Security for Women Travelers
By Randy Johnson
The problem is sexual harassment of women by local men. In some countries the barrage of comments, hissing, whistling, chirping, leering stares, lecherous grins, and blatant sexual advances can just about destroy your enjoyment of the country. When it gets to physical touching and groping, it can become quite frightening.
In other places, the constant harassment on the street is pleasantly missing. But you still need to be cautious of men making sexual advances to you when an opportunity arises, such as sitting or standing next to you on a bus, or catching you in a situation away from other people. The more conservative the local social and religious standards, the more your very presence provokes this outrageous behavior in the local men. The local women may also be scandalized by your presence, not to mention your dress and behavior.
This is a completely different environment from what you are used to. Since you cannot change the cultural mores of entire populations, you must learn to deal with the situation as it exists. You may need to wear clothing that you don't care for, stay off the streets at night, or avoid contacts with local men. It won't always be fun or easy, but there are a number of things you can do which can significantly reduce the problems and allow you to continue enjoying the country as best you can. If it becomes too much for you, move on to another country where things are not so difficult.
You have probably heard most of the explanations and rationalizations for this sexist behavior in Third World men. All Western women are seriously believed to be sexually promiscuous, and so on. Still, it is hard to believe that you could cause such reactions just by being there.
The simple fact that you are a "modern" foreign woman makes you just as provocative in some conservative countries as if you had walked into your workplace in your underwear! Add to that the fact that you are out traveling the world, perhaps even (incredibly) on your own. On top of that, you do things that no local woman would ever do; you travel around without your husband and children, eat in restaurants, and stay away from the "house", even after dark!
Not only do you fail to fit the pattern of proper local women, but you seem to fall into the category of the wanton western women they have perhaps seen in films. You are already a provocation to Third World men just by being there! Now if your dress and behavior are less than the demure standards for local women and girls, that only strikes the match that sets off their male egos and libidos. Yes, these poor guys! You can really get to hate, and even fear them. Now, how do you deal with them? Here are three reminders to minimize (but not eliminate) harassment on the street in countries where it is bothersome: Go around with other travelers, dress conservatively, and don't be too friendly to strangers.
Be aware of the local standards of dress and behavior. The simplest way is just to observe how the local women and girls dress and behave. Preferably, you should get some information about the local customs before you arrive, from other women travelers who have already been there. If you do a little reading before you leave home, you should at least be able to determine the types of clothing you may want to bring.
Make friends of travelers and take them with you wherever you go. This is your best protection. The more friends, the better; take two or three along -- safety in numbers. A woman traveling alone is much more of a target for harassment than two women together. You can really do a lot to help, protect, and support each other in areas where it is a problem. Being "sisters" is generally safer than revealing that you hardly know each other; create some imaginative relationships.
Learn something from how the local women protect themselves. In most Third World countries, women commonly walk arm in arm, or holding hands; couples may not, since public displays of affection are improper in many places. Watch how the local girls avoid the attentions of men. They walk arm in arm, with their heads together, constantly laughing and deep in conversation with each other. This is not just their adolescent personalities, it is their protection from the intrusions of men. If a strange man says something to them, they ignore him; if he approaches, they only look down in disgust and move on. When young women and girls in Latin America go to "promenade" in the park on Sundays, it is a different story. They walk near their girlfriends but they don't talk very much; this allows young men to approach them for a stroll around the park, if they are agreeable. It is a social institution.
Sure, walk arm in arm with your female companions; get really close and show that you don't want any intrusions. Do the same with your male companions, but don't offend local public decency with overt shows of affection.
Having a male companion will not make you immune to harassment, but it can be a stronger deterrent than a female companion, especially if it seems clear that you "belong" to him (even if you do not). Grab a guy you can trust, or already love, and stick to him. Or travel with a couple and be his "sister"; you can all walk arm in arm. These relationships appear stronger than 'just hanging out' with a few men, which can occasionally give entirely the wrong impression, especially if no particular man appears to be watching out for you. Still, it should be comforting to have a few male travelers around to keep the flies off of you.
