Murdered American tourist Serai Sierra was an Unaccompanied Lady. Like Unaccompanied Ladies often do, she took a big risk. As risks can, it ended badly.
We have avoided commenting on the case because we don’t know what to say about it, even though everyone we know asks. The case’s facts are murky. The sensationalist, fantasy-based Turkish media is the least useful source of information. There are no institutional repercussions for “making shit up;” in fact, doing so seems to be a matter of official policy. Accordingly, most of what has been written is lurid bullshit.
The Istanbul police haven’t got much credibility either. They now say she was killed by a homeless paper collector who has since fled to – wait for it – Syria. Problem solved.
Can you blame them for wanting a tidy explanation for a killing that took place in the heart of the city’s historic center? Turkey’s tourism industrial complex, including its thriving lady sex-tourism niche, cannot withstand many violent murders of single foreign women. It’s in everyone’s interest that this case go away quickly. We hope it is resolved fairly, based on the law. That probably won’t happen.
“When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras,” is one of our favorite phrases. It means to look for the most obvious explanation before you consider the exotic. As an Unaccompanied Lady who has lived in Istanbul for six years and taken plenty of risks, we know some things about it. It’s absurdly safe, a perfect place to test boundaries and make regrettable choices. Upon reading that a American woman disappeared without a trace, we and many of our friends, shrugged, “sounds like she ran off with her waiter.” Uncharitable? Possibly. But that happens a lot more often here than murder.
Before she came to Istanbul, Sierra met strangers on the internet — that much seems to be verifiably true. People do that. There are risks associated with it, but it’s not that weird. She stayed in a part of town that few, if any, tourists visit, especially single American women on their first trip abroad. That was a bit odd, but maybe someone she met guided her there. The American press has suggested that she’d had marital problems. Lots of ladies do. Many come to Turkey to forget about them. Hardly any of them get killed.
Our cleaning lady asked if we knew the dead tourist. Of course we didn’t. She, a 33 year old mother of three from Staten Island on her first trip abroad, and I, were unlikely to ever cross paths, either in America or Istanbul. Had we, I might have told her to restrain her American exuberance and curiosity, that eye contact that communicates friendliness in the US suggests something else in Turkey. We would tell her to read the Unaccompanied Lady for advice on the strategic use of shame and terror. We would have suggested surrounding herself with local women and following their cues for how to behave. Would it have made a difference? Impossible to know.
People on the Internet have said “she deserved it” for going off alone and her husband “should never have let her go.” Shifting the responsibility for protecting a lady’s virtue from the man (can we assume it was a dude who killed her? Everyone OK with that?) unable to contain his impulses to the woman is the same logic that prevents ladies from driving in Saudi or wearing what they want in Pakistan and remaining behind walls in Afghanistan. An Unaccompanied Lady is a threat, and not just in places that value a lady’s honor more than her life.
Unaccompanied Ladies often take risks. Sometimes the risks pay off; sometimes there’s a catastrophic failure. Whatever Serai Sierra’s motivations for coming to Istanbul alone on her first trip abroad were, it was a ballsy move, something probably most of her friends and family couldn’t understand. That it ended so badly for her should neither be blamed on her nor serve as a deterrent to other Unaccompanied Ladies who want to challenge themselves and provoke those who think she should stay home.
That Lady is Unaccompanied.
Brave, cool when the shit’s hitting the fan, hardworking and well-accessorized at all times: don’t all ladies, unaccompanied or not, aspire to this? RIP Marie Colvin, who was killed reporting from Homs, Syria last week. We didn’t know her, but much that’s been written about her suggests we’d probably get along ok.
She made me cry with laughter with the story of her late arrival to cover Kosovo and being billeted with two journalists, whose possessions she recognized in the room. Suddenly the dangers of Kosovo receded as she considered how to handle an ex-boyfriend and former husband in the same bedroom.
Marie surely knew what all Unaccompanied Ladies know: when trying to move around “those places,” like Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, being a lady works in your favor. You look like a lady, but you aren’t behaving like one. The men in charge don’t know what to do with you so they underestimate you or ignore you or allow you to manipulate them. And then, you get your job done.
This 2002 Vanity Fair article, despite its stupid title Girls at the Front, has more interesting details about Marie’s life. If you look up “badass” in the Unaccompanied Lady dictionary, there’s a picture of her.
