sexual harassment and unwanted attention abroad
July 25, 2009 7:13 AM   Subscribe

How can I, a young woman in a foreign country, stop men on the street from harassing me, or from paying me so much attention?

I'm currently traveling through the Balkans, and I'm having a hell of a time dealing with sexual harassment. I'm a young woman of mixed (clearly foreign) ethnicity, and I'm constantly fending off romantic advances (no, I don't want to run away with you to Montenegro), and men have tried to grope me on the bus more times than I can count. Plus, since I'm traveling alone I attract attention for that reason. When I walk around, I feel as every eye is on me-- some stares hostile, some sexual, but all unwavering. I understand that this is to be expected, and there's nothing I can do to change my appearance or situation, but I'm getting really sick and tired of all the extra attention. How should I act so that I minimize attention, and what can I do when people are pissing me off, if I can't tell them off in my own language and don't want to make trouble in a foreign country?

Note: of course this is a problem even in one's home country but I think I'm being noticed because I am a foreign woman. The countries where I've had problems are Serbia and particularly Albania, and I'm going to Istanbul now (don't know how that will be). My wardrobe options are limited, but would it make a difference to wear shorts instead of dresses or skirts? I figure my legs are showing regardless..
posted by acidic to Travel & Transportation (41 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think it will be a problem in Istanbul, where there are a lot of other tourists. As for being on the bus, can you carry a sharp needle or pin that you can stab them with when they touch you inappropriately? I don't mean stab them to kill them, just a warning.
posted by anniecat at 7:24 AM on July 25, 2009

Cover your hair with a bandanna. I would say no to the shorts. Try to find a buddy you can travel with temporarily; I often found when backpacking around I would run into the same faces again and again. Some of them are bound to be tolerable to share rides to museums, etc.
posted by atchafalaya at 7:25 AM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

As for being on the bus, can you carry a sharp needle or pin that you can stab them with when they touch you inappropriately?

I think this is a really, Really, REALLY bad idea. If the mysoginy is ro rampant that men will try to grope you publicly, then I suspect the reaction to being stabbed with a needle could be much, much worse.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 7:32 AM on July 25, 2009 [21 favorites]

Honestly, if you want to be ignored in Istanbul, dress like the women there do. Long skirts, long sleeved blouses, cover your hair.
posted by musofire at 7:33 AM on July 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

Istanbul will definitely be a problem, especially if you walk on the Istiklal Caddesi at late evenings/night. I don't know one woman who hasn't been harassed there yet. See purple needle.
I have no idea what you could do though, maybe some of the answers in this thread can be of help.
posted by kolophon at 7:36 AM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with covering up your hair. I did that when I couldn't shake unwanted attention in Italy, and also here in the States when I just can't handle all the overtures from street corner guys. It doesn't eliminate the attention, but definitely cuts it down.
posted by jenmakes at 7:36 AM on July 25, 2009

musofire: most women in the central districts of istanbul don't cover their hair.
posted by kolophon at 7:37 AM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

That sucks. I've heard wearing a wedding ring helps, but probably not too too much.
posted by backwards guitar at 7:40 AM on July 25, 2009

My ex-wife used two techniques in her student travels around Europe 1) She would wear shoes with narrow heels and tread on their toes with vigour and 2) she would drool out of the side of her mouth.
posted by A189Nut at 7:49 AM on July 25, 2009 [9 favorites]

I have been similarly harassed in Istanbul, but nothing too aggressive - it always seemed more 'friendly' in nature than the forcibly-groping-you kind of harassment. Just as a point of interest though, I read in a lot of guide books that Turkish people tend not to regard staring as rude, so not all attention is necessarily harassment.

Being shouted at in the street was also confined to the tourist route in the city centre - if you venture out even slightly from there it immediately stopped. Me and my friend went over to the Asian side of the city on the ferry, and over there we were completely ignored.
posted by cryptozoology at 7:53 AM on July 25, 2009

Do NOT prick them with a pin, I can't think of a worse idea. Don't engage in such a way as to encourage a reaction, a pin-prick would open the door to a variety of deeper interactions you don't want in a foreign country.

