This New Year’s, I was horrified to read in The Hindustan Times that in Mumbai, India, outside of the JW Marriot Hotel, two women were felt up and groped by a mob of seventy men on the open street as their companions looked on helplessly.
The photograph on the front of the paper, showing the perpetrators piled up on top of the women, instilled in me a sense of outrage that I have not felt since I was in Thailand, and was assaulted by a mototaxi driver as I attempted to go to a job interview alone.
During the awful experience in Thailand, just like the assault on the women in Mumbai, passersby simply stood and watched, unsure of how to react, perhaps afraid to get involved.
When I made a complaint to police, freshly emerged from the scuffle with torn clothes, it was my behavior that was questioned. The police wanted to know what I had done to encourage the assault. Seeing that “boys will be boys,” they assumed I had done something to warrant the violence.
I was simply told not to travel alone again, and they considered the issue solved, for it was seen to be my problem, and not the driver’s, unrelated to the wider social hostility towards independent women.
“She Had It Coming”
The public reaction to the women being mobbed in Mumbai contained similar sentiments. While The Hindustan Times responded to the incident by publishing an article on violence against women, many people who they spoke to as part of the piece felt that the women somehow deserved the attack because they had been drinking, were dressed in provocative clothing, and were out late at night.
Such incidences of sexual harassment, and reactions to them, are not uncommon, and violence against women is still a major problem.
It is not that men, too, do not suffer acts of aggression, however the problem of violence against women comes in a specific context. While it has always been accepted that men will travel alone, women are still fighting their way through the 21st century amidst the notion that they are, by being independent and female, open to abuse.
The question is, as women, what can we do to speak back to this violence and protect ourselves while traveling?
Women everywhere are victims and at the same time catalysts for change. Men can also be helpful in eradicating the violence, by supporting women in their struggle to be free. While it is true that the male presence deters many violent incidents from happening, sadly, even the women who were mobbed in Mumbai were in the company of their boyfriends.
What To Do?
In cultures where it is not acceptable for women to show skin, we might do ourselves some good by covering up. Observing local norms of dress is as much an act of respect as taking off one’s shoes before entering a temple.
However, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that we will be safer in a sari than we would be in shorts and a T-shirt, and no one is right to say that a woman dressed Ã¢â‚¬Ëœprovocatively’ is asking for violence.
If we abide by this theory, then we are saying that no woman wearing a burqa has ever been raped.
Sex Or Power?
There is also the misguided perception that men perpetrate violence against women because of sexual frustration, particularly in cultures where sex before marriage is taboo.
In this case, then women, having sexual urges as well, would be as ravenous. As well, married men, who can be assumed to have at least some access to regular sex, would never harass women. This is not the case, which signifies to me that sexual harassment is less about sex, and more about power.
Given this predicament, perhaps women could work to resist violence by claiming some of it back.
In Canada, many of my female friends carry pepper spray, or take self-defense courses so that they may fend off any unwanted attention. Some do not walk after dark, but some do, hoping that “looking confident” will be enough to discourage violence.
Here where I live now in India, I have read about many women who are resisting abuse in similar fashions.
An Indian women’s blogging site, called Blank Noise, collects the views of women who are determined to secure their free place in the world, particularly as it relates to street harassment. One woman, Annie Zaidi, asserts that the first step in eradicating violence against women is not tolerating it. She writes:
I WILL NOT ACCEPT IT. I will not stop buying “provocative” clothes…I will not make unwanted rules for myself. I will crush the beast where I see it. With a stare, with a slur, with a scream, with a camera…I will take my rights as a citizen and nothing less.
Perhaps then, when we travel alone, we should use our cameras, not only to capture the beauty of the horizon, but also to document the unspeakable acts of a few men who think they have power over us.
When we put a lens in front of someone’s face and call harassment a crime, we are putting a name to the problem of female abuse everywhere, and bringing it out in the open where it can be mediated.
Fight Or Flight?
A topic that many women debate is the “fight or flight” reaction, which comes at the height of a trauma.
When confronted by the mototaxi driver, I found myself, at five foot three, instinctually swinging at my attacker like The Terminator. This was effective in fending off what could have been a possible rape. I had a friend in Canada who, in South America, managed to overtake three attackers in a park.
While not every woman gets the “fight” reaction, and for some, it may present even further danger, certainly we are capable of kicking butt.
Should instinct, our greatest weapon, tell us to “flee” an attack, a functioning cell phone is invaluable, as is being in an area in which other people are reachable.
Staying in a busy neighborhood, and traveling in groups, sometimes helps us to escape attack when we are not able to fight on our own, but the most important thing women can do to protect themselves is to listen to their inner voice.
One problem in distinguishing our risk of danger is that often, men who want to attack women are nice to them first. They attempt a cheerful dialogue, or a few drinks and a chat.
I meet many a woman who confess that they “feel like a bitch” if they express their discomfort in circumstances where the man appears to be friendly.
We need not be paranoid in meeting strangers, but if we get that feeling of “something being off” we must trust ourselves and respond accordingly.
Here in India, where street harassment is common, sometimes the line, “Excuse me, but did I ask for this conversation?” or, “I’m just fine by myself here!” manages to ward off unwanted attention.
I might sound like a bitch, but if I’m getting a negative feeling from someone, chances are it’s warranted, and even if it isn’t, I’ll never see them again.
Also, in many countries, there are crisis centers, often mentioned in travel guides, which could be of service. Even putting a notice on the hostel bulletin board about any dangerous acquaintances might be effective in protecting other women.
“Oops, Gotta Run!”
It’s common on the road for women to meet handsome strangers, who at some point turn out to be creeps.
A simple arrangement for someone, even a hostel-mate, to call midway into the evening, could prove a wonderful opportunity for escape. We can easily tell the offending bloke that our “friend” is “having an emergency” and make our speedy exit. It’s the oldest trick in the book.
We should be less wary of wounding someone’s ego, and more concerned about our internal alarm system, which is telling us that there is danger ahead. Even if we have to feign a semi-psychotic episode (“I forgot to take my meds. Gotta run!”) it’s best to just leave the scene.
Traveling is about as “safe” as anything else we do, however some people in the world have yet to catch up with the independent lives that many women now lead.
Women should not be fearful of venturing out, but they should be prepared to confront the problem of violence. Silence is not a weapon: our minds and our voices are.
We do not ask to be violated, we ask for violence against women to stop.
“Beat Me And Break Me” and “Fallen Flower” Photos by Ryan Libre.
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