A couple hitching in Mexico was picked up by a carload of men. The man was asked if the woman was his wife. "No", he said, truthfully. "Is she your sister?" "No." Whereupon the man sitting next to her began groping all over her body! Marriage and family still get some respect, while "living in sin" does not.
If you dress and behave just as the local women do, it will greatly reduce the amount of attention and harassment you receive. Of course in a few places this would require you to conceal yourself in a berka and stay off the streets! But the more you conform, the fewer problems you will have. Try to go at least half way.
Dressing conservatively is the easiest precaution to take. Many women, and men too, just wear whatever they feel comfortable wearing at home, and the hell with the local standards; "it's their problem, not mine!" The choice is yours, but why invite more harassment on yourself than you already have? Your dress can make a significant difference in the way you are treated, especially for women. In many countries you can easily see the difference from one day to the next, if you wear different styles of clothing. You can buy relatively light, typical women's clothing quite cheaply wherever you go. If you wear this and cover your head with a local scarf, you may be unrecognizable as a foreigner when walking down the street!
As much as you can stand it, wear clothing that covers you almost as much as the local women do. In some countries, grown women do not wear their hair loose in public -- not respectable women, anyway. Just covering your long hair with a scarf could make a dramatic difference in the amount of attention you get. In many places, you only need to cover your legs and shoulders to be conservatively dressed. It doesn't matter if it's just jeans and a T-shirt, although a blouse could be more appropriate. In more conservative countries, both men and women may be improperly dressed if their arms are bare. You should carry a light long-sleeve blouse, which is good in any case to protect your arms from sun and mosquitoes. Only in conservative Moslem countries will you have trouble for wearing trousers, but a long skirt will be considered more respectable in many places and it's also cooler.
A petite woman with dark hair attracts less attention and has fewer hassles than a woman with long blonde hair and a full figure. You may have little control over these factors, but that's the way it is. In all countries, avoid tight or low-cut garments, or anything else that tends to show off or draw attention to your figure. At home they may be considered more "attractive", meaning to attract attention -- this will not be your concern when traveling! Camouflage your figure in loose garments. Clothing two sizes too large may not yet be fashionable in your country, but it can avoid unwanted attention, as well as being cool and comfortable. Eye makeup is used in some countries, but lots of makeup just makes you look more like those western women in the films. Blonde hair can act like a banner in many places; cover or tie it up for a day or two and see if it makes any difference.
These dress guidelines need not be horribly uncomfortable or unreasonable. No one is asking you to strictly observe purdah (the Muslim law of properly secluding women). But if you dress more like the locals, you will be more accepted, avoid hassles, and get closer to their way of life. You will be more accepted by the local women, as well, and find it easier to approach and befriend them. In conservative countries I always wear long trousers and often light, long-sleeve shirts. I don't have to worry much about harassment, but I feel more comfortable and certainly more accepted when I dress to the local standards. Many travelers do not.
I think you can figure out for yourself that acting wild and crazy, drinking, or even smoking in public, may give men the impression that you are a libertine for whom, perhaps, anything goes. The behavior I'm talking about is what you do when men approach you. Basically, I will advise you not to be too friendly. Western women can have the engaging habit of walking around with their heads up, smiling, being cheerful, friendly, and open. I love it. So do the Third World men. This kind of behavior is the antithesis of how Third World women act in order to discourage approaches by men.
The men are so used to being rebuked, rebuffed, ignored, and snubbed (the poor guys, it only makes them try harder!) that when you look them in the eye and smile, they are sure you are in love with them! Or at least lust. Even when you shout insults at them, they are encouraged. There is no stopping them! So the best policy is to ignore them. Nothing infuriates a man so much (and you will really look forward to infuriating them) as being completely ignored. Wearing those anti-social mirrored sunglasses can make your interactions much more impersonal.
In general, women should be more cautious about giving any response to men who speak to them on the street. In many countries, local women spoken to by strangers, even by shopkeepers or vendors, will completely ignore them unless they are interested in buying something. Unfortunately, this is a behavior traveling women should cultivate in more conservative countries. Many men will speak to a woman just to elicit any response whatsoever. Even a shake of your head, eye contact, or a smiling "no thank you" is at least a triumph for them, if not proof of their irresistibility. If they are rude enough to make you visibly angry, it is a victory; if you yell and scream at them, it is a conquest! If you must say something, try to learn some commonly used defensive replies ("leave me alone", "get lost") in the local language.
