Tag Archives: street harassment

Street Harassment and Traveling Advice for Women

Everyone has a lot to say about women travelers, especially if they’re solo, especially if they go somewhere in the Global South.  And really, everyone has a lot to say about women.  Some of the advice is good, like researching backup plans ahead of time so you don’t get stuck staying somewhere that makes you uncomfortable.  It’s pretty obvious and rather good advice for everyone, but at least it’s not bad.  There’s also a lot fo bad advice out there, ranging from racist to victim-blaming, restrictive to non-sensical.  Some people just can’t seem to stop themselves from sharing this advice, even if I don’t ask.  Even if they’ve never been where I’m going.  All of the advice essentially boils down to one premise: as a woman, you are vulnerable and it is therefore your responsibility to alter your behavior in every way imaginable in order to prevent other people from harming you.  If you fail in this, you will be judged for your poor safety efforts and it will be used as an excuse to make blanket statements about what women travelers should or should not do.  Its for your own good, honey.

Thankfully, there was very little street harassment directed my way on my trip to Kerala, India, contrary to the typical American view of the country.  Some of us were discussing possible reasons for this, with the most obvious being that we spent very little time on actual streets.  We were generally in our bus, and when we walked we tended to be on the grounds of a hotel or other attraction where the only people we see are staff.  Not that staffers never harass customers, but it is in their best interest to treat us right, even more so considering we are travel bloggers.  I was very rarely alone, and the group had gender parity (for the bloggers.  On the staff side, Rutavi was holding it down for team XX by herself) so it was rare for me to walk somewhere without someone who presents as a man nearby.  And of course, I do not speak Malayalam or Hindi, so it’s possible I missed some things.

I did enjoy one little insight into the minds of my male compatriots.  One night, 7 or 8 of us went out to buy alcohol.  There were only two women, myself and another blogger.  To buy alcohol in Kerala, a person needs to stand in a line at a small storefront and ask the clerk for what they want, then pay.  All of these stores seem to perpetually have a line, and line culture in India involves a bit more jockeying for position and a lot less personal space than an American is used to.  I took one look at the situation and knew that we didn’t all need to wait in line and that I was definitely not going to be one of the people who did.  It didn’t look scary, and if I needed to I could have, but it just seemed obvious to me that if I could avoid being the only woman in close quarters with a lot of men trying to buy alcohol (and some who had clearly already had their fill), than I should avoid it.  One of the guys must have had the same thought because right away he said that the two women would wait here.  Another guy was confused by this, which is how most guys I have traveled with would react.  It simply doesn’t occur to them–they have never had to think that way.  The idea of a man considering a woman’s safety without being told to (or assuming it’s either exaggeration or an excuse to completely restrict her behavior) is a rare quality indeed, and it immediately raised my positive opinion of him.  Of course, for every helpful precaution there is an annoying bit of paternalism, and one of the men came walking back to us instead of toward the store.  He was nominated on the sly to babysit us women.  I called him on it immediately, and he begrudgingly admitted it.  I didn’t mind the company of course, and the sentiment was frustrating but understandable.  It was just weird that it seemed somewhat covert.

In that story we were in one of the few populated areas where we were able to wander off.  We spent a lot of our walking around time in more rural areas, which offer fewer opportunities for harassment from a purely numeric perspective, though harassment in all forms occurs everywhere.   We are also foreigners, and while that attracts a different sort of attention, it also can cause people in the service industry to be overly deferential and more careful how they behave around us.  Sometimes that extends to average people in the country, out of a sense of hospitality or awareness of the importance of the tourism industry, or a mix of the two.

It’s imperative to remember that my experience here is not universal, and that Kerala is not all of India.  Those with different perceived gender identities and sexual orientations, skin tones, ethnic groups, socioeconomic status, castes, and physical and mental ability levels could all be treated much differently than I. There is the biggest difference that is often overlooked by travelers: those who are local likely experience their own communities in a completely different way than I do.  All this is to say that just because I have barely been harassed doesn’t mean other travelers or Indians won’t be.  Moreover, the State of Kerala is very different from other parts of India, which have their own, often more intense, histories with gender-based violence.  This is not to say Kerala doesn’t also have a problem with gender-based violence (it does; everywhere does) but it does not tend to make the headlines the way Delhi has.

