Friday, October 26, 2012

Openness to travel and trusting our instincts

Given the emphasis on issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault while traveling, I want to take some time to clarify the difference between caution and fear and discuss some general approaches to preparing for travel to countries such as India which are known for sexual harassment problems.

It is important that women traveling to India (or anywhere else) be educated about potential risks and about cultural differences. It is also important to approach travelling to these places without constantly fearing or otherwise anticipating harassment and greet people with an open mind. The first week I was in Sarnath, Varanasi was probably the hardest. Sarnath attracts many tourists, especially tourists interested in Buddhism (Sarnath is the location of where the historical Buddha gave his first teaching). There are also many pilgrim-tourists that come, mostly in large groups to the main temple and stupa area and then leave. Lay Buddhist associations and groups from Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Burma frequent the area, but always stay in their groups in the vicinity of the stupa for special programs that have been set up for them. The domestic (Indian) and other foreign tourists for the most part arrive in Sarnath sometime between Friday and Sunday and only stay in Sarnath for a day (if that long).  Many tourists will stop by Sarnath while visiting Varanasi proper (after visiting the Ghats and various temples and shopping near the main Ghat), but only Buddhist pilgrims come to Varanasi only to see Sarnath. On a weekday, a lone white female sticks out. Wearing local clothing has its advantages and disadvantages. It shows respect for the culture (as numerous Indians themselves have told me) and demonstrates modesty. But upon occasion, wearing a full salwar-kamize outfit (let alone a saari!) can attract attention as well. It’s kind of a lose-lose situation. The locals in Sarnath did not yet “know” me by sight yet, so I was undoubtedly the most interesting thing they had seen in several days. As a result I was ‘greeted’ with stares from every Indian on the street as I walked the mile to the University library and back daily. Most of the stares were harmless, stemming out of genuine curiosity. More than a few however constituted leers, and some were accompanied by comments or lewd gestures. Fortunately the latter two on that list were always fleeting experiences since  the only Varanasi men bold enough to be that rude in broad daylight were generally young men on cycles or motorbikes who would pass by and be gone in a few seconds. While this may sound extremely uncomfortable, I should point out that this experience was quite mild compared to other’s. A female colleague-friend of mine who is currently in Kerala, reported that since she had arrived (in a two-three week period), she was followed home twice by creepy men, one of whom found her window and continued to watch her through her window until she discovered him. Sarnath by comparison (though perhaps not Varanasi) seems rather tame by comparison. Since my hair and face are quite fair, I had covered my hair with a scarf to minimize attention to myself, but short of wearing a full burka (not appropriate for a non-Muslim in a Hindu area), you can’t hide pale skin. They see you coming a mile away and are (mostly) curious.  So among all the countless stares, how do you determine which ones are ‘worth’ dealing with?

From the typical definition (in the U.S.), sexual harassment is any attention of a sexual manner that is unwanted and/or makes the recipient feel uncomfortable. This is where it becomes complicated in India. Because most Westerners (especially Americans) will not feel comfortable when stared at, whether it is sexual or not. Similarly, many Americans even in the U.S. feel uncomfortable setting boundaries by telling the questioner that their question is too personal or that they don’t feel comfortable answering it. We fear appearing “rude” or “impolite.” This problem is further compounded in places like India where the female traveler unknowingly thinks that this is simply a “cultural exchange” and therefore extremely personal questions might be “appropriate” in India. In my previous post on travel guides I addressed this issue and discussed what topics of conversation are generally considered appropriate for what gender from a typically Indian cultural perspective.  But I want to take a moment to clarify something. As a traveler, you have absolutely no obligation to be polite or “friendly” if you feel uncomfortable in any way. Information regarding cultural norms and what conversations are typical is meant to be informative. However, sacrificing one’s own feeling of personal security to answer questions you consider too personal whether or not they are ‘appropriate’ in the country you are visiting is not a requirement.