Buy a light long sleeve shirt to cover your arms (light because of the heat), cover your hair and don't wear shorts. I hate to say it but travel with a male partner. Some areas of the world are like this.... okay, many.
posted by fluffycreature at 7:56 AM on July 25, 2009

How are you dressing now?
posted by LarryC at 7:58 AM on July 25, 2009

Street harassment sucks, and there is pretty much nothing you can do to avert it. I know a nun who was harassed while wearing full habit. In Rome.

However, in a lot of parts of the world, women in shorts draw even more unwanted attention than women in skirts. If you want to send the signal "I am a modest person" a long skirt and long sleeves do communicate that, as does wearing a headscarf in many places.

But there are lots of men who will gleefully harass women they perceive as modest, who are dressed modestly--those choices are only going to deter the less committed harassers. Still, it might cut the frequency down a bit.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:05 AM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Um, well, in Albania I was for much of the time by the beach where every woman was wearing a bikini or sundress or tank top, so I'm pretty sure my attire wasn't the problem. And I looked closely, and none of the local women were being stared at like I was. But when I am on the street I usually have a dress or skirt close to my knees and my shoulders covered, and not low-cut shirts either.

Thanks for the other advice, and ill try the hair covering and wedding ring. I think my biggest frustration is that unlike at home, men don't look away when I meet their eyes or at worst shoot them a dirty look. I have no desire to be the sexual object of any man since I'm not interested in men, and while this isn't realistic, I'd like to be able to move freely without feeling so watched.
posted by acidic at 8:15 AM on July 25, 2009

Are you blonde or a redhead? I used to get it all of the time when I was in my 20s, and I couldn't figure it out until someone told me that it's my coloring.
posted by jgirl at 8:20 AM on July 25, 2009

Foreign women are always targets of harassment, because it's seen as less likely to carry consequences. Your brother/father/husband isn't going to be around to beat those guys up.

That said, a knee-length skirt isn't a sartorial signal of modesty. "Long skirt" in this context is mid-calf or longer. So if you want to choose attire that sends the "I am modest" signal, you're going to have to go longer with the skirts.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:21 AM on July 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

Have you tried talking to any of the local women about this? They might be better able to pin down what's going on and how to get around it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:25 AM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sidhedevil's comment may be an exception that proves the rule - dress as a nun. A plain, below-the-knee grey dress with a white collar worked for people I know, though it was in "Christianized" European countries, rather than an Islamicized country like Turkey.
posted by anadem at 8:35 AM on July 25, 2009

When I lived in San Francisco's Tenderloin, I felt uncomfortable quite often when I'd go out at night to buy cigarettes or whatever, and the attention was unpleasant, sometimes hostile, usually sexual, and uncomfortable.

I resolved the problem with the old classic, carrying around a rubber chicken.

It's apparently quite off-putting.

I'd look for some way that you can add to your appearance that throws them off the 'young available woman' scent and puts you into some other category. You're crazy, you're very religious and proper, you're pregnant--whatever is handy. And if you have a rubber chicken, that might work too.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:42 AM on July 25, 2009 [20 favorites]

Admittedly, it has been several years since I lived in Mexico as a teenager, but I can totally relate to the harassment you are enduring.

While we were never able to eliminate it completely, we were able to deflect a very large percentage of it by adopting many of the reactions and mannerisms of the local women. [For example, when walking with a female companion, we would hold hands because that's what the Mexican teenaged girls did.]

We also took to carrying a small decorative baseball bat we had purchased at a souvenir shop to protect ourselves in crowded situations. We didn't need to use it very often (and when we did, we simply prodded the "gentleman" in the ribs), but it also served as an apparent deterrent.