When we discuss street harassment abroad, we must remember that this is not a foreign behavior, or one unique to a certain climate, region, language, religion, or culture.  It looks different from one place to the next, but street harassment happens all over the world so it should be combated all over the world.  Relegating terrible behavior to certain places or types of people lets those who harass but do not fit our mold off the hook.  It can also leave people feeling singled out instead of supported, as evidenced by some of the backlash from the story of a white American study abroad student in India this past year.

At the same time, I feel it is important for those who experience street harassment to find ways of bringing the behavior into the light no matter where they live or who perpetrates harassment.  Many women who travel downplay street harassment abroad in order to keep from worrying loved ones, to minimize racist responses from listeners, to distance themselves from upsetting memories, or because they’re so used to others minimizing their experiences.  However, when we stay silent it can feel like being victimized again.  Personally, my best tool for dealing with street harassment isn’t fighting back or preventative measures.  It’s discussing my experiences with fellow female travelers.  I have mostly given up talking about it with male travelers because their responses range from neutral to disappointing to extremely upsetting, but when they do get it, as in the story above, it brings a feeling of relief.  On the other side of things, I love it when I am able to discuss street harassment with local women in order to learn more about their experience.  Sharing these stories reminds me that this behavior is real, it is not okay, it is not my fault, and I am not alone in experiencing it.  It can also minimize the level of daily stress that street harassment piles on.

LGBTQ and women travelers receive a lot of advice from all directions, all of whom are completely confident that they know what is best.  It is a complicated mix of contradicting and often insulting or victim-blaming information.  I’m a big believer in the Hollaback! model for dealing with mistreatment of women and LGBTQ folks worldwide, which is that local communities are experts on their own experiences, and that however a person feels most safe and empowered is the right choice for them.  Translated to international travel, this means it can be the best decision for one person to travel solo, while for another it is better to arrange to travel with companions.  Or, more realistically, the same traveler could arrive at varying conclusions depending on many factors, including their comfort level with independent travel, their assessment of their own safety, and their preference.  I am equally sick of hearing women being shamed and blamed for solo travel as when they are bullied as less-than for opting to go a safer, more comfortable route such as traveling with a package tour, a touring group, friends, family, or a partner.  We really don’t need more people telling women what to do.  However you manage to feel safe and comfortable while traveling is what you should do, because I firmly believe we need to make travel more accessible, not less.

What’s your experience of street harassment, at home or abroad?  Does it match what others who live or travel to there experience?  How do you feel about all the advice people constantly give women?

Walk for Change

UPDATE on 4/7/2014: This post was updated to reflect my 2014 donation page. I’m proud to share that quotes from this article have been featured on BARCC’s print ads, MBTA ads (share a picture if you see it on the red line!), and the back of the Walk t-shirts.

This April, I will be participating in Boston Area Rape Crisis Center’s Walk for Change.  I first learned of the organization last year, during my final semester at Northeastern, when I got involved in some related activism.  BARCC is a local organization serving the Greater Boston Area with counseling, a 24-hour hotline, medical advocates, and lobbying power.  They do good work for little pay, and their services are invaluable for the people who need them.  I will be joined by an amazing group of women who are strong, bold, smart and high-achieving.

I’m walking because I have heard so many stories that break my heart, stories of things that never should have happened.  But instead they happened again and again, often to the same people, and they will keep happening.

I am walking because I shouldn’t be afraid to name the organization I was with when I learned about BARCC, nor should I be afraid to name what we were protesting.  But I am.  I am afraid to write about it, to mention it to fellow Northeastern students and alumni, or to associate myself with it online.  Because when a group of young men and women and some of their teachers stood up and said we would not have our university associated with a group that treats this wretched violence so casually, that treats the safety and well-being and freedoms of young women so casually, members and fans of the organization set out to make us feel insane, overly sensitive, ugly, and unsafe.  They pursued us relentlessly online, insulted us in the comments and in person, wrote threats, posted addresses and personal details, and surrounded us at our protest.

