“This book is for women who have already left and those who would not dare yet.” This is how Lucie Azema, journalist and long-haul traveler, presents her essay Women are also on the journey. At 31, the Frenchwoman lived in Lebanon and India before settling in Tehran. Drawing inspiration from travel literature and her personal journey, she takes a feminist and decolonial perspective on adventure stories as we know them.
Jack London, Jack Kerouac, Nicolas Bouvier, Sylvain Tesson… The mention of these writer-travelers is enough to instill the call of adventure. Less well-known are their female counterparts: Anita Conti, Isabelle Eberhardt, Ella Maillart, Sarah Marquis … If the pandemic sedentary souls travelers, Lucie Azema’s book invites you to vary the readings, and rethink the journey through the prism of gender.
Le Temps: In your book, you denounce the objectification of women in so-called classic travel literature. How to explain this phenomenon?
Lucie Azema: Often women are portrayed as part of the decor. This dehumanization goes through a sexualization and a fetishization of the female body, in particular of foreigners depicted as lascivious. At no time does a relationship of equal to equal be established. The traveler too is devalued, whether as an under-traveler, novice and fearful, or as an unbridled woman, a trail. The narrator therefore uses it as a foil, or to satisfy his sexuality.
Is this still the case today?
If this denigration is less systematic, it sometimes resurfaces in contemporary writings. When Sylvain Tesson falls ill in Dunhuang, China, he describes adventurers who come to his aid as “old maidens of Anglo-Saxon countries reaching the age of no return. [qui] start running the world in all directions, uttering nonsense in the manner of shaggy prophets whose brains the sun has melted ”. He spares his male counterparts from this condescension. That’s not to say that Tesson is misogynist, but it echoes a still deeply patriarchal travel culture.
Great interview with Sylvain Tesson:
You talk about travel as a “factory of masculinity” …
The journey is a performance of masculinity, because it allows you to show off your independence and physical abilities. In mythology, Ulysses combines adventures while Penelope is confined to the home. This staging of gender roles also excludes LGBTQ men and people who do not correspond to the archetype of virility. The adventurer with a capital “A” is the solitary traveler, who does not bring up his children, and who takes risks in remote areas. An often overplayed cliché that prompts some travel writers to water down their stories to recreate this myth.
While, as you show in your book, women have been traveling for a long time …
Women traveled long before Nellie Bly and Alexandra David-Néel. However, they were often perceived as accompanying persons, or they left disguised as a man. Jeanne Barret is the first woman to travel around the world, under the name Jean Barret. We still have traces of unmasked adventurers, but the others are forgotten… We cannot, however, deny that they were less numerous. At the time, most women did not have access to education or a bank account, and they suffered more orders to give birth. The patriarchy therefore operates downstream, by making their journeys invisible, but also upstream, by creating difficult conditions for them to travel.
Is the price to be paid to leave higher for a woman?
Socially, yes. Unlike the adventurer who falls within the gender norms, the adventurer must free herself from additional injunctions, and go against the grain. For example, risk-taking is admired in the traveler, and discouraged in the traveler. We instill in women prudence, fear, and we make them feel guilty if something bad happens to them. In their stories, this often instructs them to hide or minimize the dangers involved. Yet these fears are often unfounded. Being alone is dangerous, regardless of gender and country.
The pioneers of French-speaking Switzerland:
You describe the traveler as “a gender apart, a third sex”. How does travel allow her to break free from gendered categories?
A woman who travels escapes gender performance. As she leaves, she becomes a kind of hybrid being: neither man nor woman, she is a sort of third sex. This privileged status opens the doors to non-mixed spaces – both feminine and masculine. In Iran, I was accepted into men’s circles because I was considered a non-woman. Conversely, this barrier remains with the traveler who will not have access to female places. By offering another perspective, women’s stories often shed light on the blind spot left by travelers. For example by criticizing the eroticization of the harem, which is a place of slavery.
You say that “you have to be free to travel and be free to travel”: what do you mean by that?
Two obstacles limit the traveler: the virile culture of travel which excludes them from the outset, and internalized social injunctions, in particular related to safety and motherhood. Before being able to hoist the sails, the adventurer must go through a process of deconstruction and break the chains present around her, but also in her.
You talk about the tension between travel and motherhood …
A father leaving his children for the adventure is admired, while a mother absent, even a few months, will be denatured. Many adventurers have drawn the line on motherhood, which is incompatible with the freedom of travel. Oceanographer Anita Conti said: “Make love, yes, but above all no children!” Even today, it remains difficult to reconcile.
Meeting with Sarah Marquis:
By referring to post-colonial studies, you suggest that we could replace “colonial discourse” by “travel literature” …
For a long time, explorers’ accounts dictated the worldview and legitimized colonialism. Even today, these writings are 90% Western and male. The development of sex tourism, which fetishizes the Other, is its high point. To decolonize travel, you have to decolonize your imagination: drop the fantasy and establish an egalitarian relationship.
Travel remains an under-explored field of feminist studies …
Travel is often seen as a “bonus”, and therefore secondary. However, it underlines and extends the feminist issues. It embodies freedom and the right to be alone. For many women, traveling is not a “bonus”, but a lifestyle choice.
What advice would you give to those who are reluctant to get started?
First, I advise them to trust their intuition. Often, women do not dare to leave because they ask themselves questions that men do not ask. You have to ask yourself: “Would a man ask himself these questions?” Certain doubts are obviously legitimate. But if the answer is no, it’s time to cast off.
Lucie Azema, “Women too are part of the journey – Emancipation through departure”, Flammarion, 336 p.