This year I had the privilege of being a panelist for a discussion at Global Engagement Day on the topic of “Women, LGBTQ persons, and Minorities abroad”. The panel was a good chance to think about my experiences abroad in a context I hadn’t really thought about them before. I never really defined my experiences by the fact that I am a woman, or looked at how those experiences may have been different if I weren’t.
To be totally honest, I couldn’t think of many ways that my experiences in China were defined or limited by my gender. I did take some risks that I probably shouldn’t have, like staying with a stranger my first night in China, or running alone fairly often, usually at 9 pm. The thing is though, I felt completely safe doing those things.
My experience in Uganda was much more relevant to the topic, since the culture there is still one that very obviously oppresses women. The school we were staying at was originally built for women who had been assaulted and subsequently rejected by their communities. Women there have been disproportionately affected by conflicts in the area, and many have been assaulted, and left to take care of children without the support of their family or a husband. They are expected to wear very modest clothing, and work making clothes, growing food, or selling goods in addition to taking care of children and the home. My experience in Uganda was obviously nowhere near what women there experience on a daily basis, but it was a very different environment, in which I was very aware of the fact that I was a woman and the limitations that came with that. I really only had to worry about what I could wear, and when, where, and how I could run, but still found it difficult to adjust to living in that environment. Other panelists for the talk had more extreme experiences, or had to hide who they were while they were abroad. The overarching conclusion of the discussion was that sometimes, you have to put your own opinions and self-expression aside when you are abroad, in order to respect and adhere to the culture you are in.