Harshdeep Kaur (pictured on holiday in Italy) is the first woman in her family to travel independently.

Women of colour are solo-travelling to break generational cycles

And in the process, reclaiming their independence.

Despite eyebags down to my chin after 36 hours of travel, sleep wasn’t even close to the first thing on my mind. Instead, I was busy romanticising being in my long-awaited solo-travel era, and I wanted to pack adventure into every moment possible. So when I, a 24-year-old 5’2 Indian girl, entered a 12-bed mixed-dorm, occupied by only men, in Istanbul, it was easy to convince myself that this would be a ‘character-building’ experience. 

But what followed were seven nights of enduring unwanted advances, changing hurriedly in a lock-less bathroom, and trying (very unsuccessfully) to ignore the lingering scent of stale sweat. It was unnerving, uncomfortable, and I felt constantly exposed. But when I squinted hard enough, my fear and discomfort looked wild and rousing.

As the first woman in my family to travel on my own, I had a warped understanding of independence; I thought it meant saying yes to everything. And for the most part, my ‘hell yes’ attitude served me incredibly. I hiked alone through the blissful Italian Dolomites, went salsa dancing with new friends, rode through the Hai Van Pass in Vietnam, and ate street food that altered my brain (and gut) chemistry forever.

But I also said yes to getting into taxis I didn’t feel safe in, to travelling with people I didn’t like being around, and to taking late-night flights that had me wandering through alleyways at odd hours to find my accommodation. I was trying to make-up for all the times I couldn’t say yes to the things I wanted to for fear of disappointing my family or community. I didn’t know what my boundaries were, and I had never been taught how to set them. 

Women of colour face unique challenges when it comes to travel

Many South Asian women like myself grow up in patriarchal households where women lack autonomy. We’ve grown up watching our mothers put the needs of their husband, children, parents, and society above their own, and we’re expected to do the same. And when women in our households do try to assert themselves, it’s seen as rebellion. My rebellious teenage years consisted of using the internet past 10pm to watch Vampire Diaries. 

Our desire for adventure and experiences on our own terms are met with rejection, often in the name of safety. In school, trying to get permission to go to a friend’s birthday party meant curating the perfect pitch to emphasise how incredibly safe I’d be; details of how I met this friend, what their parents do, what their grandparents do, the socio-economic history of their suburb, their choice of grocery store, and whatever else I needed to say to get my case across the line.

Repeating this process time and again just to seek permission was exhausting. Oftentimes it was easier to just accept defeat, and not even bother trying to ask. Craving autonomy, I became so frustrated with the inflated emphasis on safety, that I began to disregard it altogether. 

But behind the veil of “safety” is a tightly-held belief that women should not have agency over their mobility. We are to be our parent’s responsibility, and under their control until we’re married, and then our husband’s responsibility. Raised with this narrative, it’s no surprise that many women like myself grow up confused about how to exercise our independence.

When I asked Nabila Ismail, a Pakistani-American travel influencer and founder of Dose of Travel how she asserts herself as a solo-traveller, she said at first she didn’t know how. “I didn’t know what my own boundaries were,” says Nabila. “So…the first half of travel was trying everything and saying yes to everything. And then, spending so much time alone…I didn’t have noise from my parents and noise from the toxic community, which was how I was able to create boundaries.”

Nabila’s first solo trip was during college where she was studying pharmacy, a degree she pursued to please her parents. “I was going to school for something they wanted me to do. So I thought, ‘I guess I can use the three months (of summer break) to do me, and still make them happy.’”

“I bought the flight, confirmed everything, and then told my parents I was leaving … That was the scariest part. They weren’t happy at all, and they didn’t talk to me for like two out of the three months that I was there.”

Today, Nabila has visited 64 countries and organised 9 group trips largely catering to women of colour, through her company, Dose of Travel. She wants to make travel more accessible for women confined by cultural and social expectations.

Nabila shares that many of those that go on her group trips feel comfortable doing so because they’ll be around like-minded people who have experienced similar challenges. “Some people would not tell their families that they were going on [a Dose of Travel] trip, and when [the families] would find out, they would say that it was a desi group trip, which made [the families] feel more comfortable.”  

The face of the ‘solo female traveller’ is changing

Today, female travellers make up 64% of all travellers. In 2023, global Google searches for “solo female traveller” reached an all time high. But within that rising interest, it’s difficult to pin-point how many of these searchers are women of colour. I’ve rarely come across other women of colour solo-travelling, but when I have, we’ve immediately become best friends. There’s often a shared understanding that we’ve pushed through shared walls to get to where we are.

Stories like Nabila’s resonate strongly with women of colour like myself. We feel seen and gain confidence to pursue our own travel dreams. Seeing this sort of representation is having a major impact on what the travel industry looks like at present. 

The image of a ‘solo-female traveller’ is shifting, particularly after the pandemic, and one only needs to look as far as TikTok to see this play out. In the midst of BrownTok, videos captioned, “girls, don’t wait for your husbands to go out and travel” or “if you’re a brown girl, this is your sign to solo travel” have gained millions of views from women who identify with the experience.

New York-based artist and influencer Mohuya Khan has also noticed “a lot more women moving out and travelling by themselves unapologetically” and greater representation of women adventuring boldly online.

Mohuya has shared her experience travelling as a woman of colour on TikTok and Instagram, not only of her journey travelling solo in Europe, but also the emotional weight of being the first woman in her family to have the opportunity to travel independently. “Travelling alone or moving out before I’m married has a lot of pushback, and it was not easy for me to get out of that traditional norm.” 

Mohuya shares on TikTok how refuting family expectations is more than just the act itself. Her grandmother was married at 14 and was never able to see the world. Her mother was told she could travel after marriage, but never got the chance to. For Mohuya, travel was more than seeing a new part of the world, it was about “breaking generational curses”.  

“It feels extremely freeing to be able to live for yourself…but also paralysing when you know … that you were only able to achieve them because of their sacrifices,” Mohuya says. 

Like Mohuya, breaking generational curses has allowed me to reclaim something women ought never have been denied, control over our time and mobility. And while this realisation stings with guilt, it’s equally filled with gratitude. 

Hearing Nabila and Mohuya’s stories, I could see where my misconstrued understanding of independence had come from. Without relatable female role models I didn’t understand what exercising autonomy or being aware of boundaries looked like, and the entire concept of independence felt fickle. I thought the only way I could claim my independence was if I was in a different time-zone.

This belief evolved quickly, when weeks after returning home I realised what everyone who’s been bitten by the travel bug ultimately realises; I was changed forever. Despite being back home, I no longer felt I lacked my freedom. Being surrounded by strangers, foreign languages, and unrecognisable streets pushed me to rely wholly on myself. And yes, this is by no means a revelation. Of course, that’s what travel is supposed to do. But when you’ve been raised to be dependent and confined within patriarchal supervision, realising that you can rely on yourself to get through life's challenges is a revolutionary discovery.