“The map was just an accessory. She knew exactly where she was.” ― Galt Niederhoffer
To step out of the house, travel to faraway places, explore the world or even loiter in the in the narrow alleys in one own city is a joy that women are most often kept away from. Famously, explorers in history and fables have always been and portrayed as male. It’s worth exploring why none of these words ever bring to mind the image of a woman who steps out of her house, to have a nice time, travels to different places alone, or just loiter around?
Travelling has its own zest which fills people with excitement, anticipation, and thrill. Women have time and again spoken about their passion for adventure and traveling, though only some have managed to see these dreams to fruition. Why? The control of underlying structures of patriarchy on women’s bodies and their sexuality have set rigid norms to limit mobility, decision making, and financial independence of women. Travel often involves transgressing several of these norms and facing social reproach in its wake.
Why are all popular portrayals of women within the four walls of the household? Even when women step out, to work, she remains primarily accountable to the functioning of the household and the bearer of responsibilities towards society. These are not boundaries women have gladly submitted to, and courageous women have been transgressing them for decades, as witnessed in the travelogues women have written about these sojourns.
While formal history has made no place for such stories, various independent platforms and publications across the world house rich narratives of travel dating back 500-600 years all written by women, about adventures, pilgrimages, work trips and other explorations. Among these stories is one by Pandita Ramabai (1858–1922), an Indian social reformer, who traveled to England and wrote about her journey on the ship. Another is by daring American journalist Nellie Bly (1864–1922), documenting her travels around the world.
Shardaben Mehta (1882–1970), a social worker, wrote about women’s condition in the country while she traveled around for work. Mohammadi Begum (d. 1966) traveled from Hyderabad to England and wrote letters to her family about her time in London. Malika Pukhraj (1912–2004), a famous Pakistani singer, traveled places for performances and wrote about going hunting and camping in a forest with friends. Amrita Pritam (1919–2005), a popular writer and poet, used to write while she traveled in the country or abroad, much like a daily travelogue of the journey.
Baby Haldar (born 1973), a domestic help and author, wrote passionately about her heart-wrenching life journey that took her places and made her who she is. All these women and their stories have not received attention and recognition up until recent times.
Along with documenting their insights on their journeys, many have fought personal and political battles to even dream of embarking on their journeys. These struggles and stories shine on in the Women’s Movement even as they go unregistered in the narratives of mainstream history.
(This article is based on the writings published by Nirantar Trust in the 98th ‘Aapka Pitara’ magazine’s titled Duniya Ki Saer)