at the end. And you’ll never be stuck wondering where to go on holiday again.
The Entire Continent of Europe
When I was 17, me and my lady companions Órla and Lorraine went inter-railing. We found that in continental Europe women can acquire bountiful quantities of free alcohol if they dance on bars. This strategy was successful in almost every historic and cultural European capital that we visited. This demands theorisation: on the one hand, the economic and social reward of ‘girls go wild’ behaviour for the pleasure of dudes is inherently anti-feminist. As Ariel Levy points out in her deadly book Female Chauvinist Pigs, young women are suckered into raunch culture, and believe that they’re not socially valuable unless they engage in porny writhing for at least 83% of their waking lives. On the other hand, dancing on bars when you’re 17 is fun. There’s plenty of time to repent and be a feminist later.
The entire continent of Europe scores three out of five hairy vaginas because, overall, the fact that a triad of booze-hound lady teenagers can travel around it for five weeks without being sold to the circus does speak to a certain level of safety and security for the female traveller.
I went on a snowboarding holiday to the states when I was 18. My season in a small New Hampshire ski resort makes me an expert on the entire nation and its culture.
When I went to the States I didn’t really understand border customs. When the customs man asked me why I was going to the states, I stated proudly that my boyfriend was American. When he asked me how long I’d be staying, I said that I wasn’t sure. When he asked me if I had a job in Ireland, I told him that I’d quit my job as a waitress so I could go hang out with my boyfriend in America. They let me in anyway, probably thinking that someone so thick wouldn’t be difficult to catch if she did skip her visa. If any feminists want to exploit this trick to go to the States and found a new anarcho-feminist world order at the centre of the capitalist empire, they are welcome to do so.
If I remember rightly, they wouldn’t sell me any booze in the US. Those fucking sexists.
All in all, the USA gets three out of five hairy vaginas.
During my stay in the US, I went on a roadtrip to Montreal. The only other girl on the trip was turned away at the border for being South African. This left me with 6 strapping Yankee, Auzzie and Kiwi boys, who wanted to spend the entire time in strip clubs. I had the choice to either stay in the hostel on my own, or go with them. I was 18 and had yet to grow a feminist consciousness, so I chose to become a lapcat of the patriarchy and gain power and prestige within the world of macho wank by sleazing on naked ladies. Bros before hos, yo! My teenage experience of Montreal strip clubs qualifies me to pronounce on gender relations in Canada as a whole, and, thus, Canada only scores one hairy vagina.
When I was 19, me and my compadrettes Órla and Michelle went to South Africa so that we could learn everything there was to know about being drunk in a completely different hemisphere. Our Saffa friends Duncan and Mike drove us all over the country for three weeks, which was pretty freaking cool of them. One time we were bribing police men to let us off our speeding fine (cause Duncan and Mike said that’s what you do instead of sticking to the speed limit in South Africa) and one of the cops looked in the car and said ‘who’s the third one for?’ That wasn’t particularly feminist, now was it? But we couldn’t really complain, what with not wanting to be arrested and all. In Port Elizabeth, I came second in a table dancing competition. Only second. They were sexist against my Doc Martens.
South Africa scores three hairy vaginas.
I finally go to university, under duress from my Mammy. To my surprise, I like it so much that I stay for 8 years. My attempts to compile a travel compendium to rival the lonely planet are put on hold for most of this time, as a dangerous education habit consumes my life and leaves no money for worthwhile things. I spend a few more summers gadding around Europe, working in bars or pretending to be a squatter, but I’ve covered Europe so extensively in this guide already that I don’t think I need to elaborate any further. Two important things happen during my marathon skoolathon. Firstly, I grow a feminist consciousness. Secondly, I learn that universities will give you money to go to cool places if you promise to do quasi-useful things while there. Thus, the Feminist Planet continues.
I am now a 27 year feminist. I’m also a cultural relativist. This basically means that I don’t assume the superiority of any one culture’s moral, ethical and political codes, but, rather, I believe that cultures are like people – there’s good and bad in all of them. As a feminist, this sometimes leaves you in a pickle of a jam. Scholar Susan Okin famously asks the provocative question ‘is multiculturalism bad for women?’ She answers that, insofar as multicultural ‘respect for difference’ tolerates unequal gender relations within certain immigrant or religious communities, it’s very bad for women indeed. But scholars like Azizah Y al-Hibri and Bhikhu Pareskh argue that Western feminists are too quick to judge what they don’t understand – that their learned prejudice against certain cultures and religions stops them from respecting women’s choices (like wearing the burqa, for example) that don’t match up with a Western be-miniskirted ideal of female freedom.
I arrived in Fes armed with a smattering of Arabic, good historical and cultural knowledge of the Magreb, and enough modest clothes to cover me up for two weeks. I was a lefty, culturally sensitive, experienced traveller. I would have fulfilling cultural experiences!
Nope. Everywhere I went, Men shouted ‘sexy sexy, spicy spicy’ and other such maddening nonsense. Some grabbed me. Some followed me. Hardly any left me the fuck alone.