Third World women avoid eye contact with strange men by keeping their heads, or at least their eyes cast down to the ground. Of course, this will not be very convenient for sightseeing. They can also look pretty grim most of the time. Frankly, it's not very inviting. Get the picture? When things get tough, tuck your chin in, wipe that smile off your face, and don't make eye contact. At least try it for a day and see if it makes any difference. Speaking of local women, whenever you can find them, use them as sources of information instead of having to ask men for directions. They probably won't approach you, but if you make the first move, they can be quite receptive.
When you do have a casual conversation with a man on a bus, in a shop, or on the street, resist smiling or making eye contact too much. I'm sorry, but some of these men haven't seen a smile for months! It can literally drive them crazy. If you speak in a matter of fact voice, look down, and manage only a few small smiles, you will have more ordinary conversations that do not end in sexual advances. You will only be acting a bit more like local women are expected to act. Pretend it's your father.
In places where I am constantly being approached by street touts, I make it a practice to always keep moving. As long as I am in motion I can usually just ignore anyone who comes by or walks beside me. But as soon as I stop to read my map, look in a window, or sit on a park bench, someone takes the opportunity to come up and hustle me. Women travelers can adopt the same strategy; it doesn't stop the comments, but you feel less threatened when you are already walking away.
Wearing a wedding ring can occasionally put men off, or at least give you a good story to tell about your husband, who will be meeting you soon. You may choose to reinforce this with a few photos of your husband and children. If you are traveling with a male friend, pretending to be married makes you much more respectable. In some parts of Asia, the ring is worn on the right hand; just look around and see. A simple gold (or gold-plated) band can be bought relatively cheaply in many places.
I met a woman traveler on a bus in Mexico who had bought a ticket only part way to her destination. She explained that if she were having trouble with men on the bus, she would just get off and wait for the next bus. She also confided that she carried a good-sized hat pin which she had used liberally on several hands that she had found on her leg. One time she borrowed a man's cigarette only to crush it out on his errant hand! I was only slightly flattered when she stayed on and bought a new ticket. I kept my hands to myself!
The good news is that there are many countries where overt harassment of women is minimal, where dress standards are reasonably open, and you can relax and be yourself. But even these countries will have some lecherous men to plague your path. Although you won't need to follow all of the onerous guidelines I've mentioned for more conservative countries, learning them will help you to deal with these situations if they do arise.
In some countries, unfortunately, you may end up avoiding men altogether. But you will meet local men in other countries with whom you will enjoy talking, laughing, and joking. What's the fun if you can't enjoy the company of local people? Just be very much aware that it is quite easy for these men to believe that you are "leading them on". You may have to deal with the consequences later. Just because you are traveling with your husband or boyfriend does not mean that local men will keep their distance; they think they know all about how promiscuous western women are.
Don't talk with just any man who approached you on the street. The men or boys who work in your hotel, cafe, or local shops may (or may not) be the safest, especially if their wives are there. Talk to men in controlled situations, with other friends of yours around; make it a group conversation. Cut off the conversation when it becomes too personal, or degenerates to him continually asking you to do something with him. Men will ask you (and me, too) questions so personal that they would never, ever ask them of any person from their own country; it would be incredibly rude! Don't tolerate it if you don't like it! They will push your limits to see what you will accept.
Similarly, avoid casual touching. It really angers me to see local Lotharios casually laying their hands on the shoulders of friendly female travelers. They would never be so rude as to do this with local women! If they did, they would certainly get their faces slapped! When you let them touch you, you only invite more advances.
Ron and I were on a beach in Mexico where there were several travelers and local Mexicans. One night, at a real campfire, we met two teen-age American women who were just a week or two away from home. One was very attractive, very blonde, and was being very friendly with the young Mexican guys. I would have called it teen-age flirting at home; here in Mexico it was flirting with disaster. She let one of the men come to their hut with them for more talk, and ended up sending him away when he tried to kiss her.
