Sunday, October 7, 2012

Travel guidebooks and blogs on sexual harassment

I will be following up with more nuanced discussions of aspects of the previous post, but first I want to explore a new issue—the ways in which Western-based travel guides  and women-oriented travel blogs designed for westerners address or prepare women for issues of sexual harassment in India. 

Travel guidebooks and online resources
I happen to have the Lonely Planet guide to India on me, so I’ll mostly discuss this book. The Lonely Planet devotes 2 pages to women and solo travellers in which information ranging from appropriate clothing, safety in transportation to finding travel companions to save money on autos and taxis is discussed.  This is incidentally identical to the number of pages devoted to avoiding scams in India. I don’t disagree with any particular advice given in guidebooks like this. If you want to minimize harassment, wearing local clothing, or at least modest Western clothing with a dupatta (scarf) draped over your shirt as suggested in the Lonely Planet and similar books will certainly help. Likewise traveling in higher classes of trains and tourist buses or finding travel companions are valid ways to minimize the risk of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the form of groping. In fact there is some really good advice in these types of travel books. I single them out however for two reasons: (1) they focus on prevention almost exclusively and offer little advice for women who are being sexually harassed or assaulted and (2) the almost nonchalant attitude expressed regarding sexual harassment in these books, which I think encourages female travelers to minimize their own experiences and shrug them off rather than face them. Consider the following suggestion from the Lonely Planet,  “Be prepared to be stared at; It’s something you’ll have to live with so don’t allow it to get the better of you.” While it is true that a more nonchalant attitude towards staring will make a visit to India less uncomfortable for a woman traveler, I think it’s problematic to be encouraging a woman to shrug off staring so quickly. There is no taboo in Indian culture against staring as there is in most Western countries, which is what the author meant by the above statement. Thus staring can just be a sign of either boredom or curiosity and not necessarily a big deal. However in a section devoted to women travelers I think it’s a little premature to urge women to simply ‘get used to’ staring. Because of the lack of taboo regarding staring, most forms of sexual harassment in begin and end with staring. Staring can be accompanied by lewd verbal propositions, provocative gestures, being followed, being bumped into and/or groped, and/or other invasions of personal space of a woman, all of which are certainly taboo in Indian culture.  This sort of attitude inadvertently encourages  women to accept and get used to unwanted attention and advances in India which is problematic. 

The biggest problem that I have with these types of resources is that they are only preventative in nature. They focus on minimizing the risk of sexual harassment, which is undoubtedly a great idea. But prevention is not 100%. Depending on where you stay and for how long (longer stays in smaller places means more exposure, so locals often, but not always 'get used to you'), a woman may still receive sexual harassment on a daily basis especially if she is looks ‘atypical’ (i.e. unusual hair style, hair color, or clothing).  As an example, a red-headed colleague of mine had to cover her hair completely when she walked around in Jaipur, even though she lived there for 2 months, because otherwise she would get catcalls every few blocks. I personally would advise red-heads to cover their hair as often as possible for that reason. Several African-American female colleagues of mine in the same city reported that boys would occasionally approach and touch their hair without permission and then run away. While perhaps not sexual in nature, it is still a form of harassment which can over time wear down on someone, also known as microaggression.

But more importantly, what happens when attempts to avoid harassment fail? What happens when you do get harassed? What’s the culturally appropriate response? When is it best to ignore and when is it best to respond? How do locals respond to inappropriate advances? This is the type of information that should be made available to women travelers. If not in these guidebooks, then where?

The Lonely Planet guide suggests two external (non-Lonely Planet affiliated) web resources for women travelers. However after perusing their articles for information about sexual harassment, I was very concerned with what I found. One of the websites ( )  seemed promising at first glance since it includes many blogs, several of which seemed to contain information regarding sexual harassment. However a search for “harassment” only came up with nine entries, one of which downplayed the risk of sexual harassment and assault and mostly focused on advising culturally-appropriate clothing. Two other blog entries made reference to the cultural heroine Sita’s being  sexually harassed by the demon Ravana (from the Ramayana), one blog denied the existence of sexual harassment in the Middle East, one made reference to being ‘harassed’ (questioned for IDs) by Chinese soldier, and another referred only to be harassed for money in India. One helpful blog pointed to a book titled “Safety and Security for Women who travel,” which might actually be useful.

But the article that takes the cake for being problematic is this one, which essentially takes the Lonely Planet guidebook’s attitude of “Get used to being stared at” to its far extreme and asserts,

Have I been stared at? Been on the receiving end of catcalls? Fondled? Had men expose themselves to me? Ignored in foreign restaurants?  Yes!
Do I see this as being ill-treated? No!
My response to situations, whether travel-related or not, directly relates to how I will see the world and also how I will continue to be treated. I could be pissed off that a waiter at an Indian restaurant chooses to only speak to my husband when we are traveling together or I could remember that I’m a guest in his country, try to understand where he’s coming from and then make a decision that I won’t visit that restaurant again.

So what exactly is wrong with this? While this woman is clearly aware of the problem of sexual harassment, she conflates sexual harassment with genuinely culturally-appropriate gender relations in India. Her statements presupposes that all of the above behavior is culturally-appropriate in India. Only two of the above five experiences listed are actually culturally acceptable in Indian society: staring (which Indians do even at each other), and women being ignored in foreign restaurants (which can happen in Muslim areas, but is extremely rare elsewhere). The other three: catcalls, being fondled, and men exposing themselves are not, I repeat not acceptable in Indian culture just as they are not acceptable in Western cultures. Putting all five of those instances in the same category of harassment is problematic because (1) it conflates sexual harassment with authentic Indian social norms and (2) conveys an attitude that women should simply accept sexual harassment out of concern for offending the target culture. The fact that an Indian women would not accept any of those last three items is unfortunately irrelevant for this critique.   

