Thursday, November 20, 2014

Intervening while traveling

I think a lot about intervention these days: why don't more people intervene when they see injustice, when they see violence? Why does the bystander effect occur?

Perhaps a more direct question to start with is: why should ordinary people concern themselves with intervention? After all, isn't it more dangerous to call attention to ourselves when there is violence (or risk of violence) occurring? Why should we get involved?
One afternoon in Chicago I was on the "L" (train) riding home. The train car was far from empty, but not particularly busy. A man had entered the train asking for money. I noticed that although one middle-aged woman had handed him some money, this man was continuing to pressure her in aggressive and hostile tones, demanding more. The woman (seated), with clear, assertive body language told him firmly, "You have money in your pocket now. I need my money." The man, now barely a foot away from the woman, leaned in closer to her and continued to demand she give him more money. In this moment it became clear to me that this was an act of intimidationnot unlike other forms of gender-based harassmentdesigned to manipulate and take advantage of her. The woman had initially responded assertively, through the tone and intensity of her verbal response, and also through body language (facing the harasser and making strong eye contact). However, when the harasser stepped in to claim her space, her assertiveness collapsed. Without attempting to reclaim her space, she turned her face away in an attempt to ignore the harasser. Seeing this harasser use his physicality to intimidate this woman in this way stirred something in me. I instantly snapped to attention. My stop was next, so I knew my time was limited. I made the decision to intervene. 
I took a few deep breaths to prepare. I then stood up, took a few steps towards the harasser and said loudly and clearly, "Sir, she doesn't want to speak with you. Please leave her alone." I repeated myself twice before my words registered. The harasser was so surprised that he stepped back from the woman and turned half his body towards me, and replied, "You need to mind your own business."
But my intervention had already succeeded. The harasser was distracted from his previous course of action and seemed unable to decide what to do next. He tried to resume conversation with the woman again, but, distracted out of his previous flow, he was no longer able to intimidate her. Realizing that I had disrupted his flow, the harasser turned his face to me again, this time threatening to "knock [me] down" if I didn't mind my own business. Despite these threatening words, my instincts told me I was safe, that all I needed to do was wait out the situation until my stop. Watching the harasser, I realized his body language did not match his words. A couple minutes earlier he had showed himself perfectly willing to use his physicality to intimidate another person. Yet, when responding to me, the harasser neither moved towards me, nor did he completely turned to face me. He was now positioned further away from the woman than before and was no longer leaning in, encroaching her space.
The harasser once more tried to initiative conversation with the woman by announcing that he was exiting at the next stop. She gleefully waved him on his way, apparently grateful for the reprieve. Positioning myself near the door, I quickly exited the train ahead of him, moved up the escalator and informed the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) attendants of the situation. I waited with the CTA attendants until the harasser had completely exited. I then safely exited and headed home. 
For several days after this incident, I second-guessed my decision to intervene. Was it wise for me to intervene in this incident? After all, intervention had (temporarily) redirected his hostile attention to me. Adrenaline was pumping through my body; I felt vulnerable. I was far from "comfortable" in the moment. Recalling my discomfort, I wondered how many others would have made the same choice. Yet despite these doubts, I felt secure in my decision. I had trusted my instincts and succeeded in distracting the harasser from continuing to bother this (or other) female passengers while remaining safe in the process.

Why should we choose to intervene?

Generally speaking, the principles for intervention are the same as for self-defense. When done carefully and mindfully, intervention has the potential to completely diffuse a would-be violent situation. Sometimes just a word is all that is necessary to interrupt, distract, de-escalate, or discourage a would-be-attacker/harasser/abuser. Sometimes the presence of another person is all that is necessary to give a would-be victim time to breathe, think and react, escape if possible, and to encourage them to defend themselves if necessary.  Someday we might be the ones in the situation where we hope that someone will come to our aid, to support us. Even if we are not in physical danger in that moment, we may wish someone else would speak out on our behalf.  

And sometimesjust sometimeswe may be in a situation where we are uniquely privileged enough to help another. What do I mean by that? If someone less privileged than ourselves is being targetedwhether due to gender or perceived gender, race, sexual orientation, economic status, class, etc.then it may be the case that we alone have the power, the social capital, to intervene in that moment. 

I would love to see more men intervene on behalf of women who are being targeted for harassment or assault. Likewise, I know many in the LGBTQ community who would love it if more cis-gendered straight people would intervene on their behalf. And so I make an effort to intervene and speak out whenever and wherever I encounter racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, or other hate-based speech or actions.

How can you safely intervene? 

Sadly, there is no hard-and-fast rule for how or if one should intervene, just as there is no hard-and-fast rule for optimal boundary setting or de-escalation applied for oneself. What I can share with you are the principles we use at Thousand Waves, which have enabled me to safely and successfully intervene on behalf of others on numerous occasionswithout ever raising a fist.

When assessing when and how to intervene, the first thing I attempt to determine is whether or not I feel "safe" intervening. Not whether or not I feel "comfortable"which is another thing entirelybut whether or not I can intervene safely. Much of this has to do with body positioning. How far away am I from the attacker/harasser/abuser? How far away are exits? 
One Chicago summer evening I was in my 4th floor apartment. From an open window I heard  a woman yelling "Don't touch me!" Heart racing, I ran to the window, and stuck my head out to see what was going on. For a brief moment, I caught a glimpse of a woman moving away from a man, looking angry and upset, but soon they were out of my sight. The woman continued yelling. From her body language and choice of words, I realized the woman did not know the person who was following her. 
I stuck my head out the window and started yelling back, "Does anyone need help? Would you like me to call 911?" In reply, I heard nothing but the woman continuing to yell at the man following her. I started to hear other voices out the window, from others in their apartments crying out things like "Leave her alone!" Still, nothing in response but shouts from the woman. I called out the window again, this time to say, "I'm calling 911." And did so. 
After I reached the police and described what I could see/hear, I made a decision to check on them in person. I went downstairs formulating a plan along the way.  I was going to carefully approach the apartment building door and if it looked like I could safely allow the woman inside, I would stay with her in the main foyer until police arrived. 
That ended up being unnecessary. As I reached the door I realized they must be far out of my sight. I carefully went outside and saw, nearly a block down, a police car with flashing lights. And a policeman talking with the male aggressor (who was verbally defending himself to the cop, "I didn't do anything!"). Seeing that the woman appeared to be safe and the situation seemed under control, I headed back to the front door. As I walked back to the front door, I ran into a neighbor from my apartment building, who had apparently come out to do the same thing as me! We talked for a few and I discovered she had also called 911. She told me she had heard me shouting that I was going to call 911 and so she did so as well. 
I remained safe. The other interveners remained safe, and both parties from outside appeared to be safe in the end.

So why did I choose to respond as I did? 