As I think back on it, we probably caused more confusion than anything, acting like natives yet with blond hair and other decidedly non-native aspects of our appearance, but at least we weren't hassled quite so much.
posted by DrGail at 8:44 AM on July 25, 2009

You can camouflage yourself as best as you can, try to find traveler buddies, etc, ... but if at all possible, you have to really ignore it.

They do it to bother you, the only response is to act as if they don't even exist. This is normal for them, treat them like bothersome flies.

I know it's much easier said then done, and admittedly, I haven't been in situations as drastic as you describe, but I have experienced degrees of unwanted attention because I'm a female, and that's what has worked for me.

I don't see them, don't hear them, don't react or even bat an eye. I don't give them the satisfaction of any kind of interaction with me.
posted by Locochona at 8:45 AM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Don't be surprised that you are receiving more unwanted attention than the local women, even less conservatively dressed local women. You are clearly a foreign woman and held to a different standard. The expectation is that you have looser morals. We can debate the hows and whys of that but that's the way it is. That's why this problem is so persistent.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:53 AM on July 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

That's just traveling. You know the whole experiencing other cultures and interacting with natives thing? Well here it is. I know this sounds crass, but that's how it is. Most other cultures are considerably less open minded when it comes to racism or sexual equality.

Not a day goes by when I'm not made fun of just for being white in Asia. Little kids will stare and point at me and chant "foreigner" over and over again every time I leave my apartment.

People try to over charge me where ever I got, and taxi drivers will purposefully take me in the wrong direction. Some of this is a us/them mentality. Some of this is just how other countries work.

Experience the bad with the good, and appreciate what you come home to. You're not in danger, it's just what people in that part of the world do.

PS If you think this is bad, wait until you make it over to India.
posted by Telf at 9:04 AM on July 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When I was 18 and for the first time was confronted with similar, incredibly intrusive behaviour while travelling in certain parts of Southern Europe, I met a male traveller who pointed out to me that local (young) women never met his eyes. They didn't even look around much. They looked sullen and completely uninterested in their surroundings and everyone around them - really radiating a chilly, impersonal "you don't exist" to the world.

I followed his advice, and man if it didn't reduce the harassment by half if not more. Not really the catcalls (that seemed to be a way to gauge my level of "interest", and merely frowning could be regarded as encouragement - so stop shooting dirty looks or outstaring them, it's totally counterproductive). But I was much less likely to get approached personally.

It's probably culture specific, of course, but you might want to give this stonewalling a try. (Naturally, the trade off sucks. What's the point of travelling - or even getting out the door - if you're not able to look at people, show your curiosity, smile, engage with the world around you?)

While apparently not paying attention, you should of course be very aware of what's going on around you, who's there and where and how you position yourself. If you get harassed in public transport a lot, try to find a spot near elderly women; they may even defend you if someone really crosses the line.

Big sunglasses may help in putting up with the constant staring (unless they add to your foreign glamour and make the harassment worse).
posted by sively at 9:15 AM on July 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

Wear sunglasses. Long pants and covered sleeves.
If someone touches you inappropriately, yell HARAM (forbidden).
If someone hisses, make the shame tsk noise.
posted by k8t at 9:37 AM on July 25, 2009

...unlike at home, men don't look away when I meet their eyes or at worst shoot them a dirty look.

