11th April 2014
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?