At hearing the woman's words, my first instinct was say something like "Leave her alone! Back off!" In fact, I opened my mouth to start shouting these phrases before stopping myself. 

The problem with those kinds of responses is that they are polarizing: they already presuppose who is at fault in a given situation. While sometimes it may be clear who the 'perpetrator' is, other times (such as in domestic violence), it is not always so easy to determine who is 'at fault'. Refraining from polarizing by choosing more neutral questions such as  "Can I help you?" or "Do you need some help?" can help control and, in fact, de-escalate the situation. If the argument or conflict appears to already be escalated in some way, you can also call out either "Do you want me to call the police?" or "I'm calling the police!" And then do so. These can be safe actions, at least in the areas I've traveled around in Chicago. 

Intervention doesn't have to be complicated or risky; it can be as simple as stopping to call the police, yelling to distract a would-be assailant, or even interrupting a racist or sexist comment.

What does intervention have to do with traveling to South Asia?

At this point you may be wondering why I'm writing about intervention situations in Chicago when this is a blog about traveling in South Asia.

I write about intervention because all of us, women and men alike, have the capacity to reduce conflict and protect others from violence, emotional or physical, whether we are in our home town or city, or whether we are traveling far from home. Violence exists everywhere around the world; intervention should too. So I want to end this piece by sharing an experience I had in India.

I should start this story by explaining a curious phenomenon that occurs in India: standing in a "line." I have found that in India lines, or queues as they are called in the Indian-English vernacular, seem to be a curious sort of myth, not unlike Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster: some may have claimed to have witnessed such things, but their existence is highly contested.

In a session on "Travel Safety and Cultural Orientation" I led for a group of fellows heading to India this past June, I brought up the subject of queues. The Indian-American fellows in the group collectively laughed:

 "What queues? There are no such thing!""You mean that fact that there aren't queues in India!?"

I couldn't help but laugh along with them. The inside joke is that what are called 'queues' in India, more often than not, tend to consist of disorderly clumps of people pushingsometimes gently, sometimes not so muchto establish their place closest to the desired location, be it the counter at the local corner grocery or the front entrance to a bus or train. Whenever I am in the US waiting to board a flight to India I always experience a feeling of mirth and nostalgia for India when I see these "lines" beginning to form in the airport terminal. Smiling gleefully, I find myself joining in, creating more clumps. But I digress.
One busy, crowded morning in Sarnath (outside Varanasi, U.P.), I was waiting in line to enter the site where his Holiness the Dalai Lama would be giving teachings later on that day. There were two separate lines for entry: one for men and one for women. As I looked around I saw men and women of all nationalitiesIndian, Tibetan, Ladakhi, Chinese, European, American, and so forthstanding in wait. The lines seemed to stretch on forever. Having experience with queues in India (and queues for Buddhist events in particular), I expected that we would be going nowhere quickly and that many locals would probably push their way through towards the front of the queue. I was surprised to notice that this queue was actually, more-or-less, a proper "line" in the geometrical sense of the word. There was little pushing and little cutting. Looking ahead I soon noticed why. A few meters ahead I saw a grumpy-looking English-speaking Westerner from the men's line, who appeared to take any infringement on the sanctity of the men's line as a personal offense. He was apparently single-handedly acting as martial for the queues, making sure no one would cut ahead of him. I smiled and shook my head. Overhearing some Tibetan women in my queue commenting on this (in Tibetan) with their male compatriots in the other line, I laughed along with them kindheartedly and contributed, "Kyen tsarpo du gah?!" ("Weird, huh?!") Realizing I was in on the joke as well, they smiled, chatting with me. Tension was low in the crowd. 
Ahead of me in the women's queue, I noticed a small group of older Ladakhi women, gently pushing the queue ahead of them as they smiled playfully. I couldn't help but smile. "Of course," I thought to myself, recalling the experience of the previous evening when the gentle pushing of the crowd had somewhat forcibly assisted with my exit from the grounds.  
Then I saw it. An English-speaking western woman turned around to face the group of Ladakhi women behind her and angrily snapped, "Don't push me!" before turning back. Alert, my mind and body snapped into focus. The Ladakhi women, understanding not a word of English, giggled and continued with their play-pushing, unaware that the woman ahead did not share in their fun. Turning around again, she raised her voice and said, "I said, DON'T PUSH ME!" and gave the Ladakhi woman behind her a light shove. 
My instincts kicked in at this moment. Without thinking, I quickly approached them and took up the physical space between the two, separating them. The Ladakhi woman, who I could now see was clearly in her late 70s or 80s, was still laughing, apparently not realizing that this was no longer a game and that her lighthearted response was likely escalating the situation. The English-speaking woman was clearly livid. I turned first towards the Ladakhi woman. I told her first in Hindi, then in Tibetan (hoping it would be close enough to Ladakhi that she or one of her companions might understand): "She's angry because you were pushing her, like this [demonstrating a push]. She doesn't like it when you do that, ok?" The Ladakhi woman repeated my words back to me while demonstrating a push alongside me. She and her companions smiled, nodded in understanding and then laughed, finally understanding the 'joke'that is, why the silly western woman was so upset. I had gotten the message across. 
I then turned towards the Western woman, and in as calm and kind of a voice as I could manage, said, "She didn't understand you. She didn't know that pushing was bothering you. Pushing is what they do." I shrugged in an attempt to communicate that it was bizarre to me too (it wasn't), hoping that solidarity might win me points. Unconvinced, the western woman angrily replied, "Oh, she understood me!  She knew what she was doing!!" Mentally crossing my fingers that it would be true, I replied to her calmly and simply, "Well, she's not going to do it again." Despite remaining angry, the western woman turned back towards the front again. The Ladakhi women continued chatting cheerfully as though nothing had gone on, but remained further away from this woman than before. I breathed a sigh of relief and returned to my spot in the "line."
It's likely that not much would have happened had I not intervened. Even at the time I had a hard time believing that the Western woman would have physically escalated the situation beyond thisor at least not with an old woman. But then again, I was surprised to see her push the old woman in the first place. Intervening when I did interrupted the conflict in the moment; it distracted both parties from the conflict at hand and gave the western woman an "out". Sometimes in conflict people are looking for an "out", a way to back out without "losing face." Sometimes a distraction is all that is needed to stop escalation in the moment.

Intervention can do much more than even this.

Sometimes all it takes is one person to remind a woman who has just been harassed that she is not alone. 

"Wow, that was creepy. Are you ok?" 
"Was that guy bothering you?" 
"I'm sorry you experienced that." 
"Do you want to talk about it?"

Sometimes all it takes is one person to interrupt harassment in the moment.

"Hey, leave her alone!" 
"She doesn't want to talk to you. Back off!" 
"Dude, that's not cool. Don't be like that." 
"Seriously, dude. Women don't like that. Don't do it!"

