If you are a woman who travels, where do you go for information like the appropriate attire in a particular country with a conservative culture, or whether it’s safe to go around on your own? These are just some of the questions that concern today’s travelling woman.

This is where Zafigo (www.zafigo.com), the newly-launched web portal for women travellers by women travellers, comes in. Zafigo is the brainchild of Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, a human rights activist who has worked on women, children and AIDS/HIV issues.

Marina, a prolific writer with her own fortnightly column in The Star since 1989, is also an avid blogger who has authored three books.

Star2.com finds out more about Marina’s thoughts on travel for women, and her plans for Zafigo.

Star2.com: I read that Zafigo came about when you were packing to visit Pakistan and were concerned about the appropriate attire to bring. Can you tell us about that?

Marina: That was my first visit to Pakistan and I was going to meet Parliamentarians in Islamabad. I didn’t know much about Pakistan and its customs. All the information I found was either for tourists or Westerners, but I’m Asian and Muslim.

In the end, I decided to wear a baju kurung because it was the safest. The fact that I couldn’t find any information made me realise that travel is very gendered. When women travel, especially for work and alone, there are things that we need to watch out for that men simply don’t have to think about. And then we started hearing all these things about safety so, I thought, there’s a gap to be filled here. But I had no idea how to do a website. Then, one day, I was talking to James Chong – we did a project together awhile ago – and I said we really need something like this. And he said, yeah, I can do it. And it won’t cost you that much. That’s really how it started.

Marina in Scotland. Photo: Marina Mahathir

Marina in Scotland. Photo: Marina Mahathir

How did the name Zafigo come about? What is your hope for it?

Zafigo is actually a corruption of “Safe, I go”, because safety is a major issue for women who travel.

Basically, it is to provide information for women who travel, whether they are travelling for leisure or for business, mainly in Asia, and maybe later, in the Middle East.

I’ve been to two countries in the Middle East. Within one peninsula, you can have different cultural attitudes and I don’t think people are aware of that.

If we look at a lot of websites about travel, they don’t really make that differentiation or it’s hard to find, especially when it comes to women. I’m hoping that Zafigo becomes that place that you go to to find out about these details. So we want to have people who actually live in the country to give this sort of inside information.

What has been your most unusual travel experience, and what did you learn from it?

In the course of work, they always make sure that there’s some field trip involved just to keep us grounded that the work we’re doing is about real people. When we were in Nairobi, we went to visit Kibera which is the largest urban slum in Africa. I’ve never been in a slum before and it’s mind-blowing how people could live like that, but they were also very nice, especially the kids. They were following us around and asking me if I would write to them. I’m not saying that everyone should be visiting slums, but it really grounds you because you know that not everybody lives as well as you do. And it’s heartening to know that there are people doing something to save lives. Not everybody gets to do that and I feel grateful that I’ve had all those experiences.

A screen-grab of the Zafigo (a corruption of 'safe, I go') website.

Travel tips: A screen-grab of the Zafigo (a corruption of ‘safe, I go’) website.

Have you had unpleasant travel experiences? What is your advice to others after going through these experiences?

I’ve been going to Paris for about 30 years and there were very few incidents, although I’ve found it really hazardous if you’re a single woman walking around Paris on your own because you invariably get men following and harrassing you, not that they are going to harm you, but they just like to kacau lah (disturb), you know.

Another time I was in Paris was the first time my bag ever got picked in the Metro. It was peak hour and I had a big shopping bag and a sling bag. It was really jam-packed and I felt as if someone was groping me. When I turned and felt in my bag, I couldn’t find my wallet.

There was this pregnant woman next to me and a man with his back to me, in front of me. I turned to this woman and shouted at her: “You took my money!” And she said: “No, no, no!” Then my wallet dropped from underneath her. I picked it up and my credit cards were there so I was quite relieved but my cash was gone. It was amazing because only my Euro currency was gone.

At the next stop, she went out and someone started talking to me and said: “Welcome to Paris!” And I said, “I’ve been coming for 30 years, nothing like this has ever happened.”

And I realised I can’t take anything for granted.

Is there a specific group – age and income – Zafigo is aimed at?

Mostly from the ages 20 and up, women who are able to travel independently and English-speaking, as it’s also for Western women who travel to Asia, and Asian women who travel around Asia. We’re very Asia-focused. Right now, we’re doing KL but later we hope to add more cities like Delhi, Bangkok and Jakarta.

Is there anything else you wish to add about the website?

One of the things we’re trying to do is build a community of women who travel, and not only share tips but support one another. Sometimes, you wind up in a city and might have an overnight stay, you don’t know anyone and want to go out for dinner. We thought we’d try to build a community of women travellers like this in different cities, where you could, through Zafigo, put up a notice saying, “Hey, I’m in Amsterdam, I’m alone, and I don’t have anyone to have dinner with. Are any of you Zafigo-ers here? Would you like to meet up?”

It’s a good opportunity to make new friends, network and to feel safe going out at night.