A few days into the trip I came down with food poisoning. On the first day, I actually shat myself (ending a twenty-one year record of not having shat myself). By day three, however, I had learned the sphincter control of a ninja. Attuned to the slightest reverberations of my colon, I could’ve shit through the eye of a needle at fifty paces. Then I got my period. I used up the two pads I’d brought with me, and ventured, anus painfully clenched, out onto the streets to look for more. But there weren’t any. Anywhere. And there were no women shop attendants to ask, and the men all seemed to hate me. In the end I used the same sanitary pad for 24 hours, by the end of which time, what with diahorrea and menses fermenting in the heat of North African summer, it was a bio-hazard on par with Sellafield.
In the days that followed, I waddled, straddling my loo roll stuffed knickers, out of the riad to complete my research. Men continued to follow my increasingly skeletal and olfactorily offensive person, shouting and clicking and whispering and groping, like wolves just waiting for an exhausted deer to fall. On the penultimate morning of my trip, I sat, head in hands, in my room, gently chanting ‘I can’t go out there. I can’t go out there.’
Morocco gets no hairy vaginas. Not only did I have the worst time ever, but Morocco destroyed my cherished cultural relativism. Until:
After Morocco, I was frightened of travelling on my own. And I had heard that Japan had separate subway carriages for men and women, that there were places called maid cafés that fetishised female domestic servitude, and that all Japanese men have mistresses and are obsessed with schoolgirls.
But then I went there, and found a country full of the most helpful, kind and wonderful people imaginable. It’s like the whole country has taken a ‘How to be outlandishly nice to tourists’ course and gotten an A+.
And I spoke to Japanese women about the female only subway carriages. They explained that women could use any carriages they wanted, while men had to stay out of the female ones. I asked if this didn’t mean that women felt less welcome in the shared space. Most said no, that they often used the shared space, particularly at less crowded times of day. But, I argued, if groping is a problem on the Japanese subway, then surely the answer is to crack down on the gropers, not create separate spaces for women. They explained that this was exactly what had brought the female only subway carriages into being in the first place. The punishment for a man caught groping a woman on the subway would be so severe (he would most likely lose his job) that women felt guilty about reacting to harassment, and asked for their own space. Add to this the Japanese hatred of making a scene, based in an intense respect for others’ experiences in social space, and the pink subway carriages start to look, if not exactly rosy, then certainly understandable within feminist logic. Much like radical feminist women only spaces, I wish they didn’t have to be there, but I’m not going to tell women who want them that they can’t have them.
When I spoke to Japanese people, I felt ashamed of myself for believing the xenophobic bullshit I’d managed to pick up from somewhere. And I began to see all the feminist stuff that Japan does better than the UK – like having a gender neutral formal term of address, for example. No choosing between Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms – everyone is just ‘San.’ Awesome.
And therefore Japan gets four hairy vaginas. Because not only is it a place of extraordinary cool, but it also restored my cultural relativism. Aaah. That’s better.
This year, using my crafty technique of tacking a holiday onto a conference, I arrived in Santiago de Chile for scholarly purposes eight days in advance of my current love interest.
And a very nice eight days I had too - navigating the city, holding conversations with people. Just like a real person.
Then the conference ended, my Stephen arrived, and *ping* I became invisible.
Being invisible was quite disconcerting at first. ‘Hola’ I would say to a random Chilean, ‘Dónde esta los plaza des armas por favor?’ But they could hear or see me. They’d turn to Steve and say ‘a dónde vas?’ And he’d say ‘Plaza des armas.’ And then they’d give him directions. I’d follow my beau, wispy and shadowlike, through the streets, pinching my pink arms. They felt substantial enough.
In hostels or taxis, at bus stations or restaurants, nobody could see me. They addressed all conversation to my corporeal companion. Sometimes, when our passports were checked, the checker would look at them and then give both documents back to Stephen. It must have been confusing, accepting a passport from thin air, so I suppose they reacted as anyone would.
Steve left a day before me, due to Air France being bastards. On my last few hours in Chile I found that I regained spatial and temporal reality. The hostel owner who had stared right through my torso the previous day sat down and ate breakfast with me. We chatted about lots of interesting things.
All in all, I’m giving Chile two and a half hairy vaginas, because the other two and half are invisible.
Feminist Planet Awards Ceremony and Disclaimer
Before I give the prestigious Golden Labia Award (GLA) for most feminist friendly destination, I would like to point out that my scores are whimsical, and bear no relation to the state of women’s rights in the countries visited. I’m aware, for example, that Japan has woefully low female parliamentary representation. Or that there may well be more to Canada than strip clubs. The GLA therefore, is not an award designed to allow its recipient to gloat, but rather an award to make feminists everywhere reflect on what they can do to make their country more worthy of hairy vaginas.
And without further ado, I present the glistening and beautiful golden labia trophy to the land of the rising sun.