Without Men

A Women-Only Search for Gender Equality

Jamie Sims Coakley reflects on women’s rights both at home and abroad, and shares her experience traveling without her husband to a country that’s still struggling with gender equality.

When I first visited a women-only Korean spa in Los Angeles I was a little intimidated by the no swimsuit policy. I wasn’t in the habit of being completely nude around strangers, and it went against all of my protective programming. I was afraid to be so vulnerable, but it was a good friend’s bridal shower, so I sucked it up and got naked.

The experience was, to say the least, a revelation. All kinds of women — every ethnicity, age, and body type — were soaking, relaxing, and socializing together, completely naked. There was no feeling of judgment, and regardless of how thin or fat or young or old, everyone was walking around with an air of comfort and acceptance of their bodies. I was hooked. All the years of harsh judgment and standards of perfection I had allowed to be leveled upon me by society melted away. There was no “perfect” body, and a perfect body was not required to be confident, beautiful and happy.

The complete and total absence of men was something I hadn’t really experienced on this level before. It caused me to examine the influence I felt: the pressure to perform, to behave, to be on guard, to be smart, to be kind, to be pretty — to do all of the things a woman is expected to do in the presence of men.

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Sri Lanka’s southwest coast.

Fast forward ten years and my best friend is planning an all-girls’ surf trip to Sri Lanka. I’d never been to that part of the world, and was excited about visiting a place so different from anywhere I had been. I was also a bit apprehensive. This was a place where the language was so far from anything I had seen or heard; a place where the culture evolved out of the Buddhist and Muslim faiths, not Christianity. It was a place just barely finding its footing again after a decades long civil war and we would be three white western women traveling without a man.

As any good adventurer does, I did my research on the culture and what was safe and unsafe for women traveling there. I tried to learn a few Sinhalese words and pack an appropriately modest wardrobe, even though we would be staying in a beachside community. I kissed my husband and son goodbye and off we went.

I found Sri Lanka to be a beautiful country with a rich history and a lot of kind and generous people. From the fully-staffed two-hundred-year-old villa where we stayed on the southwest coast, to the historic and beautiful Galle Fort (which has been transformed into a village filled with shops and restaurants), to Udawalawe National Park (where we took a safari and watched elephants in the wild), to the picturesque coves and beaches with some of the best waves in the world to learn to surf, Sri Lanka is truly a gem.

You might be wondering at this point what a Korean spa in Los Angeles has to do with Sri Lanka. The thing is, as much as I was comforted and empowered by being in a place that was “women only,” Sri Lanka felt to me a various shade of “men only,” and I was struck right away at how unprepared I was for that kind of culture.

Compared to some other countries in the region, Sri Lanka is considered by many to be a model for gender equality. It has high female literacy rates, women have had the right to vote since the 1930s, and there’s free and compulsory education for boys and girls. Sri Lanka even elected the first female, non-hereditary Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in 1960. All of these things, and the fact that it was a majority Buddhist country, caused me to naively assume that it would be much more progressive towards modern women than I found it to be.

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The Frangipani Tree (top) and Fort Printers hotels (bottom) in Galle.

Even though Sri Lanka has made commendable achievements towards women’s rights, women’s equality is still quite elusive. Women face discriminatory marriage laws, are subject to high rates of gender-based violence, and are extremely underrepresented in parliament and local governments. Traditional roles for women center around the care of the home and family, and those regressive roles are reinforced through the education system and through a strong cultural bias.

For me, it was the subtle but powerful absence of women in the workforce that raised the red flag on women’s rights. Even though women in Sri Lanka are highly literate and educated, they are only active in the workforce at a rate of around 35%. Besides the airport and the most Western of hotels, it felt like everywhere we went (especially outside of the capital city of Colombo), business was done by men only. We often found ourselves in rooms and situations where there were no other women present, and we were almost exclusively the only women we saw without men.

That lack of female representation caused me to become much more conscious of how we were dressed, of how we behaved, and of going anywhere alone. I felt a certain vulnerability I am unaccustomed to in America. There was an underlying feeling that the freedom of movement we were enjoying was a privilege of our status as tourists and not any kind of rights we had as women.

Although the large majority of the men we encountered in Sri Lanka were kind to us, there was, especially among the older generation, an underlying energy of disapproval. It seemed to be that for some men our existence was an unwanted example of what was possible for women, and that it was only a vague curiosity and the promise of our dollars that allowed our “display” of women’s liberation to be tolerated.