At my karate school, Thousand Waves Martial Arts and Self Defense Center, NFP, our new Spring 2014 T-shirts promote this approach to intervention. The first half of the message is on the front of the shirt, and the second half on the back. It reads:

Call me anything....But don't call me a bystander!

I choose to be an intervener. What do you choose? 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Responding to harassment from acquantainces and professional contacts while traveling

In previous posts, I've focused almost exclusively on interactions with strangers, ignoring the quite common form of harassment many women face while traveling in South Asia (and for that matter, wherever they are in the world): sexual harassment by acquaintances, colleagues, and professional contacts made while traveling. 

The risks of 'immersion'

When traveling in a place foreign to us, as I have discovered, it is easy for common sense to fly out the window. There are so many things around that can distract us from our senses and our intuition
our easiest means for judging whether or not we are at risk. And to an extent, as travelers we may want to be distracted. We may sincerely want to feel out of our element so that we can more deeply immerse ourselves in the foreign culture. Or, at least I do. This experience of immersion and distraction from our own views and presuppositions is one of the many reasons I love to travel and meet with new people.  

There is, however, a risk to this attempted immersion. Especially if we are uncertain of the cultural norms, it can be easy to become so 'immersed' that we may ignore the signals that our bodies tell us when something is wrong. We may misinterpret social cues as benign which would ordinarily register as being "red flags", signals that we should pay attention and increase our awareness. For this reason
and for many others which will be addressed belowsetting boundaries for contacts you meet while abroad can be more challenging.

Many who attend our Empowerment Self Defense courses at Thousand Waves in Chicago report that they find boundary-setting more difficult when it is directed toward a friend, colleague, family member, or other intimate person. While many Americans in particularespecially those of us from the South or more rural Midwest—struggle with guilt over coming across as “rude” or “impolite” when conversing with strangers who violate boundaries, there is sometimes an even greater social pressure experienced when people we know push those same boundaries. Setting boundaries for colleagues, friends and loved ones can be more challenging for many people, even those quite adept at setting limits for complete strangers! 

I am one of those people. 

I was raised on the south-east coast of Virginia, a delightfully urban area only a 30-minute drive from the nearest rural areas in the state. I was taught to be polite, wave, and smile at strangers
which I still enjoy doing even in Chicago, to the annoyance of more than a few passersby! Quickly learning that smiling at strangers was far from the norm in India, I saved my smiles and friendliness for those I had a chance to converse with first. From living in Chicago, and eventually from traveling in India, I learned to set limits quickly and efficiently with strangers, both with my voice and body language. The same was not the case for acquaintances. 

When I was a beginning student of Tibetan and Hindi languages, I strove to practice these languages while traveling, by speaking in Tibetan/Hindi as appropriate with scholars, language tutors and other professional contacts, hotel workers, taxi and rickshaw drivers, and with anyone else I had the chance to meet. This practice created for me an incredible amount of opportunities to have meaningful conversations with a variety of persons across the spectrum of gender, ethnicity, caste, class, education, religion, etc. as I traveled throughout India.  This practice has served me well over the years as a grad student and researcher. I have met many incredible people in India, and forged life-long friendships with more than a few. I love traveling around South Asia and have no regrets about my choice to be open and friendly towards potential friends and colleagues while traveling. 

However, one of the most basic facts of Self Defense is that
—no matter our gender, no matter our age—we are much more likely to encounter violence from someone we know than from a complete stranger. And just as gender-based violence from strangers often begins with smaller, and sometimes more subtle forms of violence (such as staring, catcalling, invasion of personal space) and escalates to larger forms (i.e. stalking, attempting groping on through groping, sexual assault, rape, battery, etc.), so does violence perpetrated by people we know.

For me, while I struggled daily with street harassment which threatened to wear me down emotionally on a regular basis, it was the persistence and prevalence of acquaintance-harassment which I found to be the more difficult challenge throughout my travels. 

While this kind of experience may be common knowledge among scholars trained in ethnography (or alternately for those with personal experience traveling and enduring harassment from contacts abroad), this experience is not commonly discussed among academic women outside of private conversations. This post, in part, aims to serve as a beginning attempt to discuss the obstacles female students and scholars face, which socially and perhaps professionally hinder us from addressing these issues.

When a conversation partner turns harasser... 

In one of my research sites, there was a local Tibetan man who worked at a restaurant attached to my guest house. I made it a habit of speaking in Tibetan while in Tibetan-run establishments and in Hindi while in North Indian-run establishments. I will call him Dorjee. 

Our relationship started out friendly and amicable. He would approach my table at the restaurant whenever I dropped by for tea, and strike up conversation, which I enjoyed. It was a relief for him to speak to a foreigner in Tibetan and a relief to me to have someone with whom to practice my Tibetan. Then, gradually his behaviors over the weeks started escalating. 

I was sitting in the restaurant one day. I had briefly chatted with Dorjee in Tibetan while ordering food. After finishing my meal, he returned to chat some more. He joked around with me verbally pretending to mishear me. I had called him “chok tsa po” (funny) which he pretended to mishear as “chu tsa po” (hot water) and so he proceeded jokingly to ask the kitchen for hot water. While his language was playful, something in his tone caught my attention and I began to feel uncomfortable. I played along with the joke anyway, and corrected him saying “No, chok tsa po.” After this exchange however, I started to find him considerably less funny.  

As I left the restaurant Dorjee asked me where I was heading. I answered succinctly in Tibetan “my room. ” He said “ok” and proceeded to follow me closely in a joking manner up the stairs from the restaurant  towards my room.  Confused, I asked him what he was doing. He replied "Going to your room." Realizing he was, in part, playing on a linguistic particularity of Tibetan (my first answer could have also been translated as "[we] are going to my room"), but wanting to set a boundary immediately,  I turned to face him and firmly said in Tibetan "I am going to my room. You are not going!"  He pretended to finally 'catch on' and  stopped following me.  I retreated to the safety of my room and promptly blocked out my reactions to Dorjee's behavior out of my mind. After all, I had more important things to worry about, like doing research for my dissertation!

More disturbing, however, was what happened half an hour later.  I was heading out to go to a coffee shop to do some work. I was on the phone with my partner so I was distracted. Dorjee grabbed my backpack from behind to slow me down and again in his joking manner asked where I’m going. Still not recognizing Dorjee's behavior as harassment, I answered honestly that I’m heading to a coffee shop to do some work. He continued to hold on to my backpack 'playfully'. It didn't feel very playful to me. I was so surprised that I forgot temporarily how to say “let go!” in Tibetan, so said it loudly and firmly in English. I switched to Tibetan and told him just as firmly that I needed to go and that I was on the phone. He then apologized and backed off.  I played it off in my mind as “just playing around” and “harmless” and explained it as such to my partner on the phone who had overheard only parts of the exchange. It wasn't until the next day that I recognized this collectively as aggressive, harassing, and controlling behavior.