But where do we draw the line with discomfort? When traveling, there are any number of new experiences and sensations. The food is different, the smells are different. We may be jet-lagged or otherwise exhausted from travel. The people are different—they speak different languages, wear different clothing, walk differently. With our minds abuzz with all this extra information how can we discern between the discomfort that comes from being in a new place and the discomfort that comes from boundary-crossing conversations?  To address this, I want to talk about instincts and using ‘fear’ as a guide while traveling. 

A year ago, the Director of Violence Prevention for Thousand Waves,  recommended I read Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, whether you are a world-traveler or happily living travel-free. I learn something new from this book every time I pick it up.  Among the many topics discussed, de Becker argues that our intuition is more reliable than we think. He cites numerous cases where people simply “knew” seemingly without a reason that something was wrong and their assessment turned out to be correct. De Becker nuances that there are in fact reasons behind these intuitions or fears but we may not be consciously aware of them in the moment. Other times those reasons are more conscious but we may second-guess our intuition, assuming it to be paranoia-induced fear. We then convince ourselves that we are “over-reacting.”  What de Becker in part is arguing is that (1) we can and in fact should trust our 'fears'. But he additionally argues that  (2) we need to feed our intuition correct factual information so that our fears or intuitive reactions are realistic.

For example, “fear” or “instinct” wrongly applied can be (and is) used to justify various social wrongs such as racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and other harmful forms of discrimination. Simply feeling uncomfortable because of being out of your comfort zone is not sufficient. This is where self-education comes in. We need to be informed regarding culturally relevant information and with accurate statistics on sexual harassment, assault, and other crime in order for our ‘fear’ or intuition to be accordingly accurate. In Thousand Waves’s Violence Prevention program, we teach that you should always look at what a person is doing, not what they look like. Judge them by their behavior, not by their race, clothing, and so forth. In this way we advocate questioning our impulse to judge based solely on our preconceived notions of how a “safe” person dresses or appears (which too often leads to racial profiling) and instead judge based on what the person is doing in that moment. Body language and verbal cues will tell you what you need to know if you are educated in what to look for.  Not every Indian male will harass you no matter their socio-economic status, clothing, occupation, whatever. But be aware of what they are doing. Are they following  a bit too close? Is there a group of boys eyeing you and moving towards you? Is the rickshaw driver being inappropriately chatty or  is he trying to convince you to move to a more private location? Is the tout following you trying to sell you something or trying to flirt? Only you can best assess the intentions of the person in question. Trust your instincts.

Several weeks ago, (see previous post here) my instincts told me that the inappropriately chatty rickshaw driver in Varanasi (see previous post) was basically harmless . My instincts told me the best way to handle the situation was simply to tell him to change the conversation and occasionally reprimand him for his lewd conversation topics. Demanding he stop the rickshaw seemed a bit too much of a reaction. I was traveling with two other female passengers at the time and felt empowered by the strength in numbers. As a result I did not feel threatened in any way. We arrived safely, though a little shaken. But if I had been traveling alone, I probably would have reacted quite differently.  I might have yelled and demand he stop taking in that way or stop the vehicle. I probably would have threatened to not give him the full fare. If I had been alone, my instincts, my ‘fear’, would have told me to act differently.  If your instinct tells you to run, then get out of there quickly by whatever means necessary. But if your instinct (and not just some unconditional fear) tells you that while you are uncomfortable, you are essentially safe, then choose your reaction accordingly. There is a world of gray areas. Sometimes discomfort (for white females) is simply the experience of feeling like a minority for the first time. Sometimes discomfort arises from being in a new place with new people and feeling a bit uncertain. But if someone or something is a threat, be confident that with proper education regarding cultural norms in the target country, you can accurately assess whether or not there is a threat and act as you see fit.