In addition to the subtle looks of disapproval, there were a few incidences of outright hostility at our emancipation. The worst of it coming while we were in the security line at the airport. A man who had been right behind us for at least twenty minutes suddenly decided he wanted to go in front of us and forcibly pushed my companion and her luggage aside just as she was about to put it on the security conveyor belt. It didn’t feel like he just wanted to cut the line. It seemed very obvious by the hostile glare he cast back over his shoulder that he was making a statement as to our place beneath him, betting that even in a crowded airport at security, no one would say anything about him pushing us aside so that he could go first. And indeed, no one did. It was a small gesture of dominance but one whose message was received loud and clear by me.

When we touched down back at LAX I felt a profound sense of relief to be home, and gratitude for the strides made by women in the United States. Even though the #metoo and #timesup movements were all over the news, and women’s reproductive rights were back under attack, despite American women being grossly underrepresented in government and inequality continuing to be an issue, being in Sri Lanka made me appreciate in a deeper way how precious our hard won freedoms are. It reignited my commitment to protect the progress made and continue to push for further justice and equality.

After everything, would I return to Sri Lanka? Absolutely!

Beyond the simple pleasures of a vacation, travel is for me an opportunity to experience life beyond my Western culture and to open my heart and mind to the complexities of the world and the people who inhabit it — even when it’s uncomfortable. It allows me to see the similarities I share with of the majority of people on Earth, and see their warmth and kindness, regardless of where they call home. And it inspires me to want to cultivate a better world for everyone.

 

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The author and her friends (and an elephant).

 

Jamie Sims Coakley is a writer, producer, and director living in Long Beach, California. She started writing at age eleven when her aunt first gave her a journal and encouraged her to put her thoughts to paper. Since then her love of writing has turned to storytelling in various forms including poetry, scripts, songs, a feature documentary film, a short memoir, and a science fiction novel she is currently working on. Jamie also has a passion for helping other artists tell their stories and find audiences. To that end she has just launched Nadine Records Media, which is a direct distribution artist collective for GenX, by GenX. Her mission is to enlighten and inspire through art and community.

20 Comments
  1. This is the most ridiculous and biased article I possibly, have ever read (I appreciate this is a big shout). I absolutely understand this is your experience and that saddens me however I don’t believe in a short holiday you would be able to make such a sweeping judgement of what especially for a developing country. President Bandaranaike was the first female president in the world with her daughter Chandrike Kumaratunga following suit in more recent history. If you walk through Colombo at lunch time you will see the streets filled with women office workers, as many as men. In the supermarkets and markets, as many shop assistants and market sellers as their male counterparts and in the hills, female farmhands (although admittedly that is rarer). Yes, when you wear a short short or strapless top, the locals eyes may pop out their head but this is because the female body is unrepresented in the media there. I am not saying this is ok but the eyes are for the most part the most dangerous aspect of their attention, Sri Lanka is an incredibly safe country especially for tourists and as they recover from a horrific attack on their own people, articles like this do nothing but to further damage an incredible peaceful and kind people and country. I love Tablet but I am so incredibly disappointed that they chose to publish this.

  2. I love Tablet as a site for travel and have enjoyed booking fabulous accommodation when traveling in the past. As much as I believe the site can post what it chooses to, I found this article rather strange, in that it seemed like another agenda based article that should belong in some identity political blog. The writer has allowed their own ideology to write a rather one eyed point of view article. No country is like home, if you wish that to be the case then perhaps it’s best to stay put. I’d much rather prefer to read an interesting article relating to travel than someone else angry rage.

  3. Ms. Coakley described it exactly the way it is. This is exactly the way women are treated and looked upon in a Muslim country. I lived in Saudi Arabia for fourteen years, so I know exactly how women are perceived and treated in a Muslim country. The United States (America) is the only country where you can be free to dress like you want to, act like you want to, work, etc. and not be judged. America is the best country in the world!!

  4. I enjoyed reading this article for several reasons. It’s always good to hear another woman’s perspective on the world outside of America. I lived in Britain, for a brief time, and I felt the sexist attitudes that women are less than men on many occasions. It’s a sad reality that women are subjected to, so I don’t expect some of the others commenting on this article can comprehend what that feels like. I think it was inspiring that the writer found beauty and kindness in Sri Lanka despite the experiences with old world thinkers. Bringing home a new sense of purpose is always a win. The greatest thing women can do for themselves and the world is notice what needs to be addressed, then address it. I commend and support your endeavors. Knowledge is power.

  5. All in all this expresses a rather unsophisticated, western, and self-righteous sensibility. I wonder how many of the people who staffed the ‘fully staffed two hundred year old villa’ the writer actually spoke and engaged with? I’m leery when amateurs claim to know the motivations of strangers in a strange land: how could the writer possibly divine ‘an underlying energy of disapproval.’ I agree with a comment above: perhaps home is the safer place for some to stay.