I have heard that in some cultures, meeting a man's eyes is interpreted as interest. You may be unintentionally flirting when you do this.
posted by amtho at 9:55 AM on July 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Well, I know that most commenters are advising against the needle idea, but my mother, aunts and grandmother carried needles in their sleeves while taking public transportation in Italy as young women. If am man became fresh, it was perfectly acceptable for a woman to prick the offender's hand. I have never used that technique personally, but then again, I didn't grow up getting groped. I get the impression that the needle trick is rather common in certain countries. At least it is/was in Italy.
For me, when I am confronted with harrassing behavior, and I cannot ignore it, I usually resort to either shaming the offender (my personal favorite is asking the asshat if he talks to his mother like that), or telling them to shut up. Both make me feel better.
posted by msali at 9:56 AM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Some rules of thumb: the further south you go, the worse the harassment gets - reaching its peak in Arab countries, then ever so slightly diminishing below the Sahara. There are, of course always exceptions. Another rule: in general, Islamic cultures tend to have more harassment of women (with exceptions, of course). Nothing you do will make it cease completely. Even being pregnant - a friend of mine had this experience: visibly pregnant, she was visiting Egypt with her husband, and on several occasions, the husband was asked by the local men, if they could have sex with his woman, since she was already pregnant and therefore there was no danger she could be impregnated by them. This is apparently a pretty common experience for pregnant tourists. Incidentally, this harassing attitude toward women, is one cause of serious resentments against foreign immigrants to Sweden (many of the men, especially from Islamic countries, harass Swedish women in Sweden). I'm afraid that's just the way it is.

You can minimize the onslaught, but not eliminate it. To minimize: wedding ring and long sleeved clothes and covered legs and hair. This is not as bad as it sounds, because clothing can actually provide protection from the beating sun (unless you want the sun, like on the beach). Most importantly: ignore at all costs. Don't look at them, don't answer, and don't linger. Use tools you may have, to focus your attention: tourist book, camera, etc. Gaze should be up and ahead, not down or looking back.

Good luck - you have my sympathy.
posted by VikingSword at 10:14 AM on July 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

After many years of getting stared at just about everywhere I go - I'm female, six feet three inches tall, and quite white - I have learned to never, ever meet someone's gaze when I find that gaze intrusive. Even in the States, it only encourages people to keep trying, and "trying" can mean a lot of different things, from asking my name to reaching out to touch me. I found it to be even more true when I traveled - I've never been to Istanbul, only northern Europe, UK, South Africa and Central America, but I got plenty of attention. People bent on harrassing you are like wild animals with big teeth; you shouldn't look them in the eye, because they take it as a challenge. Just keep moving, or look at something else. I can't tell you how many of those overhead ads I've memorized on public buses.

I would agree with covering your hair, getting some longgggg skirts, wearing big-ass sunglasses. But the primary thing is to stop engaging with those people who are bothering you - just remember that engagement begins with eye contact. Look at the lovely scenery and fabulous architecture, not the skanky dude to your left.
posted by brittafilter at 10:21 AM on July 25, 2009

Best answer: I second all the eye contact advice. No eye contact, ever, and don't smile at anyone. If someone harasses you, don't engage, even to argue with them. When I got persistently harassed in Russia (it only happened a few times) my tactic was to keep walking, repeating occasional phrases like "I don't know you" and "get away from me" in Russian when/if they tried to physically engage or block my path, not making eye contact or turning my head or acknowledging my harasser in any way. I was dressed like a local girl, I looked like a local girl, but local girls were not tourists catching trains by themselves or wandering around city streets buying lemonade from kiosks. I think "protective camouflage" did a lot, but it did not eliminate it entirely, simply because good local girls are not doing what tourists do. Also worth noting: these guys do harass the local girls, too, when they "step out of bounds." Most of the female Russian students I met had stories about getting harassed by strangers, cab drivers, etc., when they traveled alone or went to strange parts of the city.

When I was accompanied by anyone who would engage with the harasser in any way-- arguing, defensive-smiling, trying to convince them to leave, trying to convince them to "convert themselves" into a helpful person instead of a harassing person-- the situation was always prolonged and it usually didn't improve at all.

Also, finding and sticking close to local old ladies can sometimes be helpful. Random sketchy guys are sometimes loath to continue harassment around local old ladies because if the local old ladies find them sketchy enough, they will turn around and metaphorically rip the guy to shreds. Again, it helps if you are not engaging with the guys, so the old lady has no one to shriek at but the guy who is being persistently loud and obtrusive.
posted by posadnitsa at 10:39 AM on July 25, 2009

Best answer: Agreed that mid-calf length for skirts is the conservative standard, and even that can be dependent upon what you've got on your feet. Sometimes bare-skinned ankles are considered especially revealing. Lighter hair gets more catcalls than dark, longer more than short. Colored/light/patterned shirts more than neutral/dark. Shortsleeves more than long. No uncovered shoulders. Open toed/heeled shoes more than closed.