Later, in the middle of the night, the two women ran screaming into our hut. The same young man had burst into their hut in a screaming rage, drawn his machete, and chopped down their hammocks. Fortunately, he was not murderously violent, just extremely frustrated and angry. The women were petrified with fear. "How could this have happened?" If they knew anything at all about Third World men, they could have predicted (or hopefully avoided) his behavior, "led on" by their flirtations.
No, this is not dangerous, but I insert it here for some pleasant relief. One of the few advantages that women travelers have is their accessibility to local women. In exactly the same countries where you have more hassles because of the strict treatment of women, you may also have the exclusive opportunity to visit these women in the privacy of their homes. As a male traveler, I am sometimes proscribed from even looking at local women, let alone talking to them. And I will never get beyond the front door, where the home is the sanctum of the women of the family.
But behind that door, the women of these traditional countries literally let their hair down, remove their veils, and sometimes behave in very modern and open ways. The public bath, (hammam in Moslem countries), is one public but exclusively female place to meet local women. Even in less conservative countries, you are still more welcome into the homes, activities, and conversations of local women than are male travelers.
If you are reasonably lucky, you will meet friendly male travelers in your hotel or elsewhere, who will be happy to spend some time sightseeing and sharing meals with you, allowing you to avoid some of the hassles that await lone women in some countries. Just ask them, and make sure they know exactly what your motives are. In general, most male travelers who have any experience at all will be sensitive to the problems of women travelers, and will avoid adding to the burden by making their own blatant sexual advances.
For you male travelers who are reading this, take note and wise up! Be aware that women travelers can be very sensitive to sexual advances because they are sick and tired of dealing with them out on the street. They need friends more than suitors. Make friends with people you like, and enjoy their company. If someone has a special interest in you, she will let you know in her own way. If you just can't resist, let her know in a non-confrontational way and preferably not alone in her room. Learn to take "No" for an answer, the first time. Traveling women suffer through more humiliating bullshit from men than you or I could ever imagine. Give them the respect they deserve.
While it does happen, rape of tourists is not a major threat and you need not be paranoid about it. But you should be aware that the possibility of attack can exist in many situations, and avoid those where the opportunity is greatest. The few rapes that have occurred usually take place in isolated rural areas, or in the woman's hotel room. The best way to avoid even the small possibility of being raped is to avoid walking off into isolated areas, especially by yourself. You are much less likely to be attacked anywhere if you stay with a group of people, especially if some of them are men. Making friends makes good sense.
The next major precaution is to always make sure you have a secure hotel room and keep it locked at all times, including the windows, all night. An open window can seem like an open invitation to lecherous locals. Don't put too much trust in hotel staff, and don't open your door at night to any man, including those from your hotel. You can feel very vulnerable, even locked in your room, if a man is trying to get in. You might consider carrying a small can of mace (tear gas); you probably won't have to use it, but it can make you feel less vulnerable, and it does stop attacks if sprayed in the face. A very loud alarm is another alternative. Clearly, a woman staying alone is more of a target than one staying with a man, or with other women.
I think you already know the general precautions against going off with strange men, or letting them into your room. Don't be too trusting; the rules can be quite different out there. In many cultures, being alone together, touching, and kissing are only allowed by women who want to have sex! In such cultures, a woman would never be alone with a man without expecting to be attacked. And conversely, no self-respecting man would pass up such an opportunity to attack her.
At this writing, there are not many books specifically for women travelers available, but not because they have not been written. "Women Travel", edited by Natania Jansz and Miranda Davies is one you can still find in bookstores. It is a collection of women's living and travel experiences from individual countries around the globe. Among other sources you may (or may not) find in the library are: "Seven League" Boots, Wendy Meyers' story of hitch-hiking around the world; "Ms Adventures -- Worldwide Travelguide for Independent Women", by Gail Rubin Bereny, interesting for upscale travelers; and "The Traveling Woman", by Dena Kaye.
from Randy Johnson's "Footloose and Fancy-Free in the Third World" Used with permission.
All text Copyright © 1992-2004, Randy R. Johnson.