A week or so later, on one cold day—a very cold day
I walked into the restaurant for some tea. Dorjee approached me asking me “Tsa po goe”? (Want something hot?) Forgetting the alternate meaning of tsa po in Tibetan (sexually hot or cold), I wasn’t sure what to make of this strangely phrased sentence. I decided to reply with my order of hot chai and momos. He took my order and then returned to my table and repeated the phrase “Tsa po goe”?  I knew at that point that he was trying to tease or play at something but it wasn’t until the third time that he repeated the phrase that I realized he was propositioning me. My initial reaction was embarrassment at the realization that a) I had just missed sexual innuendo in his first statement and b) he was saying something so sexually aggressive to me. Flushing with embarrassment, I made eye contact and glared at him solidly for about 5 seconds to indicate how I felt about his question, said something along the lines of “Not you! Go away” in Tibetan, and pretended to ignore him by burying myself in the book I had brought. Dorjee left me alone for the rest of the day.  I decided to avoid the restaurant after that day. 

I returned to the restaurant only one other time after that incident, about a month or so later. I had decided to move to a different guest house, but one night I had a craving for their pizza (it can be so hard to get good pizza in India), so I went to the restaurant. Seeing Dorjee there, I remained standing by the counter and placed my order to go. I pretended to be uninterested in conversing with him (which wasn't difficult at this point!). He asked why I wasn't sitting down. I politely but firmly replied (in Tibetan) that I'd rather eat in my room. He asked if I was staying at the place next door and I shook my head no, but refused to answer the implied question, again pretending to be uninterested in conversation. When the food was ready, I took it to my guest house room and ate alone in blessed silence, feeling relieved. 

So why did I hesitate to respond in these situations? Those who know me well have probably seen much more assertive (and possibly aggressive) responses from me when I feel my boundaries (or someone elses') are being violated. 

I have spent quite a lot of time thinking through these experiences, and others, recalling what I felt at the time, and in particular, what discouraged me from reacting. One challenge was that my mental energy was tied up, trying to communicate in Tibetan. I was so focused on the immersion experience, on trying to communicate that I lost touch with my body. For me, the process of foreign language immersion made it more difficult for me to be in touch with my body and instincts, which were telling me Dorje's behavior was aggressive. 

In the case of professional contacts while traveling (interviewees, language tutors, scholars, etc.), there is potentially the additional complication of wanting or needing something from that person. There may be some reason why we may feel we need to maintain that professional relationship despite the abusive behavior. Much like harassment experienced in the traditional workplace, we may feel uncomfortable responding to harassing behavior because we perceive the other as having power over us. Others simply fear cultivating a reputation in the workplace for appearing "rude" or "oversensitive."

There is a similar phenomena, I think, that occurs when traveling, especially for those interested in immersion experiences. It is easy to focus so much on showing "respect" for the culture we forget to protect ourselves. Assuming that the behaviors that make us uncomfortable are accepted in the foreign culture, we avoid speaking out, for fear of offense. 

It is easy to forget that just as every American in the moment is not necessarily expressing American cultural values (and may in fact be transgressing them!), the same goes for persons of every other culture. Harassment and violence may manifest differently in different cultures, but that doesn't mean they are accepted by the mainstream culture. South Asian women speak out daily against harassment, so why shouldn't I? Perhaps more importantly, if speaking out is what I feel I need to do to feel safe, then shouldn't I do that anyway, regardless of what I assume to be "culturally appropriate behavior"?   

Over the years I've learned to accept the risk of appearing "rude" towards someone who is violating my boundaries wherever in the world I am. But every once in a while, a new situation emerges—such as this one—where I am just distracted just enough that I don't recognize the behavior for what it is: harassment. And I have to remind myself that I too am only human and will make mistakes on one side or the other as I progress through life. 

Cultivating cross-gender relationships while traveling

I've thought a lot about the gendered aspects of interactions while traveling. Certainly it is more likely in South Asia than in the U.S. that even polite conversation across genders will be misinterpreted as sexual interest (or more accurately, assumed to indicate sexual interest). Should I then avoid conversations with male strangers while traveling—which my male-identified colleagues may not have to do—and thus disadvantage myself as a female scholar? Throughout India, even today it is still more common to see more men in public than women (and to rarely see women in public alone). Should I disadvantage myself by limiting access to conversation partners? As a woman, I am already restricted in terms of safe physical access to public (and private) space. The options many of my male colleagues take advantage of without question (taking local buses in large cities, traveling alone at night, etc.) do not feel like safe options for me. Should I restrict myself in the socially as well by limiting access to professional and/or social contacts? 

Or, perhaps more importantly, isn't even the assumption that I should avoiding interacting with men in public a form of gender-based discrimination? Is it fair to judge an entire gender-identity (even within one country) based on the actions of a few? 

I've endured harassment (and worse) from men I've cultivated 'relationships' with over my travels. But there are countless other men (and women) I've cultivated relationships withprofessional and personalwho have been respectful, supportive and empowering: male scholars who treat me as a professional peer, women who have offered rides without demanding anything in return, men and women who sincerely want to chat and exchange stories about experiences traveling, and men and women who I consider to be my family abroad. 

There are risks in any relationship you cultivatewith persons of any genderwhether at home or abroad. Most relationships will not devolve as mine did. But some might. I share these reflections in the hope that other travelers might feel empowered to cultivate healthy relationships with a variety of people as they traveland feel empowered to weed out the unhealthy ones as well! 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Some Common Misconceptions about Harassment in South Asia

I have created this document as a resource with the hopes that it can serve as a useful guide for female students and scholars traveling to South Asia.  Because a female traveler never knows when she is simply being commented upon and when she is being tested, it may not always be safe to simply “ignore” harassment. Whether ignoring or confronting harassment is the best response will depend on the situation. In my experience, there is no one “right way” to safely respond to harassment. I created this document in part to share some ideas I hope will help women who are preparing for travel.

I base the ‘facts’ and ‘misconceptions’ in part on my personal experiences as well as the reported experiences of many female travelers I have met over the years. The approaches to handling harassment and violence in this handout come from a variety of sources, many of which are based in feminist empowerment-based models for teaching Self Defense popular in many North American women’s martial arts organizations, such as the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation (NWMAF), but also include recent scholarship on violence such as Holly Kearl’s and Gavin de Becker’s writings. This information is meant as a guide rather than a definitive way to cope with or manage street harassment and I take sole responsibility for the information provided.