Body language- walking as if you're uncomfortable, quickening your step, crossing your arms across your chest, all of these symbolize vulnerability in subtle ways and can unintentionally trigger more harassment rather than less.

Eye contact increases intensity of exchange- don't do it. Sunglasses help you look around, without engagement. Ignoring, feels rude, but can be useful. Putting (preferably black- not expensive white ones) headphones in your ears (even if nothing is playing) is VERY effective. Fake talking on a cell phone too.

Hand gestures- putting a single hand up at face level, for example, is a nice, neutral salute/symbol of 'stop'- especially when its used with a closed mouth pursed-lip half-smile, and no eye contact, keep walking. Practice putting it up assertively, in what feels like a kind of star-trek greeting... This acknowledges the other person, but clearly expresses a boundary.

The name of the game is to feel good where you are, don't walk in places that make you feel unsafe, but also don't let catcalls jeopardize your comfort if that's all they are. Think of them like crows.

Examine your wardrobe/body language/location first, but then try to let it go. You will find the more comfortable you are, the more you acknowledge this as part of the travel game, the better you will feel and the more secure/effective you will be in moving past the most persistent harassers.
posted by iiniisfree at 10:49 AM on July 25, 2009 [7 favorites]

Sunglasses might help.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:14 AM on July 25, 2009

Hostel owners and hoteliers probably deal with guests who might be dealing with issues similar to yours. Talk to them about areas to avoid in each new place you go.
posted by mdonley at 11:49 AM on July 25, 2009

men don't look away when I meet their eyes or at worst shoot them a dirty look.

Look down. Don't look them in the eye. Looking someone in the eye is an invitation to acknowledgement. A dirty look is practically beginning a conversation.

What do you do when you pass someone in the street in your home country whose attention you may not want? Like street-corner preacher or overfriendly weirdo on the bus or Greenpeace canvassers or whatever? I don't know about you, but I avert their eyes and keep walking. Same principle.
posted by desuetude at 12:11 PM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is the advice I give to female friends traveling to Asia - dress in trousers or long skirts, ensure that your tshirt covers your cleavage, try to ignore all advances (i can't imagine how difficult it must be), try to travel in groups, don't look like you don't know the place, learn some of the local lingo because people you meet will talk to people around them thinking you don't know what they are talking about - words like currency denominations, directions, etc., take a local friend (if you have one) with you when you try to buy something as you will always be overcharged from shops which don't have a fixed price.

VickingSword - That whole pregnant lady story is so sick. I hope your friend(s) made it back without losing their sanity.
posted by bbyboi at 12:21 PM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I lived in Peru for a year and dealt with a lot of unwanted attention. I've tried several methods, but the difference is that I do speak the language. I think sunglasses is a great idea, that way they can't see that they're getting a rise out of you, and plain old ignoring. While I think the pin prick idea sounds dangerous, pinching someone's hand might not be as dangerous, although do so at your discretion and depending on the circumstance. Ignore ignore ignore, and as hard as it sounds, try not to let these creeps ruin your trip. Best of luck.
posted by cachondeo45 at 12:48 PM on July 25, 2009

Cosign all the advice about not looking them in the eye.

Don't make eye contact. Don't acknowledge them. You don't know them. They don't exist. No matter how it starts out, don't feel you owe a polite acknowledgement - it's taken as a sign of interest. Take them as guys who have nothing better to do & their behavior as a little bit pathetic and not worth your time. Ignore, ignore, ignore, do not engage in any way. Look bored by everything.