  6. This pretty much stays it all: “the care of the home and family, and those regressive roles are reinforced through the education system“. How condescending.

  7. I liked the article. We should hear more about gender inequality in such a manner, which is based on personal experience and has nothing to do with predisposed lack of sympathy towards the dickheads who think they are better than women and that world belongs to them. The truth is rather the way around. Many CIOs of companies already know that women are the better workers , more precise and creative. Still man are on massive scale are conspiring with each other to suppress the most talented and exceptional female peers. The truth must be told , we shouldn’t be just left to only take the role man are suggesting us ( too eagerly 😀)

  8. Thank you for sharing your experience.
    I regularly experience that liberating feeling at the spa as well. Your writing is
    insightful and informative. Please continue sharing your very worthwhile, inspiring and educational views.

  9. Pete Chop, I am British and live in London and promise I am not in politics. I am a woman with one European parent and one Sri Lankan parent. I am not saying there aren’t aspects of gender inequality in Sri Lanka such as domestic violence. What I am saying is that this is not something that as tourist, is worse in Sri Lanka than it is in many developed, western societies and may of the points made here seemed incredibly skewed.

    This woman has made hugely sweeping judgements of a whole country and people, that she seems to have based on a brief experience of one area. I personally don’t find that particularly helpful to anything or anyone. This isn’t tripadvisor review of one persons dinner. It is an opinion piece commenting on an entire culture and people, written to frame people’s opinions.

    I do however believe we should be highlighting areas for all countries to improve their treatment of women and especially where they are stifled and silenced and welcome balanced views on how to support initiatives to do so. This however was not balanced.

    Also FYI, in the gender gap rankings, Korea is almost 15 places below Sri Lanka, I’m not sure that should be the barometer of gender equality because you can walk round naked in a spa.

    Finally, to Connie, Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country.

  10. I totally agreed with LL’s comments’ – and I am a 100% Italian, not into politics , who travelled in Sri Lanka about 6 years ago, partially solo.

    I am a bit surprised to read an article like this on Tablet, honestly.

  11. As an older woman who travels solo I found this article informative and insightful. I guarantee men have a very different experience when traveling solo than women. The writer shared her experience and observations. It was clear that she loved Sri Lanka and its culture and would return should the opportunity arise.

  12. I think Ms. Coakley demonstrates a solid emotional intelligence here. Reading through these comments, I’m not sure everyone saw the same things in it I did.

    I think Kimmer summed it really well when they said: “I think it was inspiring that the writer found beauty and kindness in Sri Lanka despite the experiences with old world thinkers.” Being both a man, and someone who has never been to Sri Lanka, I didn’t see this as a kick to Sri Lanka, or necessarily a self-indulgent praise of the western way of life, rather, an exploration of the writers experiences overseas, a reflection on progress made as well as how far is still left to go, and most importantly, a testament on how to love your country in spite of its flaws.

    I think LL’s heart is in the right place, but I’m pretty sure she got a different vibe from this article than I did. It was clear to me that Ms. Coakley admired the country for its culture and people, but as a western woman in the east felt uncomfortable with some of the old world treatment of women.

    I think that’s a fair assessment in the end, don’t you? Maybe I’m just reading too far into it, but…I doubt it.

  13. So typical of an American to say America is the best country in the world. What the….? And to say it’s the only country women can be so free, again… what the….?
    Sweden, Denmark, UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, Germany. Need I go on?

    You have a crazy, dangerous President, ridiculous gun laws, terrible racism, abortion rights disappearing….again, need I go on? America is not perfect nor the centre of the universe.

  14. To the Tablet Magazine Editorial Staff,
    Listen to the criticisms of your global customer base. This article is a well-intentioned light brushstroke on a very heavy geo-socio-political canvas. It does not have the depth or journalistic POV to properly address its subject matter. Additionally, its relevance to your business, and the breadth of your current editorial content, is thin at best. The zeitgeist supports broad discourse on this and many other incredibly important matters. That is a good thing. What is not good is when these matters are addressed in articles such as these. Attention must be fully paid without distraction or the usual popular media trappings. To use a crass analogy, subjects such as these are not appetizers to be nibbled over cocktails and light conversation. They are full meals requiring full commitment from those preparing them and those consuming them. The writer would have better served the subject by submitting a more in depth article, written from a more globally aware perspective. Your publication, which is not in the practice of publishing such articles, would have better served the subject by encouraging the writer to submit it to one that does. Thank you.

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