Common Misconceptions
Facts about Street Harassment
·         Harassment is a compliment. Men only stare when they find you attractive.
Street Harassment is a form of violence. Because street harassment around the world occurs in the context of (a) fear of rape and (b) systematic inequality of women, it often evokes a fear response in women because of the potential lack of safety that could result. Because a woman never knows if a man is intending to simply comment or if they plan to do more, it can be difficult for harassing remarks and actions to be interpreted neutrally.

Harassment, like other forms of gender-based violence, is about power.  Discussions about harassment or assault that focus on it exclusively on it as a sexual act or as relating to the attractiveness, age, perceived sexual “looseness,” or other aspects of the appearance of the victim conflates harassment with complimentary behavior and may obscure the fact that it is a form of violence.
·         Since there is no taboo against staring in South Asia, foreigners will be stared at regardless.
While staring is a common pastime in many regions of South Asia, and any form of staring can be unnerving for many women, harassment is not always expressed through staring; likewise, not all stares constitute gender-based harassment.  The assertion that the two are equivalent is misguided and potentially dangerous advice for female travelers.

·    Harassment isn’t a real form of violence. The best response is always to ignore harassment.
Like all forms of violence, harassment can escalate from irritating (such as stares, cat-calls, lewd remarks), to bullying or intimidating (threatening looks, restriction of personal space, stalking, propositions for sexual acts, lewd gestures, lewd phone calls, emails or text messages) to assault or attempted assault (groping, trying to enter someone's hotel room, trying to pull someone into a car or alleyway, beating, sexual assault).

Attackers go through a process of targeting, testing, and selection of victims. Harassment is typically a part of the targeting and testing process. If the potential victim "passes" the test, the potential attacker might advance to a more dangerous or serious stage.  If you do choose to ignore harassment, make it a conscious choice. Project a sense of confidence and awareness of your surroundings. Note if there is more than one person harassing and try to get as much information as you can about what their intent may be.

·         Harassment can be prevented by wearing appropriately modest or local clothing and jewelry, and by behaving according to socially accepted gender norms in the region (no smoking, drinking, etc.)
The frequency of harassment and risk of assault can be reduced by wearing clothing and/or jewelry appropriate to the region of travel and by avoiding being seen engaging in behavior that is contrary to local norms; however, nothing is 100% effective. In my experience it is unrealistic to expect that harassment is completely preventable. Excessive attention and questions regarding a woman’s behavior and/or what she was wearing at the time of harassment (or assault) is not supportive and may imply the woman is responsible for the violence done to them. 

·         Harassment is a North Indian problem. If you work/study in the Southern regions of India, you won’t encounter harassment.

Harassment occurs in the South as well as the North; it occurs in villages as well as cities. Harassment may occur with greater frequency in certain regions of South Asia, but there is unlikely to be a region of South Asia that is harassment-free just as there are few places in the United States that are harassment-free.
·         If you avoid going out at night while in South Asia, you can avoid being harassed.

While women report greater frequency of harassment at night, harassment also occurs with frequency during the day. Whenever a woman is in public—whether going by bus, train, auto, taxi, rickshaw, or walking—she can be at risk of harassment.
·         If you travel with a male friend you can avoid being harassed.

While traveling with someone--such as a male companion--may keep you more safe from harassing comments, many women report being harassed in public while traveling with a male companion, whether friend, relative, or dating partner/spouse. 
·         Harassment is simply a "rite of passage" that female scholars traveling to South Asia have to face.
While many women do report feeling “stronger” after surviving experiences of harassment (and other challenges) in South Asia, these are generally after-the-fact interpretations of their experiences.  For someone currently experiencing regular or intense harassment, the “rite-of-passage” rhetoric is not necessarily supportive or empowering.  This rhetoric may additionally risk implying that a woman needs to endure verbal or potentially physical or sexual abuse in order to become a better scholar.
·         The "degree" of harassment experienced will determine a person's emotional reaction to it.
Harassment is a very individual and personally subjective experience. Different women will react differently to experiences of harassment. The impact cannot be determined by a specific quantity, quality, or duration of experience(s). Factors that can impact an individual’s experience of harassment may include the victim’s age, race/ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, previous experience with travel, previous experience(s) of harassment, past experience(s) of abuse, assault, or other forms of violence, availability of support structure in South Asia, among other factors. It is difficult to predict how an individual will react to experiences of harassment or how it will impact them in the future.

How can we support women experiencing harassment while traveling?
  • Consider reaching out to ask female travelers about their experiences abroad; be an active listener.
  • Realize that systemic harassment can potentially be traumatic for an individual as it constitutes violations of safety and of the body in public space.
  • If appropriate, suggest resources for counseling or therapy through your institution’s counseling services
  • Consider sharing resources that you or others have found useful for feeling empowered while facing harassment in the moment.

Bibliography and Additional Resources
de Becker, Gavin. The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals thatProtect Us From Violence.  New York: Random House, 1997.
Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2012.
Stop Street Harassment!
Traveling While Female: A blog on street harassment, sexual harassment and sexual assault
for women traveling to India, South Asia.
Violence Prevention Resources made publically available via Thousand Waves Martial Arts
and Self-Defense Center, NFP:

Author's note:
I originally wrote this first as a handout (which is accessible as a downloadable pdf via my page) in order to provide resources for interested teachers, educators, researchers, administrators and others who advise or otherwise prepare students for travel to South Asia for either study or research/work. While this handout was conceived as a resource to benefit non-South Asians who travel to South Asia, I hope that the information is useful for South Asian men and women as well.  As always if you have any thoughts, concerns, questions, or corrections, please feel free to email me directly via the feedback link on this page.

Erin H. Epperson
Ph.D. Candidate, University of Chicago
Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations

Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of the University of Chicago, the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, or any of its affiliated faculty or staff members. The views contained therein are solely the opinions of this author and should not be taken as representing the University of Chicago or any of its representatives.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Yell Finger of Self Defense Part 2: De-escalation

In my previous post, I wrote about ways to successfully apply boundary setting while traveling in South Asia. As the Winter holidays approach (and more people are traveling about), perhaps it becomes even more poignant to discuss the second aspect of the YELL Finger: De-escalation. 

Making mistakes in a foreign culture

In the context of street harassment, de-escalation is perhaps not as useful a tool as verbal boundary setting (or non-verbal bodily communication). Street harassmentor any harassment, reallyinvolves some kind of boundary crossing: one person violates the physical and/or emotional space of another person. In these cases, the safest response is usually some form of boundary setting; and if that does not work, exiting the situation (the RUN Finger).

However, not all forms of violence begin with boundary crossing. Sometimes they begin with an offense, whether real or imagined. When traveling in a foreign culture, we are bound to make mistakes. No matter how well we study the culture, there will be clues obvious to locals to which we are oblivious that would have informed us of a cultural violation. Others may be offended and become angry; there may be a need to apologize. Sometimes conflict arises simply as a result of differences between cultural expectations. I have both experienced and witnessed this on multiple occasions. 

