Staying safe as a female nomad
(and how men can help)
LAST UPDATED MARCH 25, 2020
Empowered: Miner offering a self-defence class at the 7in7 conference in New Zealand
Self-defence expert Elizabeth Miner explains why we have to be in control of our bubbles at all times
The other night, I walked home from a friend’s apartment at about 10pm. We both live in a seaside town an hour outside Lisbon but we’d decided to spend a few weeks in the city for a change of scene. We’d researched the neighbourhood we were staying in and purposely booked apartments close to each other, but we didn’t know the safest route to take after dark.
Before I left, my friend said she was happy to walk with me. As an alternative, she offered up her sofa bed for the night. It was only a seven-minute walk so I decided to make the trip, but I left earlier than I would have liked to and texted her as soon as I arrived home safely. That was non-negotiable. As Sarah Everard’s story has tragically reminded us, these are things we must think about as women wherever we are.
Clearly, there are systematic changes that need to be made. Why is the passive voice so often used to talk about ‘violence against women’? Why should it be our responsibility as women to avoid going out after dark or not dress too provocatively? Why do so many of the statistics talk about the number of women who have been raped each year, not the number of men perpetrating that violence?
Those questions, however, are for another article, and will take years if not decades to address. Right now, this is the world we live in, and as female nomads, there are a few extra dimensions.
The additional dangers of being a nomad
I met Elizabeth Miner about 18 months ago at a digital nomad conference in New Zealand, where I took one of the self-defence classes she offers to nomads at events and coliving spaces all over the world. Before she became a nomad in her late 40s, she gifted herself a course in krav maga, a military self-defence and fighting system developed for the Israel Defense Forces, which combines elements of aikido, boxing, wrestling, judo and karate.
“I knew that as a slight woman, I needed to be able to rely on myself,” she tells me when we catch up over Zoom, me in Lisbon and her from her current base in the US. “When you travel, there are so few weapons or tools you can take with you when you cross borders and the more I learnt about some of those tools, the more uncomfortable they made me feel.”
The problem with krav maga was that it took intense concentration and coordination to get the moves right and Miner wasn’t convinced she could put them into practice if she found herself in a dangerous situation.
After a few years on the road, she also noticed that many nomads much younger than her were putting themselves at unnecessary risk while they were travelling, often because they didn’t know any better. I’ll put my hand up and say I have done many of the things she warns against, such as waving my phone around trying to get GPS signal in the middle of an unfamiliar city.
“It freaked me out as a mother because I know these people were all somebody’s sister or child or boyfriend or girlfriend,” Miner says. “Then of course there was that additional danger of being somewhere you don’t know anything including the language.”
She decided to get accredited as an instructor through Empowerment Self Defense, which teaches simple physical techniques to prevent, resist and escape violent assaults, in combination with awareness, assertiveness and verbal confrontation skills.
“You have to give up some of that naivete that you’re safe and find a way to balance that without being paranoid,” Miner explains. “I don’t want my students to think that the world is out to get them, but I want them to be able to recognise that they have to be in control of their own little bubbles and be aware of their surroundings at all times.”
Keep your hands free at all times: Miner teaches nomads to strike with an open flat palm
Controlling your bubble
I left Miner’s class feeling empowered and remembered how much the lessons I’d learnt had stuck on that seven-minute walk home through Lisbon. My heart was still racing and my body was clenched but I knew what I had to do if something happened.
I wasn’t looking at my phone. That was the first thing she taught us. “When you’re on your phone, you check out part of your brain and you’re not fully aware of your surroundings,” Miner stresses.
My hands were open and empty and there was no key in between my fingers. “If that’s what makes you feel comfortable, that’s fine, but it’s not what I teach,” she reminds me. She advises people to keep their keys in their pocket so they don’t lose them if they do have to defend themselves. “When you get the heck away, you want to be able to get to your safe space,” she says.
I used storefront windows and car mirrors to get a sense of what was going on around me and always had in the back of my mind that if I did feel threatened by someone walking too closely behind me I had to turn around and face them.
“It’s terrifying,” Miner acknowledges, “But you are immediately taking control if you turn around. Suddenly it’s you taking them by surprise. They weren’t going to do it now, they might have been waiting until you got to the alley. And if they were just a person going about their day, you can survive the embarrassment.”
If the worst happened and I did have to defend myself, I was ready to strike with my open flat palm. Miner doesn’t teach to punch because there are too many bones that could be damaged in the process and a punch isn’t nearly as strong as an open palm strike. “If you’re walking home with groceries, down go the groceries first thing,” she says. “You want both your hands open.”
I also tried to remember that I always had a choice. “You have every right to do everything you can to protect yourself, but at any point you can decide you don’t want to do this,” Miner says. “My goal is to give you that choice.”
How men can help
Sometimes it feels exhausting just thinking about all the things we have to do and consider to stay safe as women – What’s our route? What’s going on around us? Is there a streetlamp to park under? Will we drive in forwards or reverse? Who’s with us? What time of day is it? What are we wearing? – things that rarely, if ever, cross many men’s minds.
While Miner constantly tells female nomads, it’s a necessary ‘both and’, there are also things men can do to make us feel safer. “They need to recognise that some of their behaviour has to be seen through the eyes of a woman,” she says. “Often they don’t necessarily recognise what can be perceived as threatening.”
When she was working out in a glass-walled gym with her sister a couple of weeks ago, she felt uncomfortable because a man was walking around the parking lot for no apparent reason, absentmindedly looking in. 20 minutes later, a woman came to meet him and they drove off together. It turned out he’d been waiting for her. In the meantime, Miner had taken a photo on her phone, in case she had to ID him later. “He hadn’t recognised that was threatening behaviour,” she says. “He hadn’t thought: how would my sister feel if she was in that gym?”
The same principle applies on, say, a running trail. “If you’re a solo male on a trail or running as a group and you see a solo woman or a group of women, acknowledge them and say hi, be careful you’re not gawking at them and if there’s something they should be aware of up ahead let them know,” Miner advises. “Don’t follow them – we don’t need heroes. But be aware for the other person so if they need something you can be there for them.”
I left the video call with Miner feeling just like I did when I left her self-defence class in New Zealand: empowered, but with a renewed awareness that letting my guard down is never an option. Krav maga was her gift to herself; my gift to myself was taking her class. Perhaps it’s time to think about treating yourself too.
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