I am walking because those people won a little bit, when those threats were so serious they were taken to the police, and some people were advised to stay home and stay offline.  And they won a little bit when they made us afraid, and when they made us feel small, and when they made me feel like a Super Bowl party or a sports bar was one less place where I could be safe and happy.

I am walking because I should have been able to think of at least one fellow student at Northeastern with whom I felt comfortable sharing our plans for the protest: a person I could trust not to invite the trolls, or tell me I was wrong or stupid, or downplay the importance of this issue.  But I couldn’t.

I am walking because there is no magic formula to keep ourselves safe, no right time of day or night to go out, no right type of person or situation to avoid, no dress code, no secret signal not to send, no magic way of saying no that will be honored by everyone everywhere in every situation no matter what, no appropriate number of drinks to have or companions to walk us home.

I am walking because people tell me that it cannot possibly be true that a woman is more likely to be attacked if she goes to college, because people tell me I must be lying, because people claim no one they know has ever been sexually assaulted or raped, even though we know that statistically, for a person my age, that is nigh impossible.

I am walking because I have sat in a car while men screamed out the window at women walking home alone in the middle of the night.  I said nothing while they yelled, “slut!” at women who had no way of knowing whether the car would slow down and someone would come to harm them or not.  I said nothing while they laughed about it, because I was tired of being their punching bag and I was afraid of what they would think of me if I kept standing up for the women they called sluts.

I am walking because the American legal system, the military, the lower house of congress, much of the media and far too many doctors have utterly failed the country and their humanity on this issue.

I am walking because of Delhi and Steubenville, and because those communities are not unique.  Because when an 11 year old was raped by 18 men and teenage boys, the New York Times saw fit to report only on those wondering where the girl’s mother was, and saying how grown up her clothing and makeup was.  Because a fake girlfriend received more attention than a rape victim who committed suicide.  Because so many at Penn State rioted to support its football team and its coach, instead of stopping to think about who the real victims are.  Because our collective first thoughts after an accusation are always to wonder what she was wearing or drinking, whether she flirted or was promiscuous, whether he is gay or weak, and to say what a horrible thing it is to ruin someone’s reputation, and to frantically repeat the words “Duke Lacrosse” like it’s an incantation.

I am walking because everyone’s right to a good time and their right to free speech and their right to make crappy jokes and comments is not more important than our right to feel safe or our obligation as human beings to treat one another with respect and a sense of compassion.

I am walking because there are too many bystanders, too many who see it as someone else’s problem, and too many people who call themselves “good” and “nice” while ignoring the jokes, the threats, the injustices, and the violence that happen in our own communities.

I am walking because it is a big deal, and it does happen in all kinds of places and to all kinds of people, and I’m sorry bringing up these issues bums people out but good lord, imagine what experiencing them firsthand must feel like.

I am walking because sometimes using your voice, showing your presence, and providing support for those fighting the good fight is the only thing any of us can do, and that is a very important thing.

I am walking because what they want is silence.  What they want is compliance.  What they want is fear, and what they want is power.

I am walking because no one can be silenced, no one should live in fear or shame, no one should ever be or feel powerless, and because we will not go quietly.

I am walking because I can, I am walking because I feel I must, and I am walking for those who cannot yet walk for themselves.

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If I Wrote for Thought Catalogue, this is what it would look like

Paris is like that first love that will always hold your heart. You two can fall easily back into each other’s arms, where everything comes quickly, lasts long, and feels right.

Canada is like that guy from your hometown that you paw around every once in a while just to feel alive, or to remember how it felt when you were sixteen and everything you did with him was new and dangerous. You may go back every once in a while, but honestly sometimes you get more out of not even bothering.