During one home-stay experience, I was living together with another foreigner in an Indian household. The other foreigner had a difficult time digesting Indian food and preferred to eat lighter meals. Rather than eat the meals prepared by the host family's cook, this foreigner snacked lightly on her own during the day and then quietly picked at her food at night.  In her eyes, this was a non-confrontational way of handling the situation. No one's feelings need be hurt; and no one went to bed hungry (or with stomach pain!). From the perspective of the Indian cook, however, this was interpreted as a supreme offense. Choosing to eat earlier so as to not be hungry for dinner effectively communicated (even without words!): "I don't like your food." In an Indian context, and I suspect throughout South Asia in general, cooking food and sharing meals is more a communal process than it is a simple necessity (as it is for many Americans used to eating on-the-go). To reject food that is offered in South Asia is difficult because of the social implications. As someone who struggles with quite a few food allergies and sensitivities, I have become all too aware of the social complexities involved in politely declining food or drink.  

One night (when my housemate was absent), I overheard the cook complaining loudly to our host mom in Hindi that my housemate must not like her food, because she never eats it. The cook was very plainly offended and hurt by these actions. I spoke with my host mom later to try and clarify the situation, but because it was a communication issue between my housemate and the cook, my words alone could not resolve it. My housemate had intended no offense; but because no verbal communication was given, this was a tension that remained for the remainder of her stay. This could have of course ended in a different way. With different personalities this tension might have escalated into a full conflict with yelling, screaming, and throwing things. 

De-escalation is difficult in part because it requires us face the possibility that we may have made a mistake; we may have caused offense, even without intending to do so. More importantly, it is difficult because it requires us admit that we may need to apologize for offenses unintended. The number of times I have accidentally stepped on, or too close to something sacred while in India are too numerous to count. I often (er, usually) err on the side of rudeness when negotiating with rickshaw drivers. I have raised my voice at bureaucrats, rickshaw drivers, and shop clerks alike while traveling, more times than I care to admit. Traveling can be a very highly stressful situation wherever in the world you are; this is probably doubly true in South Asia. But de-escalation is not simply the nice, polite thing to do; sometimes it is a safety necessity. Because sometimes
and like with street harassment we never know whenthe situation has the potential to escalate to physical violence. Just like in road rage situations, we never know where that final line is beyond which a person snaps and may try to hurt us.  

'Road rage' in Sarnath

One day in Sarnath (Varanasi, UP) I was riding a bicycle home from my research institution. There is a turnabout (traffic circle) not too far from my guest house. I was still trying to get used to the seemingly bizarre rules of the  road--not to mention riding on the far left side of the road.  I accidentally went the wrong way on the turnabout, swerved to avoid being hit by an auto-rickshaw, and stopped just short of full collision with the thigh of a middle-aged man who had been standing at the corner. Or at least I hope it was his thigh. 

It was clear I had still hit the man despite trying to stop in time. The man was (understandably!) quite angry and approaching me, very apparently preparing to yell at me. I stepped down from the bike, stepped back, placed my hands in front of me in a placating and apologetic gesture, and apologized to him calmly and sincerely in Hindi: "Mujhe mauf keejiye Uncle-ji!...Aap theek hain?" (I'm so sorry, Sir!.... Are you ok?). I repeated this quite a few times before he registered what I was saying. Taken aback by my response, the man was shocked out of his anger and started calming down, begrudgingly wobbling his head to indicate, "No."  With his attention,  I asked him once again if he needed help, to which he again (but more decisively) wobbled his head, "No."  He waved me on, and so I left as quickly and safely as I could. 

This incident was clearly my fault; I made a mistake and had nearly injured someone. But the situation could have clearly been reversed. I could have been standing on the side of the road and nearly hit by someone on a bicycle who then became angry at the inconvenience of having to stop. How many times does it happen with car accidents (or bike accidents) that both parties exit their vehicle yelling and screaming at each other? While an apology may not be the appropriate response to every incident, de-escalation itself is a powerful tool that can go a long way towards diffusing anger and stopping violence before it starts.

How is de-escalation applied in South Asia?
De-escalation requires us be honest with ourselves; we have to honestly evaluate whether or not we have caused harm and what, if anything can be done to remedy the situation. The key is often to apologize if appropriate, and offer to do something to help "fix" or remedy the situation if that is possible.

We also have to be aware of what could escalate a situation, which is also important in the context of street harassment. While we may feel tempted to snap back at someone in anger or strike them with physical force, is it worth the risk of escalating a conflict? Recall the story I shared in the post on Boundary Setting, where a woman stood up to slap her harasser in a restaurant. In this case, woman's response escalated the situation; the harasser struck her in the head with a beer bottle from the table.  While aggressive responses are generally safer than passive ones, aggression carries with it the additional risk of escalating the situation. This is not to say that we should err on the side of passivity to avoid confrontation. If an assertive response does not work, and the harasser intensifies the harassment, at that point it might be safer to leave (if possible) to exit the situation. If you can't exit the situation, a seemingly aggressive response (preparing to fight to defend yourself) might be the only safe choice left. Once your physical safety is threatened, remaining passive or attempting to bargain or negotiate is not the safest approach. But this does not mean that aggression is the safest first response to harassment while traveling in South Asia. It is important to be mindful of the effect our reactions may have in the context of a culture foreign to ours. 

Boundary setting is the Self Defense tool I have used most frequently while traveling in India. However in my experience, de-escalation is no less important a tool and can be crucial for increasing our safety while traveling. For the most part I have found that the de-escalation tools I use in the US are quite effective in South Asia as well. When someone is yelling at you in the moment, I have found that breathing deeply (to calm yourself) and speaking calmly and repetitively, like a "broken record," can be effective in South Asia as well as the US. Tools that we teach in Thousand Wave's Self Defense seminars include:

  • Using apologetic but assertive body language (not aggressive);
  • Apologizing sincerely when appropriate;
  • Offering some form of assistance, aid, or compensation to remedy the situation;
  • Speaking in calm, sincere tones repeatedly, like a broken record;  

I have found distraction also to be a powerful tool. While that was not my intention, apologizing in Hindi had the unintended side effect of distracting the man from his anger. Of course, like anywhere in the world,  there may be a time when words and the offer of compensatory actions are not sufficient to de-escalate a situation, in which case exiting the situation (the RUN Finger) might be safer.