Given all that she did and saw, this first sentence probably uses the correct verb tenses. Like, it happened a lot.
When she was suffering from PTSD, she used to be let out of the clinic and would come round to dinner with her friend Jane Wellesley. My teenage daughters were open-mouthed at the sight of this astonishing woman with an eye patch, listening to her describe what she had done in the previous 20 years. The point, she emphasized with a tipsy flourish of cigarette and wine glass, was that women could do anything they chose.
The last statement probably understates the impact meeting someone like Marie Colvin had on those teenage girls. Men don’t usually pick up on all the messages cool older women send to young women. They’re often communicated at dog whistle-pitch.
At the moment, there is only one Unaccompanied Lady in the UL Hall of Fame: Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. We’re going to go all Mormon and baptize Marie Colvin as an Official Unaccompanied Lady, posthumously. Does anyone object?
There’s a lot of jibber-jabber around the Unaccompanied Lady’s area of expertise in the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler column this week: “The Gender Gap in Travel.” Whatever.
We don’t know if it’s easier or harder for ladies to travel alone than men and we don’t feel like arguing about it because it can’t be answered. Yes, it’s true, as the article points out, that it’s hard for Unaccompanied Ladies to go to working class dance clubs in the outskirts of Madrid, but we have never gone alone to dance clubs, working class or otherwise, at home or anywhere else in the world. On the flip side, women get to attend weddings on the women’s side and sometimes the men’s side too. Personally, we’d prefer to hang out with the ladies.
The article fails to mention The Unaccompanied Lady’s most potent weapon when visiting “certain cultures” (that will remain nameless to protect the guilty): Shame. By shaming men who behave badly, ideally loudly and in public, The Unaccompanied Lady demonstrates that she expects to be treated the same way as their own mothers and sisters. The Unaccompanied Lady may look like a western slut but her honor is just as valuable as mommy’s. Learn the local word for shame and use it.
Our approach has always been that if a dude wouldn’t interact with a woman in his own culture in a particular way, he sure as hell isn’t going to interact with us in that way either. If approaching an unrelated woman for a ” friendly chat” on the street or in a cafe is unthinkable in his own culture, he isn’t going to approach us either. Our response: “What if someone did the same to your sister?” (“Oh, you’d kill her? I see.” Be prepared for that response. It could happen.)
Along the same lines, we will not interact with a dude in a way that a woman in his own culture wouldn’t either. If a local lady won’t gather for a photo with a group of young lads or chat breezily with a hotel desk clerk — no matter how friendly - we won’t either. It will be misinterpreted: end of story.
"But Unaccompanied Lady! I feel so rude acting like this and feel like I am not interacting with the culture in an authentic manner!" You want authentic? Observe the utter disdain with which a Pakistani or Gulf woman deals with drivers, touts, shopkeepers, restaurant and hotel staff and other male riff-raff. Distance and aloofness are your friends. Chattiness and friendliness result in grief.
The shame tactic will not work, however, if the Unaccompanied Lady is wearing something like shorts and a tank top. This undermines the perception that your honor is as valuable as his mother’s or sister’s. Dressing local, as we have already suggested, provides you with extra credibility when you shriek like a harpy in the street after some douchebag with a greasy mustache and cheap jeans follows you back to your hotel.
The waiter issue, as mentioned in the article, can be tricky. Waiters, particularly in the tourist hells of Istanbul and other cities, can be aggressive toward women, but you know what? Lots of visiting ladies nail their waiters. A dude that swings at every pitch is going to eventually make contact. You can’t blame him for trying.
Our best advice is: Behave like women in the culture you’re visiting. Don’t do things they don’t do, don’t go places they don’t go and don’t tolerate behavior they don’t tolerate.
"But Unaccompanied Lady! Attitudes toward women in these cultures are medieval. We should to encourage them to evolve through dialogue and cultural exchange and maybe some marches to raise awareness!" Yes, and the point of visiting these places is for you to learn that the former is true and the latter impossible. Be glad you and your honor get to leave.
Because The Unaccompanied Lady is known for both her fashion sense and her modesty, many Ladies ask her advice on what to wear when visiting places where a lady’s honor is super valuable and in need of protection. Our answer is simple — wear what all the other ladies are wearing. For example:
Are you in Pakistan? Buy some cute shalwar and ask a Pakistani lady how to wear a dupatta so you don’t look retarded.