Egypt is like your first time: different for everyone. But no matter how you found it, it will always have a grip on you. It will always make your pulse quicken and give your stomach a jolt like an electric shock. You may wander back when you’re not sure what else to do, and while it may welcome you back, it could just as easily chew you up and spit you out. You will always wonder what if, and Egypt will always be there to remind you and tempt you.

Benin is like a bad fling: been there, done that, no regrets and no returning. Unless it was for a really good reason…

Greece was like finally getting with the most popular guy in school and not really getting it. What’s all the fuss about? I was too tired and busy from the pursuit to even enjoy it. And anyway, shouldn’t he come to me?  Maybe someday it will be time for a reunion…

Cuba is that guy your mother wanted you about. Some call it abuse; others are jealous. Sometimes, those people are one and the same. He’s frustrating, mean, fickle and generally beyond human comprehension. He may depress you, confuse you, and even cheat on you, but he makes you feel like a queen. With him, you are a woman no one else ever see or creates in you. With him you are wild, free, fun, and young forever. You are powerful, flirtatious and just a wee bit dangerous. Anyone who tells you they’d rather be alone than by his side is lying or they don’t know what they’re missing.

For reference, this is Thought Catalogue.

You Know You’re a Yovo if…

  • You think women should probably wear shirts, most of the time
  • You like your roads paved, and with potholes fewer than three feet wide
  • The only thing you knew about Vodoun before Benin came from movies
  • You wear sunscreen and bug spray, have a bug net and carry bottled water everywhere you go
  • You talk about showering more than you actually do it
  • You had never heard of Benin before you decided to go there
  • …but now you can’t wait to go back
  • You don’t wear heels to walk in the mud, but you DO carry your own bag
  • You don’t know how to successfuly carry things on your head
  • You’re afraid to cross the street, never mind get on a motorbike
  • You will probably never attempt to breast feed while carrying something on your head AND riding a motorbike
  • You’ve never authored a “Nigerian Prince” email
  • You refuse to swim in the standing water, and maybe even the ocean water too
  • You eat peanut butter
  • You point and yell (or perhaps whisper) every time you see a Yovo you don’t already know
  • You’ve been kidnapped (in a good-natured, well-meaning sort of way) at least once
  • You’re still annoyed by street harassment
  • You’re taken aback every time people ask if you’re a Christian
  • Your shirt and pants don’t match EXACTLY, and your family does not wear matching clothes
  • Your head has a maximum of two braids at any given time
  • You’re still a little surprised there’s never any cold beer–oh yeah, and you drink “Beninoise”, not “33”
  • People laugh when you eat with your hands
  • You don’t speak Fon, Yoruba, Goun or many of the other local tribal languages
  • When you go home, you’re confused by all the white people, and the fact that everyone speaks English
  • You have an awkward Mean Girls-style moment of assuming every black person you see speaks French
  • You don’t know the end of the yovo song, because no one ever finishes

Buen Dia de las Mujeres

Today is Women’s Day, something I honestly had never heard of until Maria’s breakfast rant today.  We’ve been getting “felicitaciones” all day from men walking past us, and even some freshly picked flowers.  What exactly are we being congratulated for, though?  Being born female instead of male?  Opting not to switch genders (which is covered by Cuban health care, by the way)?  Although I must say, the more time I spend here, the more I think of being a Cubana as an accomplishment of some kind.

“Are you a woman, or a book?”
-Leonardo, Cecilia

“A woman can bear anything but curiosity”
Cecilia

“You can fix the worst things here with drums and beer”
-Rachel, La Bella del Alhambre

“A woman in politics is like a man in the kitchen”
Clandestinos

“You want to take care of all the problems in the world, but what about your husband and house?”
Retrato de Teresa

“It is good to have what you do acknowledged.”
Retrato de Teresa

“Because I’m the man of the house, forget about your little job.”
Retrato de Teresa

