Women are still not equal. The most obvious evidence of inequality is sexual harassment and assault.
Sexual harassment and assault are targeted at women due to the view that women’s bodies can be controlled and manipulated. Assault is usually not committed for sexual gratification but rather to exert power. In heteronormative and patriarchal societies, almost all cases see woman as victims and man as perpetrators.
Harassment and assault are common globally. Ask any female traveler about harassment on the road and you’ll hear stories ranging from men on the street grabbing her crotch to how she reported sexual assault to a police officer who asked, “Why didn’t you enjoy it?”
Sharing such stories is not meant to frighten anyone but rather to create awareness. These personal experiences are rarely discussed, but should be. Thousands of women travel the world each year: some are harassed or assaulted, some are not.
Avoiding vulnerable situations and being aware of your surroundings may lessen risks but does not eliminate them.
If you let this scare you into staying home when you want to travel, I believe that’s the opposite of feminism: not seeking the path you want because of your gender.
But what do you do when and if sexual harassment or assault does happen? How do you protect yourself but also be culturally sensitive? How can you seek justice abroad?
Types of Harassment and What To Do
Whether traveling as a woman, with a woman or meeting women along the way, it’s important to know how to take action. It is also vital to understand that standing up for yourself or other women is not an intrusion of Western concepts. No woman feels comfortable with incidents of assault, and no woman deserves to have to deal with it.
Street harassment is the most common form of sexual harassment: catcalls, whistles, “Ooh, sexy lady” comments. Often these are men just trying to get attention. As frustrating as it is (and as much it is against my nature), the best thing is to ignore it. If he gets a rise out of you, he maintains power. Responding is giving those men the attention they want but don’t deserve.
Other common incidents of sexual assault when traveling are touching, grabbing, groping, or rubbing on the street or on modes of transportation. These are easy places to assault someone. At a conference on feminism in Bangladesh, a man argued that these are crowded places and bumping into someone is unavoidable. A woman in a headscarf slammed her hand on the table and growled; “I know the difference between an accidental brush and a hand down my dress.” On your own body, you know the difference too. It’s important to trust yourself and know your physical boundaries.
If someone touches a woman inappropriately on the street or bus, say something immediately. Grab his hand and show other passengers, tell the driver or attendant and move your seat. Make a big deal out of it because it is a big deal. Most likely the man will be embarrassed and other pedestrians or passengers will help you.
In a market in India, I watched a man pinch a woman’s behind. She immediately turned and pointed at him, yelling her head off. Other shopkeepers ran to her aid and chastised the man as she walked off. If you find that the crowd gets bigger but no one is helpful, avoid the situation and get yourself to a safe, calm area. It’s great to make a statement but not if it will put you in a more vulnerable position.
Confrontation has no guarantee of success. When a friend was assaulted on a bus, she asked the man, “Do you have a sister? I’m someone’s sister!” He replied, “But you’re not my sister.” Patriarchal traditions are entrenched in societies for thousands of years so understand that retaliating might not be immediately effective. But silence in incidents of assault changes nothing—it permits assault to continue.
Sexual harassment and assault can also happen in hotels and hostels, from friends, other travelers or staff. If this happens to you, change your room or hotel immediately. If there is someone you trust, whether another traveler or hotel manager, report the incident to have the perpetrator removed or fired. When a manager refused to take action after an incident of sexual assault my friend reported the incident to Lonely Planet, which removed the hostel from their next edition.
If anything worse happens, if you are forced, coerced or drugged into performing sexual activities without consent, the same rules apply:
1. Get yourself to a safe place.
2. Try to preserve evidence of assault: do not bathe, douche, brush teeth, etc. If you cannot seek help immediately, take photos of bruises or wounds and write down all details you can recall.
3. Seek medical and legal assistance: Call a doctor, embassy or local police. Decide whether to file a report. Your country’s consulate can provide help in translation, seeking medical aid, reporting the crime, and providing legal aid and counseling services. Some countries even provide emergency loans for travel home.
4. Contact friends or family at home for emotional support or to make travel arrangements if needed.
5. After the incident, seek counseling or therapy. Sexual assault is a traumatic experience and requires professional help in overcoming.
The following are useful resources for female travelers:
Sexual Assault Resource Agency (SARA)
By supporting a woman traveler, you are a feminist. If you travel as a woman, you are a feminist. A woman traveler presents herself as a woman who believes that traveling is a right to everyone regardless of gender. Personally, I am a feminist because I want to be able to sit next to a man on a bus and not be anxious that he’ll touch me inappropriately then ask for my email (true story). I am proud to be a woman traveler because I change people’s views of the abilities of women, and I will never let my gender stop me from seeing the world.
Have you experienced sexual harassment on the road? How have you dealt with it? Please share any additional resources or advice for coping with sexual assault abroad.