Are you going to the more medieval parts of the Gulf? Suck it up, kitten, and buy an abaya — the long black coat. Don’t whine. The botoxed teenage girls in the Riyadh malls won’t openly laugh at you like they would if you strolled around wearing the long pale coat that all the fashionable Turkish girls in Fatıh wear. Plus, the abaya is more liberating than you think.
So what do you wear under your abaya? The aptly-named blog Under Your Abaya has some reasonable suggestions — polka dots are apparently in this season — for fashion-conscious ladies looking to catch the eye of the mother or sister of an eligible bachelor at a ladyparty.
But seriously, do we have to tell you everything? It’s 5000 degrees, you’re already annoyed about something (about having to be in the Gulf in the first place, probably) and you and your sullied honor are never going to get invited to that kind of party anyway. Wear whatever the hell you want under your abaya! What could be more fun — or potentially awkward — than wearing a bikini, slutty lingerie or nothing at all under your shapeless black graduation gown? Try it!
But wait, are you going to Kyiv? Rules are different there. Check in at the Wikipedia of Slutty Dressing for what to wear.
We stopped by to say hello to, Ketut, a Balinese friend, with whom we stayed for six weeks last year. Sad that there was no room for us on his compound during this visit, we described to him the family compound we had found, located in the rice fields seven kilometers from Ubud.
His brow furrowed.
"Is it safe?" he asked.
We paused for a moment, imagining what an “unsafe” place in Ubud would be like. Too many bugs? Bands of feral chickens? Ubud presents few threats to the unaccompanied child, much less The Unaccompanied Lady.
"Uh, yah, it’s safe. I guess."
Later, he explained that traditional Balinese architecture demands — and all Balinese comply — that a family compound has four structures on two axes. One, which houses the family’s elders, faces toward the sacred volcano Mt. Agung. the cooking area is opposite it. The family’s ceremonial area — where marriages, tooth filing and birthday ceremonies are held — is to the right and the rest of the family’s quarters opposite. While the embellishment and materials can vary, their proportions and distances between buildings are prescribed. All this effort helps keep good and evil spirits in balance.
"That’s how you know the compound is safe," he said.
Take a look around. Is your Balinese compound organized according to these principles? If so, you’re safe.
In many parts of the world — you know which ones— The Unaccompanied Lady is an object of pity. She stumbles around the world without the protection of a husband, brother or father, with her honor - her only asset— under constant threat. Childlike in her purity, the rest of the world assumes responsibility for keeping her honor intact.
Accordingly, The Unaccompanied Lady is offered the best seats on the bus, special lines at passport control, ladies’ only security checks and air-conditioned restaurant dining rooms, sparing her, with more than a little pity, from the degrading treatment usually reserved for the rest of the population. The upside? The Unaccompanied Lady and her honor are spared the degrading treatment usually reserved for the rest of the population.
Unaccompanied Lady, don’t be insulted! Be subversive! Grab retrograde attitudes toward women by the balls and use them to your advantage.
For example, the Unaccompanied Ladies line offered in many countries is always shorter and faster. Most importantly, slack-jawed village idiots who stare hungrily at your exposed ankles are not allowed to stand in it. Fortunately, many places in which you don’t want to spend any time, such as passport control and security checks at the Islamabad airport, have them. Don’t spurn them as backwards and sexist: Embrace them as a welcome and long overdue acknowledgment of your stature!
Furthermore, the Unaccompanied Lady who holds an advantage in class or status (i.e., she’s white, and don’t for one minute pretend that isn’t one) and doesn’t exploit it is missing opportunities. If violating un- or loosely enforced rules presents an opportunity to maximize her personal comfort and convenience, The Unaccompanied Lady behaves like every male ever born and seizes it.
Do you, Unaccompanied Lady, need help navigating this complicated world while remaining unsullied? Do you want to employ strategic terror and tactical scandal to help you get what you want? Do you want to avoid common pitfalls, such as overindulging in sexual qi gong classes in Ubud, or wearing fake rabbit fur in Kyiv?
By harnessing the powers of her unsullied honor and social media, The Unaccompanied Lady blog (and Twitter! @Unaccompanylady) will help you move to the front of the line where you belong. Follow her today!