One final note about de-escalation in South Asia: I have noted that there are differences between the way and men and women display and react to aggression in India compared to the US. Women in the US are more likely to try to avoid raising their voice and often rely on polite, bordering on assertive responses sooner, preferring to avoid aggression in most situations. Sometimes even women's assertive behavior is viewed with hostility in the US (and I suspect in many Western countries). We are often made to feel uncomfortable for simply asserting our rights to not be touched, whistled at, or otherwise objectified. If we assertively communicate to a harasser that we don't appreciate being commented upon, a common response is the indignant phrase "ungrateful b&*%h", conveying that we somehow have transgressed the gendered norms laid out for us as women. It is a useful contrast to note that I have never been insulted in response (even in Hindi) for assertivelyor even aggressivelycalling out a male harasser in India.

I believe this difference in responses to assertiveness (and to female displays of anger) is related to gendered norms for displays of anger and 'aggression' in India.  Throughout my travels I've noticed that Indian women are more likely than Americans to passively (or passive-aggressively) ignore a given situation for a while, but will then switch to an aggressively angry response quite quickly in many situations--whether they are being harassed, cheated by a rickshaw driver, or offended in any other way. I have observed--both from my personal experience and from the experience of others--that Indian men are made visibly quite uncomfortable and embarrassed by an aggressively angry woman (whether Indian or foreign) and will often do what they can to de-escalate the situation themselves by offering apologies (and sometimes compensation)! I have noticed it is considerably less common for men in India to display such aggressive forms of anger--at least in public. For foreigners accustomed to the gendered norms for displaying assertiveness, aggression, anger, and so forth common in the US, navigating these differences can seem daunting; however, the basic principles and tools for de-escalation still apply.

I wish everyone safe travels during the upcoming months!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Yell Finger of Self Defense Part 1: Boundary Setting

I decided to split the Yell "Finger" into three separate entries.  I start with boundary-setting because this is the issue that comes up the most in conversations I've had with female travelers in South Asia and with women from South Asian. The next two forthcoming entries will deal with de-escalation and intervention respectively, following Thousand Waves' model for teaching the Five Fingers of Self Defense.  

Yell or Fight?
So I want to start with the premise of the Yell Finger. Why should we use our voice? Why not just hit the guy who is harassing us? Well, it depends on what your goal is. If you want retribution, then fighting seems commensurate. But I’m not writing to teach people how to retaliate against your attacker/aggressor. I’m writing to help people better understand the tools and choices we all have to increase our safety and feel empowered as we travel, whether traveling in a foreign country or in public within our own native country. 

When people learn I’m a karate student, many ask me: "Why don't you hit the guy?" It seems to be popular suggestion, especially for women traveling alone in India. I'll admit that at times it's a very tempting thought. The premise is that if I were to hit the offender--especially if I hit him hard--he would be so embarrassed that  he would never engage in such aggressive and insulting behavior again (or at least not with me). 

I wish that were true. The sad fact however is that while the thought of smacking someone who is making rude comments and catcalls as you pass may seem pleasurable and it might be safe to do so, it is not always the case. Sometimes--and you can never be sure when that time will be--aggressive responses will actually escalate the situation, leaving you less safe than when you started. 

When I assisted for a Self-Defense class in South Delhi in March 2013, the instructor--Pooja Agarwal of Seido Karate Noida--shared with us a story that directly contradicts the assumption that aggression is best. 

Pooja told us of one woman who was at a restaurant with her female friend. She overheard a man from the next table loudly talking about her in harassing manner, commenting on her body, her clothing, and so forth. The man was with at least one other friend. Angry, the woman stood up, walked over and slapped the harasser in his face.

The harasser picked up the beer bottle sitting on his table and hit the woman in the side of the head with it. 
The woman was very fortunate. She was severely injured, but she did survive the attack. 

Using physical force can be dangerous. If you engage in physical force (the Fight Finger) this is a serious choice with real consequences. Any act of aggression--whether physical or verbal--has the potential to escalate a situation. I fully believe everyone has the right to use physical force to defend themselves and others from harm. But I also firmly believe it is best and safest to use the least-violent approach possible first. This is why at Thousand Waves, we teach the "Fingers" in a specific order: Think, Yell, Run, FIGHT, Tell. We think it's best and safest to first use our other tools, including using our voice, first. I'll talk more about options and tools for fighting in a later post; however, here I want to focus on the Yell Finger. 

The Three Levels of Boundary-Setting
Words and body-language communicate more than we realize. If we are scared, that is often communicated through passive body-language: maybe we stand with our arms crossed, balanced on one leg, looking down towards the ground. One reason why this is important is because appearing passive increases our chances of being chosen as a target. Attackers go through a selection process to choose their targets. Most attackers don't want a fight, so they look for "easy" targets, people who appear (even mistakenly!) passive, weak, uncomfortable. If we are looking down towards the ground, it is much more difficult to see an attacker approaching us; we appear more vulnerable. However appearing aggressive or hostile isn't necessarily the safest approach either. While aggressiveness may scare some attackers away (making it safer than passivity), in some cases it may escalate the situation and encourage the attacker to respond in order to 'punish' the target. 

So how do we strike a balance between passivity and aggression in our verbal responses and body-language? It starts with assertive body-language. The exact details may differ for each person, but the basic idea is standing up straight, with your eyes, shoulders and hips forward, showing all five major points of the body towards the harasser (head, both shoulders, both hips). If someone approaches us threateningly, at Thousand Waves we teach our students to take a strong "defender’s stance" (one leg steps back at a 45-degree angle) with a loud 'Yell'. This Yell is not a scream, but rather a shout, loudly voicing a word or phrase such as “No,” “Back off!”  or "Leave me alone!" What does this do for us? It clearly communicates to the harasser and to others that this is unwanted attention, it gets the attention of passersby (who might intervene for us), it potentially embarrasses the harasser, and it also energizes us. At Thousand Waves, we call this a Level-3 response

The vast majority of boundary-setting experiences, may not require a Level-3 response. In Chicago we tend to teach a Level-1  response  (a polite, but simple "No") for more commonplace boundary-setting situations  --such as responding to manipulative family members, pushy co-workers, etc. When teaching Level-2 (a stronger, more firm "No!" without moving into defender's stance), we tend to describe more uncomfortable situations, such as when a stranger approaches you in public, asking questions or engaging in behavior that makes you feel uncomfortable and you want them to leave you alone; or when someone (possibly a friend) grabs your hand or shoulder in play and you want them to stop. Generally Level-2 is where I start and remain during street harassment experiences in the US.  I might use the same phrases as in Level-3 ("Go away!" "Leave me alone!") but I say them with less intensity and I maintain assertive (but not defensive) body language. In the US, I have found this works for me virtually 99% of the time. 

When I first tried to apply these techniques to harassment in India, however, my words and body language appeared to have virtually no effect. For months I suffered through daily street harassment, not understanding why these tools and techniques weren't working. I continued to feel vulnerable, threatened, and dis-empowered to an extent that my work started to suffer. In desperate need of a break from harassment, I chose to leave my first research site early. After finding ways to adapt the techniques I had been taught, I did return two months later, somewhat refreshed, and fortunately was able to finish my work before leaving India. So what happened? Why didn't the techniques work?  