That's what I had to do in Paris - as an American it was real hard for me to adopt this response of just acting like people didn't exist, but when it's a matter of simply being able to walk on a public street without being harassed, I'd do it. I didn't wear shorts, either, though part of that was.. it sort of marked me as a foreigner and probably a tourist. If you have no choice but to recognize that the person does exist, doesn't hurt to know a short familiar expression in the local language. e.g., "tu dégages!" - "Go away!" (Assuming my slang is not outdated here.)
posted by citron at 12:51 PM on July 25, 2009

Best answer: Are you Americans? Most American women are trained to make eye contact and be friendly and work not to make other people uncomfortable. Screw that.

I live in Egypt. I don't know if the rules here translate, but I agree with the following suggestions:

1. Do not make eye contact with men! Any men! Do not look at them and smile. Do not give them any looks, which often do not translate between different cultures. (A small exception can be made for shopkeepers if you are in their store buying something.)
2. On public transportation, sit as close as possible to a local woman, preferably an older woman who will command more respect. Walk near local women, etc.
3. If you look foreign, you are stuck-but try to act like a foreigner who lives there rather than a tourist. Have you noticed other western women? What are they doing differently?
4. Learn the words for "No, stop bothering me" in the local language. There may be a word or phrase that works locally (in Egypt it's "haram," ie "forbidden.")
5. Wear dark sunglasses and headphones (even if there's no music on). Give the impression you can't see or hear anything.
6. Cover up more. Clothes you find perfectly reasonable and modest may be very different than what local women are wearing. Longer pants or shots (mid calf) and are best. Are your shirts fitted? Wear (buy if necessary) a lightweight, big shirt. It should be distinctly unflattering.
7. Walk with other women or men you know as much as possible.
8. When you meet local women, ask them for advice.

Best of luck. This really takes so much joy out of traveling.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:00 PM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

As a woman traveling alone I deal with this a lot. I'll say it once again, do not look them in the eye. In a lot of cultures looking men in the eye is a sort of invitation. Do not let them get a rise out of you, it is very possible this will turn them on even more. Its true, unfortunately, that many men in non-Western countries believe that Western women have loose morals and that any traveling alone must be looking for sex.

When I was much younger I was walking around Istanbul in an un-touristy area alone in a full length skirt and long sleeves. A man started following me. I asked him to stop. He pretended to but kept at it for about 20 minutes. Finally I stopped on the sidewalk and yelled at him. A group of local men came up and asked me if I was okay and gave the man a huge talking down to. The entire street turned to watch. He left me alone after that. So if you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation you can usually appeal to an older women or group of women for help, even just to stand behind. If someone grabs you can yell and make a scene to shame them.

Sure, India is bad but, honestly, Egypt was the worst sexual harassment I've ever experienced. It might have been compounded by going from India to Egypt so I was mentally worn down from it all. I was propositioned for sex in Egypt sometimes as often as every 3 minutes while walking to my hotel. This is while wearing a winter coat, loose trousers and hiking boots. I guess the only thing more I could have done was wear a scarf. Keep in mind that pants or shorts are more enticing to these sort of men than skirts.

Unfortunately, there's no way to make the harassment totally stop but changing your mannerisms a bit and wearing looser fitting clothing might help. On the beach, its possible that they were staring at you because of your features, hair color etc. When I go to China I am started at sometimes from only a foot away. People stand 6" behind me while I draw and breathe on my neck—in that case its not sexual but curiosity. Maybe the beach is a little of both. Good luck and happy travels!
posted by Bunglegirl at 11:05 PM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing not looking someone in the eye and learning the local words for "Go away!" and "Leave me alone!"

I was taught in self-defense class to ram someone in the ribs with your elbow if he comes up behind and gropes/ rubs his crotch against you.
posted by brujita at 10:55 AM on July 26, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. Really good advice, I tried to mark the most comprehensive posts as best answers. Cutting out eye contact and assuming an expression of total disinterest helped a lot, as did the headphones. Outside of the heavily touristed areas of Istanbul (Sultanahmet) I received no attention that made me particularly uncomfortable.
posted by acidic at 4:53 AM on July 30, 2009

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