Fear is a useful tool, but only when used in moderation. As de Becker argues, constantly fearing or anticipating attack is actually counterproductive. Gavin de Becker cites an example of a client who admitted to constantly fearing attack on a daily basis. As de Becker argues, when we experience fear on a daily basis, we are constantly being bombarded from fear-based survival signals. Our adrenaline masks our perceptions. Simply put, in order to experience these valuable survival signals clearly, we need contrast. If we never comfortably walk the streets then we will not be able to notice the sharp contrast of a legitimate survival signal if and when it arises.  Thus if we fear every passing Indian male or anticipate sexual harassment every time we walk down the street, then our threshold is so high we won’t notice the legitimate fear signals telling us when there is a real danger.

In order to rely on our fear signals while traveling, we first you need to be re-calibrated, so to speak, so that our fears accurately reflect potential threats in the new country. This is true whether one’s concern is sexual harassment or any other potential threat. The first step is for each traveler to be accurately informed about Indian culture and the current conditions in the region of India to which we are traveling. It is no more true to say that every Indian male is out to sexually harass foreign women than it is to say that leering, groping, indecent exposure and lewd gestures are all deemed appropriate behavior in Indian culture and society. Education regarding cultural norms such as: what are typical styles of modest dress and behavior for each gender and what are culturally appropriate ways of responding to sexual harassment is important. Talking with other female travelers who have been to that region (as I recommended in my previous post) is useful. The second step is to make educated decisions about how to dress, converse, and behave while in India. This is not to say that it is best for all foreigners to dress local and conform to rigidly conservative Indian standards of behavior.  Rather each person has the right to decide for themselves what is the best way for them to dress, converse, and behave while traveling and likewise the right to decide how to best handle issues of sexual harassment. Decisions regarding what to wear and how to behave may change throughout throughout one’s travels depending on region of India (or other countries), or they may change depending on if we are traveling alone or with a group or partner. I certainly modify my behaviors and dress throughout my travels. The important thing is that it should always be a conscious choice made with understanding of how our dress, behaviors, etc. might be perceived by others.  And finally, the third step is to trust our instincts. We can and should trust that if our instincts tell us to run, we should run (or escape). If our instincts tell us it is best to intervene and reprimand the offender for their remark, stare, lewd gesture, or conversation, then we should intervene. If our instincts tell us that the person staring (male or female) is simply curious or (appropriately) friendly, why not smile or wave in return? Approach traveling with an open heart. Be open to being out of your comfort zone. Only then will genuine survival signals be distinguishable from the ambient noise.


  1. Hi! Your blog was recommended by Kathleen K, a former student in your Tibetan class. These are really good things to keep in mind when traveling, as following your intuition is the best way to know what to do. I have an archaeologist friend who works in India, and she says she'll often look up from her trench to see a man trying to stare down her (buttoned up to the neck) shirt. She's on site, surrounded by other archaeoogists, and they're not going to do anything obscene, so she just tells them to stop and get back to work.

    I spent 3 months this year in a small village in Sudan, where it was really easy to fall into local customs - women travel in pairs, and don't go off alone with non-family men. In the slightly bigger town nearby, we would often be approached by both men and women just because we were a bunch of white people; their intentions were always friendly, and it was completely ok as long as we didn't wander alone, because that is inappropriate for young unmarried women. Most people just wanted to know what we were doing and welcome us to the town; after knowing us for 5 minutes, we were all invited to tea, and we found that as long as there would be women around, it was perfectly safe to accept. We were always treated like family.
    Actually, the time when I felt mot unsafe was recently on the London tube, when a crazy dude cornered me. And I take the tube every day!
    I wrote more on my blog -

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  3. Hi Stacy,
    Thank you for your response and thank you for reading my blog. What you say about your and your friend's experience in Sudan sounds very relevant. I haven't spent time in Indian villages yet, but I imagine there is much in common. My experience in mostly in cities (big and small) and towns, where the atmosphere is but more urban. In towns and cities nowadays, Indian women will walk on the street alone (though not nearly as commonly as men) and some even ride scooters. And (with some exceptions) do this without suffering from harassment. But a single foreigner (or even pair of foreigners) cannot walk without being harassed unless accompanied by a male. Anyways, I look forward to reading your blog and learning more about traveling in Sudan!.