Boundary-setting in a South Asian Context
What I hadn't yet discovered is that boundary setting and de-escalation become more difficult in a foreign culture. No matter how much you have studied about a foreign culture, there will be things you don't know. The norms for gender roles, and the way passivity, aggression, and assertiveness are expressed by different genders in that culture will be different from the ones you are accustomed to. Harassment may be more or less subtle, or appear in ways different than you expect, and thus harder to detect at first. For those who study a local language and want to use that language to communicate while traveling, there is the additional complication of the difficulty of expressing emotion and boundary-setting in another language. Additionally, the spectrum of passive, assertive, and aggressive itself may differ, making it more difficult to determine what will be interpreted as assertive.  

In my experience, Indian harassers often appear less aggressive in their body language than harassers in the US. If you are used to assessing aggression by US standards of body language, you will often misread aggression as passivity. Unfortunately this means that the red flags you would notice in the US won't go off until much later.  This is in part governed by gender norms in India. In the US, it is not uncommon for a man to strike up conversation with a woman in public or vice versa, depending on the social context. In many parts of India, it is less common for men in India to converse with women of their age who are not related to them (by blood or by marriage). This kind of public interaction between male and female strangers is thus often interpreted as flirtation. Even conversations that start out innocent ("Oh, what do you study?" "Have you been to India before?" "Oh, how do you know Hindi?") can escalate to more uncomfortable personal questions ("Do you have a boyfriend?" "Are you married?" "Would you consider dating an Indian man?") or to flat-out harassment, such as questions about your sex life or physical acts of intimidation such as stalking, following someone to their room, etc.

In fact, very few Indian men actually behave this way. The vast majority of Indian men I have met will politely avoid making eye contact or will simply observe you with curiosity in their eyes, not aggression. Or they may be genuinely interested in talking with you and learning more about life in [insert your country here]. The point I am making is that harassment can be subtle. Cultural differences make identifying harassment in a foreign country more challenging. This is why the Think Finger is so important.  The best tool we have at our disposal to assess whether or not a conversation is going to turn to harassment is our instincts. 

So what do we do when the conversation turns to harassment? Or when we notice someone openly staring and making catcalls or obscene gestures? This is where verbal boundary-setting comes into play.

For months, while facing daily harassment in Sarnath I applied what I thought was a Level-2 response, to no avail. After observing women in public displaying more aggressive responses to men in other situations, I decided to turn up the volume on my Level-2, using something closer to 2.5 (or possibly 3, depending on your definition). My experiences and training in the US had taught me that if you are verbally aggressive, saying things like "What are you looking at?" you are likely to attract more negative attention from the harasser. In India, however this level of response almost seemed to be the expected minimum level of response to indicate disapproval or disinterest

Phrases such as Kyaa dekh rahee ho?!  (What are you looking at!?), or sometimes in my feistier moments: Mujh se kyaa chahiye? (What do you want from me?), or Main aap ki dost/patni naheen hum! (I'm not your friend/wife!), became my mantra as I walked through the streets in Varanasi and later Jaipur and Delhi. I felt uncomfortable at first, fearing I was being aggressive. But when I saw the impact, I realized I had finally discovered what "assertive" for women appears to be in at least some parts of India. Using this approach, roughly 95% of the time, harassers would turn away, embarrassed. A few even apologized.  It seems my calibration had been off. What I had perceived to be aggressive--or at least as bordering on aggressive--was interpreted as though it were assertive. 

This observation was confirmed for me months later, when I was assisting Pooja with her Self Defense class. When she asked women to demonstrate "assertive" I was shocked to see most of these women standing with their hips cocked to one side, with one hand on one hip and the other wagging a finger as if reprimanding a child. But that's aggressive!, I thought to myself, mystified. And then it clicked. Assertiveness and aggression are expressed differently in India than in the US. And therein lies the problem for foreign travelers. Many, if not most Indian women experience harassment from virtually day-one of their lives. They learn how to interpret aggressive behavior and they learn how to express assertiveness appropriate to the spectrum in their culture, just as foreigners do in their own respective cultures. We all instinctively know what passive, assertive, and aggressive looks like in our own culture. But identifying it elsewhere is not so simple. For a foreigner traveling in India, the expressions are different, and that makes handling harassment that much more difficult for foreign women, many of whom might not have previously experienced such regular or intense harassment before. 

Why Learn to Boundary-Set?
Because identifying harassment and ways of responding to harassment that are appropriate to a given situation is more difficult in a foreign culture, it is easy to feel frustrated and powerless in the process.  If you spend your time in South Asia passively ignoring the harassment you struggle to even accurately detect, the experience can tear you down emotionally. And if you spend your time yelling and screaming at harassers, it is easy to feel powerless, vulnerable, and irrationally angry towards the people in the country you are visiting. 

Boundary-setting is both a valuable tool for safety and a valuable tool for empowerment for travelers. Sometimes just feeling as though you did something is enough to enable you to feel strong and confident in the face of harassment. For me, as a female scholar who travels in South Asia, this is the goal I strive for. There is no magic phrase or tool that will work against harassment 100% of the time. Harassment or even assault is not always avoidable. And if it does happen, it is not the fault of the victim for some perceived 'failure' to do everything to prevent it. The goal is to learn to use the tools we already possess to increase our safety so we can enjoy our travels, learning more about the culture and cultivating meaningful relationships along the way. The goal is to feel empowered as we travel, rather than terrified or angry. In my experience, boundary-setting is an important part of this. Further, boundary-setting  can increase our safety, reducing the risk of harassment escalating to other forms of violence such as sexual assault.

Applying boundary-setting in our own culture can be challenging; applying it in a foreign culture while traveling can feel like a daunting prospect, but it can be done. It takes patience and the openness to explore different ways of expressing yourself. 

But I guarantee it's worth the effort. Travel. Try it out. And come back and share with us here what you've experienced. 

My experiential knowledge of expressions of passivity, assertiveness, and aggression in India are of course limited, and mostly learned through trial-and-error in harassment situations in various parts of urban North India (Delhi, Varanasi, Jaipur). As a white foreigner my experiences with boundary-setting in India may be very different from that of an Indian woman. If anyone--Indian or foreign--has any similar experiences from travel around in South Asia, or any counter-examples that could elucidate this, please feel free to share them in the comments section. I suspect that what language you use to boundary-set (your native language verses some local South Asian language) has very little impact. I have heard success stories from Indian and foreign women who have used English and I have heard success stories from foreigners who have used an Indian language, but I am very much interested to hear what phrases others have found helpful. I invite anyone who has used a boundary-setting technique while in South Asia to share their experience. What phrases and techniques have worked for you?  What language did you respond in?