My mother always told me I could do whatever I wanted in this world, I could be whatever I wanted to be. With that encouragement and love, I have traveled far and wide and come across so many situations where we, as women, are considered “less” because of our sex. But my mother’s words never left my brain and I did not allow any harassment or bias stand in my way of living my life as I want to…
Yes, as a woman, you get used to being harassed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I have experienced this since I was a child, with church-goers who thought they could pinch my cheeks because I was the pastor’s daughter and fair game, to uglier events that occurred as I grew older. As I have mentioned, I have been a traveler for years – there is nothing more like “home” for me than getting on an airplane and flying away to somewhere new, exotic, far away from my past and present.
But in embracing this life, I have also had to come to terms with the fact that women are treated differently around the globe, and although I come from a country that, I hope, still stands up for women’s rights, there are numerous places I have visited that have their fair share of assholes who think just because you have a vagina and breasts, you are somehow property – or at least they can treat you as such.
Perhaps my first experience with this, as a solo traveler, was when I was in my mid-teens and trying to find my gate at JFK for my flight to Europe. The International terminal is full of different languages, clothing and even smells. I remember walking for what seemed forever, by gates that were for countries I wasn’t traveling to (yet) and being in awe of what I saw. And then I heard it. The Air India gate. It was if time had stopped and all the men who were waiting to board had turned to look at me, and began calling out as if I would want to hear the shit they were saying about me. It rattled me. As a sheltered 16-year old, I was not ready for this.
But as I grew older and my wanderlust took hold, I explored more areas of this world and came to realize that women are looked at differently, depending on where you are are. In many countries, we are chattel, expected to belong to a man and if we are alone, something must be amiss, or we are seeking out a male figure to save us. My upbringing always said, “Fuck that shit”. But one also has to be careful in the ways in which we present and project ourselves in a male-dominated world.
My first experience with being a minority was when I was on a dig in Jamaica. It was an amazing summer, and our group was ensconced in a haunted sugar plantation house, on the north side of the island, a few miles away from any town or port. We were taking a summer class (the best way to earn school credit I’ve ever experienced) but we had local men help us with the excavation site. However, we were told, as women, if we ever went into town we had to cover our arms, our legs. The women were terrified we would “steal” their men, and on an occasion or two, if one did not follow the rules, harassment and spitting would be emitted from the lips of the native women. I was shocked by this. But it also taught me a very important lesson – blend in as much as possible.
It wasn’t always easy. As white people, we were considered “privileged” and could go to the nearest port town, which had glamorous hotels that served drinks to you as you lay on the chaise lounges on the private beach. Outside the walls of these enclaves were shanty houses and natives who sold anything for money, and it was a travesty to me – how capitalism barred those who had lived in this country their entire lives from enjoying the pleasures that any tourist who could afford it, did. I hated it. But I also hated the cat-calling that we faced every time we went out. After months of listening to the endless hissing the men made when they found someone they wanted to talk to, I found myself on a balcony in a bar we frequented, and below me a “hiss, hiss, hiss” chant began. Having a full glass of water in my hand, and a slight buzz in my head, without thinking I poured the water on the man below. Within moments I realized how stupid this was, and hightailed it back into the bar, with the hopes that he would not be waiting when I exited to unleash any anger on me. Thankfully he wasn’t – so I escaped this narrowly.
I continued my journeys to foreign countries avidly during my late teens and early 20’s. I lived for a year in the Mediterranean and couldn’t have been happier. Yes, I got used to the men in the city and their cat-calls, but also learned the perfect swear words to use as a retort, and that felt empowering. But it wasn’t all roses. During our spring break, several of us went to Egypt, which is a country I adore and would live there in a heartbeat, if not for our current political climate. We traveled as a pack – 3 women, 2 men in solidarity. Amazingly, none of us were blond, which would have attracted much more attention. Due to the fact that the first Gulf “war” had ceased but people were too afraid to travel, we found that the country was ours for the taking – we were literally the only tourists there. We had flights to different cities where we were the only ones who took up the cabin. We made deals with 5-star hotels to let us stay for $20 a night, because they needed guests. It was heaven – not only because we felt as if we had slipped back in time and were the only Westerners who came to this sacred land, but because of the history we experienced.
Everything about Egypt was magic – the sights, sounds, smells. We ate falafel from street vendors, we biked to the Valley of the Kings each morning, we stared in awe at Abu Simbel as we stood in front of the great homage to the Pharaoh Ramesses II, erected in the 13th century BC, as a lasting monument to himself and his queen Nefertari. We took a Faluka down the Nile, basking in the sun and the laziness of the river. And then it happened. One evening, as we were staying in Aswan and wandering through the night market, a group of men walked our way. We were together, in our own group, but all of a sudden I felt a hand, a stranger’s hand, grab my crotch. It was shocking. It was appalling. And my gut impulse, what I instinctively did, is something that makes me proud, but should also be a cautionary tale…
Without thinking, I turned, my hand gathered in a fist, and hit that motherfucker straight and hard in his chest. No one grabs this pussy unless I say so, is what my reaction was saying. He stumbled back a few steps. The market fell silent. Everything stopped. And I could feel the blood drain from my face as I realized I was in a foreign land with different rules, and I had just punched a man.
Once again, I was lucky. After a moment or two, someone laughed. The market sounds resumed, and the group of men went on their way. I am sure they made it out to be a hero story where some crazy Western woman was “feral” and they had a great time recreating stories of the monster I was in their minds, simply because I could not be “cowed”, I could not be tamed.
A similar offense on my body happened a few months later, when I was traveling through Turkey with my then boyfriend. Turkey is one of the most incredible countries I have ever had the privilege to visit, to live in for a spell, and to absorb all the beauty that exists there. But it wasn’t all confetti and rainbows. One late morning, as the boy I was dating and I were walking across a bridge spanning the Bosphorus River, a man walked toward us with a bear cub leashed with a chain. I was captivated by the sight – in horror for the animal, the fact that this man was simply wandering with a wild bear as if it was the norm, his character – all of which I was trying to comprehend as he neared us. And then it happened. It almost felt like an afterthought – as I stared at the animal, holding my boyfriend’s hand, this man – a complete stranger – reached out a hand and grabbed my left breast. I stopped (I didn’t throw a punch this time). But I remember gasping for breath, because the fact that I had just been manhandled by a complete stranger was such a foreign feeling to me. I own my body. I will tell you if you can touch me. These are the tenets I grew up with. And in a moment they were shattered, and I was left feeling completely vulnerable.
to be continued…and there is so many more to tell.
© Sorrow & Kindness