What I want men to know about women’s safety

Yesterday, I shared a photo of myself from when I was seven years old, leaping on a beach in Costa Rica for the very first time. Here it is again.

Thirty-four years and one short drive away from that shining moment, a Costa Rican woman was brutally murdered in her hotel room. The news has had my heart in my shoes all week. I think that, for better or for worse, we are affected most by crimes in which we can see ourselves clearly. The fact that María Luisa Cedeño Quesada was in her 40s and lived in San José, that she escaped for a weekend alone from the stress of working hard during a pandemic, that she chose a weekend destination I have visited many times and would choose again in a heartbeat, made me envision myself in her place with particular clarity.

All she wanted was a little peace and quiet.

Whenever these crimes occur, I always see tourism leaders and business owners from the affected area expressing concern about these stories being publicized. This time was no different. There’s pushback against people who were sharing the news on social media (“Why would you share that news and damage our reputation?”). Pushback against the harm to the country’s international standing. Pushback, sometimes, against the woman for whatever she was doing: in this case, staying in a hotel by herself.

Pushback against anything that will make women afraid.

I would like to say the following. Save your energy. We are afraid anyway.

A certain layer of fear lies on us all the time when we move through the world. We might not all call it “fear,” exactly. Some of us might call it “alertness” or “awareness,” rather than fear; and it may or may not stop us from doing things; but we are always afraid/alert/aware when we walk alone, or do anything alone, or lock ourselves into our hotel room at night the way María Luisa did. When I read the news about her murder, I was instantly transported to the hundreds of times I have tested and retested a hotel door’s lock from the inside when I am there all alone. What María Luisa experienced was a nightmare we all sense, lurking on the other side of those doors.

The fact that a crime takes place is not showing us something that we’d never thought possible before. We are not shocked. We are saddened. Unless you have a rash of killings in your town, we are no less likely to visit. The horror of each new headline simply reaffirms a burden of fear so constant that we might not even notice it’s there. A white, privileged woman like me cannot compare her burden to that of the burden carried by Black people in the United States, for example, except that it is like a garment we put on when we are very young. We put it on as soon as we become aware of our physical characteristics, the first time we are followed or cat-called or something worse, and we only take off on special occasions if we are very lucky. (This is why it is so strange when any white woman fails to understand Black Lives Matter, by the way; we should be able to imagine, at least, that much greater pain, based on the small piece of it that we do know; but I digress.)

The crime does not reveal. It reminds. It reminds us of the fear we feel as we close our doors or go for a walk or a run, even in our own neighborhood. I was followed on a quiet road just a week or so ago by a man in a car, a man who pursued me so obviously and creepily that two women driving past in a truck stopped to warn and advise me until he finally hit the gas and screeched away. None of the three of us were surprised. We were just reminded of how close we are, at any time, to the abyss. The watchfulness of strangers is often the only thing that can protect us.

So to the tourism leaders of the world, especially the men among them, I would like to say that there is nothing to stuff under the carpet. The cat is out of the bag. You might as well just go all in for your guests’ safety, especially women, people of color, LGBTQ+ visitors and, in particular, people who inhabit more than one of those categories. Trust us: it’s on our minds already. When I walk into a hotel anywhere in the world and received tips or support to make my stay a safer one, or see a hotel in a place I love posting about what steps it’s taking for guest and community safety, or any business leader sharing proactive actions to lobby for new partnerships and policies to protect women, I am not put off; quite the contrary. I don’t think, “Oh my lord, this is a place where I could be in danger.” Because every place is a place where I could be in danger.

My daughter is seven, just as I was when that picture I shared was taken on a Costa Rican beach near Manuel Antonio. In the photo, I am jumping with glee as I look at the ocean. My daughter jumps up and down whenever she is excited, or whenever she’s watching a TV show where something exciting is happening: she’ll just hop out of her seat and jump up and down as she watches the screen, over and over again, her natural response to emotion. I always watch with a smile on my face. Needless to say, I no longer jump for joy myself. I am too heavy for that, in every way. It makes me think about that weight we carry, everywhere we go.

The girl in that picture had lots of solo travel ahead of her. While the photo was being taken by her beloved father or aunt and she was safe under their eyes on the beach that day, she would go on to make her way alone through towns in Greece and China and Mexico. She would run alone on any number of beaches, and walk on any number of far-off streets, and confidently flag down any number of taxis, and lock herself into any number of hotel rooms alone. She would even go to bars alone and meet her husband in one of them; she could so easily have met with a horrible fate there. It was pure luck. It should not be luck to not be murdered, but it is.

When I look back on my life since my first visit to Costa Rica at age seven, I see that many of my most important memories  – the ones that would flash through my mind before dying  – are of the moments when I traveled alone, when I truly met myself. The view from the UK’s Southwest Coastal Path, where I hiked alone for days. The feel of sand under my bare feet as they traced a lonely line along a beach at night. The sore feet I’d get from walking on and on through a city or town, no companion, no destination.

María Luisa had memories like that, too, as well as memories of people, of family and friends. She probably didn’t even have the chance to play those memories back through her mind on Sunday as she scrambled for her life, scratched her attacker so that the police would be able to identify him the next day by the marks on his skin. That last view of those memories was one of so many things she was robbed of on Sunday. We say, over and over again, #niunamas, and yet there are always more and more.

I experienced all of my solo adventures with a certain tightness in my chest and distrust in my eyes that are part of being a woman. But I did them nonetheless. I want my daughter to do them. I want the world to be open and honest about the dangers she will face. I want the world to talk about these murders of woman after woman in Costa Rican and Latin America. I want our leaders, in this case tourism leaders, to put all the weight they can behind the legal changes and prosecution and cultural shifts and nitty-gritty practical steps that will make those daughters and sons safer.

I suppose I want every hotel owner and every police officer and every human in the world to see all other humans as the daughters and sons they are.

I want María Luisa to have her life back. The memories that were stolen along with her breath.

I want to delay the day when my daughter no longer jumps for joy.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; learn how to join my Overwhelmed Writers’ League, every Saturday at 1 pm EST; and please connect with me on Instagram or FacebookTo learn more about how to support Costa Rica during the crisis, visit my COVID-19 section – or for ways to enjoy Costa Rica from afar, visit Virtual Costa Rica.


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