“There’s one law for women and another law for men.”
Retrato de Teresa

“But I’m a man, it’s different!”
Retrato de Teresa

“Learn to clench your teeth…like your mama did.”
-Teresa’s mother, after admonishing her daughter for wanting equality, Retrato de Teresa

“I don’t care what they say, a woman is a woman and a man is a man.  Not even Fidel can change that.”
-Teresa’s mother, Retrato de Teresa

“Your husband and children aren’t enough, you always wanted to be you, too”
Teresa’s husband, Retrato de Teresa

“If I look for her again, I’m not a man.”
Fresa y chocolate

“There are functions for men and functions for women.  This is not the function of women.”
-Hector Perez, speaking of women and tambores (playing the religious drums)

“What are you doing to celebrate Women’s Day?”
“Working, of course.”
-Maria

And I leave you with this, from Brittan:
“But when is Men’s Day?”

An Americaine in Cairo

Recently, I mentioned the time I spent in Egypt to a young (late-20s early 30s), liberal, well-traveled woman, and was surprised by the response.  I gave my usual one-sentence opener, which is that I was there for six weeks this summer, loved it, and can’t wait to go back.

Really?!  I’ve lived everywhere, even Beijing, and that was the worst city for being a woman.  I was so uncomfortable all the time.”

Um, wow.

Granted, that opening line is designed to intrigue, confuse and incite discussion.  But this is the first time I’ve encountered someone who not only had actually been there, but is in pretty much all the same demographics as me, and does not want to go back.  Not only that, she was thoroughly uncomfortable.  So in light of this, I think it’s about time I reflect succinctly on my time there, through the lens of a young, white, liberal, ostentatious, middle-class American woman.

Oi, what a mouthful.

First, I need to emphasize the ways in which my experience was different from that of the average tourist.  I honestly believe that I have a very different view of the country based on my education before and during my trip, as well as the nature of my trip (ie length of time and breadth of cultural immersion).

  1. I speak Arabic. This is huge.  I am not amazing at it, I was nowhere near the best in our group (VERY much to my chagrin), but I made a sincere effort and that changes both how people treat you and how you are able to assess any given situation in-country.
  2. I have studied the culture and politics far more than your average person. I am by no means an expert, again, but I do believe that I am better versed in religious and cultural practices, as well as the politics of the region and Egypt in particular, than most westerners.
  3. I had Ilham. This is a biggie.  Ilham is not only academically versed in the Arab World, but she straddles western and middle east culture.  Born in Lebanon, educated in France and the US, she was able to help us through some of the roughest of cultural clashes, successfully staving off culture shock as well as making us smarter, better people.  In short, as the Pasha would say, “Ilham is a bomb lady.”
  4. I stayed there for a long time, by tourist standards anyway. The people in our neighborhood got to know us and left us alone.  I also became quite used to the Egyptian way.
  5. We had security. We’re not entirely sure for who’s benefit they were there, and sometimes they were more present than others, but I was definitely treated differently at Khan el-Khalili market when a suit was overseeing all my haggling.

Now there were a few things that helped me thrive in Egypt that aren’t necessarily specific to my trip, and that I highly recommend for anyone traveling to that area.

  1. I have a good eff-off face. This is key on the subway, in the market, and walking down the street.  People know to leave you alone, which is how I was able to walk through the market in Luxor, by myself, and be left mostly alone.
  2. I went off the beaten path. This is  one of the biggest points of our program, Dialogue of Civilizations.  I talked to Egyptians who had never spoken to Americans before.  I went to the other side of the Nile in Luxor, where all the natives live.  I went to a tiny village where there is virtually no crime or illness.  If all you see is the pyramids at Giza and the men and children who hock their wares, you will have a very skewed version of the country.  It would be like coming to the US and only seeing Disney World, or a rural WalMart.
  3. I had a support system. Every day, I had intense cultural discussions with Janine, Sarah, Allyson, Katie, Alex and Anthony.  There were 25 of us Americans, all experiencing roughly the same things, and we really helped each other talk through every awkward, uncomfortable or confusing encounter.  If I hadn’t had a bunch of smart, kind people to  air these issues with, I probably would’ve internalized them and gotten upset.  I highly recommend not going alone for your first time in Egypt, and definitely talking about the issues you encounter.

Alright, now that the full-disclosure is done, here’s my take.  Were there uncomfortable moments, derived entirely from the fact that I was female?  Yes, of course.  There was an incident in a restaurant and a similar one outside the train station that freaked me out.  There were men who didn’t realize I knew what they were saying.  There were times when I was really angry at the American guys I was with for not understanding when we needed protection and when they were just a nuisance, pleasing themselves.  But unlike the woman I spoke to, I was comfortable walking around alone during the day, at least in Zamalek.  The first week we were there I took a cab alone.  An intense experience, of course, but I got through it just fine.

On the flip side, a lot of this has to do with my own personality.  I pointed out the restaurant thing to the girls I was with, who were disgusted.  I later told some girls about the train incident, which no one else witnessed but was clearly directed at me, and they were all shook up, and kept asking if i was okay.  It was disgusting and undesirable, but I was in no way hurt.  As for the cab, one of the guys pointed out that I was one of the (if not the) only girls on our trip to do that solo, especially so early on.

As far as Egyptian women, I did not have the same perception as the woman who told me she wouldn’t go back.  I did see them walking at night, and I did see them by themselves.  On the other hand, I know from my research the ways and frequency with which many of them are cat-called or physically abused, and it is revolting.

So, my conclusion?  Yes, I still would go back.  And I know I will, someday.  There’s a sort of balance between cultural understanding and maintaining your personal integrity.  There’s also that balance between my own feminist ideals and the reality of life in Cairo.  Yes, I did once  tell off a cab in colorful Egyptian because I had simply had enough of being treated like that, but most of the time I kept my cool about it, the same way I do when I’m treated that way in America.  I don’t mean to make excuses for men behaving poorly, but I honestly don’t think it was much worse than how I am treated here, with just a few exceptions.

I think the biggest measure is that in the end, when I reflect on my time in Egypt and what it meant for me academically, personally and socially, the catcalls aren’t even on my mind.

Ana Sitt, Hear Me Roar!

The last dayof the AWO Arab-Western Youth Dialogue was far more productive.  I’m not sure if it was the added (and forbidden) social aspect that fired up the Americans, or maybe we were just pushed to the limit.  The ladies especially were all in, and it was great.  Nana made a rousing speech that garnered quite the round of applause.

I met a guy who overheard me say something in French.  Many of the Arab youth speak it, and for saudeeqee (my friend) Billel, it’s his first language.  Once he realized I’m decent at it, we hung out and jabbered away in French as fast as I could handle.  The next day, he came over to ask me a question about women’s wages in America.  He asked if I would answer in front of the group during his presentation, and I obliged.  All of this was in French of course, as was the question and answer in front of the entire group.  I answered in English first, but he wanted to know what I said so I explained it in French as well.  Apparently everyone, Arab and American alike, had underestimated my ability with French.  For the rest of the conference the Arabs knew me as the girl who can speak French, and many approached me at random to chat and test me a wee bit.  As for my own group, I guess they thought I was BSing, or that my version of “speaking french” means “I took it in high school and fell asleep a lot in class.”  My roommate Janine said she felt like it was a different person, hearing such foreign (but pretty) things coming out of my mouth.

It was great to practice my French a lot because it pushed me and also validated me.  It’s not quite as disheartening to stumble through Arabic when I have confidence in other languages.

Throughout the weekend we were so incredibly sheltered.  A quick google search of the Arab participants would tell you why–they were all chosen based on experience with America and connection to the government.  We’re already a target as 30 Americans, but when you add 30 affluent Arabs to the mix it means we are swarmed by security and kept in the most gorgeous playpen you could ever imagine.  Unfortunately, this resulted in the cancellation of most of our site visits :(.

PS if you didnt figure it out, the title is arabeezy (3raby and ingleezy)for I am woman, hear me roar