The other website recommended ( has a useful search engine which gave me 40 hits under the word “harassment”.  The entries linked from the search engine were more diverse (covered more countries than the previous site), but each article read more or less the same. Women are advised  to wear conservative and/or local clothing and act modest, they are informed that men will stare, and they are informed that men may try and touch them and the way to safeguard against this is to wear appropriate clothing, don’t get into the front seat of a taxi (true in India as well) and don’t accept a hotel room if it doesn’t lock from the inside (a good rule of thumb even in your own country!). But most entries focused on appropriate clothing to wear. Sadly this website falls victim to the same critique I levied against the Lonely Planet and similar guidebooks: what do you do if and when prevention fails and you are harassed? 

A manual I was given by an academic program I attended last summer is so far the best resource I have seen, though it has its problems. Included along with all of documents sent to us on water and food safety, availability of toiletries, and so forth was a 10-page word document on “How to Prevent and Combat Sexual Harassment,” which we were encouraged to read before coming. Eager for more tips, while preparing for my trip last year, I read every word. It was the best thing I have seen on how to prepare visiting students for incidents of harassment. I was indeed quite pleased to notice the disclaimer which indicates awareness that these are survival strategies and not ways to stop sexual harassment at its source: “The suggestions given below are short-term ways of coping with sexual harassment. They are not meant to substitute for broader efforts to educate people about and eradicate sexual harassment.” The manual contained very detailed and quite extensive advice to (mostly women) as to what behaviors, clothing, etc.  are considered ‘appropriate’ versus ‘inappropriate’ in India as well as advice for safety tips while traveling alone. I was also  pleasantly surprised to read practical advice for dealing with public groping or inappropriate touching (they suggested carrying a needle to poke potential gropers with), which is something the guidebooks shy away from confronting. This guidebook also suggested learning and memorizing a few phrases in the language of the area you’ll be visiting to shout out if you are being harassed, which for students attending a language program is a fantastic idea---not so practical for everyone else.

In short, it is a quite useful manual, and contains much information I would consider essential for any woman traveling without a male companion in India. But unfortunately as a result of its length and tone, it leans more towards the opposite end of the spectrum of the above blog.  I remember thinking to myself most any woman reading this who hasn’t been to India before is now likely to be scared out of their wits, fearing being harassed or molested every step of their trip. One girl in the program admitted that after reading that manual, she had been terrified because she didn’t yet have any local clothes and was literally expecting to be harassed on the street the entire time until she got local clothing.  So clearly the manual borders on overkill. Unfortunately because of overemphasizing the risk of sexual harassment, there was a kind of “boy who cried wolf” effect. Because most of the women in the program were not harassed immediately, they dismissed the manual (and its information) as being mostly unnecessary and thus minimized the very important information in the manual. After all, if the threat is not as imminent as promised, when why be prepared?  While fortunately she and ever woman in that program remained safe from physical harm, almost every woman in the program was sexually harassed in some way, some more often than others. So again I ask: what is the appropriate cultural response to harassment? Shrugging it off as “Indian culture” is factually inaccurate and dangerous.

The advice to Females Traveling to India that I wish was in guidebooks:
The first step is for female travelers to be educated in what are actually the cultural norms and expectations so that you always know what you are communicating. It is important to know that staring at a woman is not taboo in India (except for certain Muslim sects). It is not appropriate for a woman to stare back, or even to make eye contact for too long. That is generally interpreted as sexual interest. If you do not want to convey sexual interest, do not make prolonged eye contact and do not engage in even idle conversation with men when possible. There need be no concern about being polite or friendly enough. Being quiet is not rude, it is respectful and sets boundaries. If you intend to flirt, by all means be friendly. But if you do not want that attention, do not chat. But for any man to even touch an woman who is not his wife is taboo and should never be accepted.  Men will often (but not always) vacate a bench when a woman sits down.  It is not acceptable in India for a man to ask a woman questions about her marital status or anything to do with her dating habits and it is not appropriate for a woman to participate in that conversation. Answering questions of that nature is considered flirting. Women accompanied by a male travel companion can talk more freely with an Indian male if the male traveler is present, but even then, questions regarding marital status or dating are inappropriate. Any such questions are best avoided using both body language (turning face and body away from questioner) and verbally, by remaining mute. It is also acceptable to calmly asserting that the question is inappropriate, but that may invite them to question further, so be careful..

It is important to point out that in Indian culture Indian women are allowed to ask other women questions about marital status, and will also routinely follow up by asking your age, if you have any children, what you do for a living and (sometimes) how much you make. Each female traveler has to decide for themselves when to answer what. It is always acceptable to inform them that in [insert your country name here] we don’t ask those questions, and then decline to answer them.

Local clothing is extremely helpful. In part because it’s comfortable and dries quickly when you hand-wash it. But also because it often cuts down on harassment because it shows respect for Indian culture and conveys modesty. Also the dupatta is an effective tool for responding to excessive staring (by men). When being stared at by men, it is appropriate for a women to drape the dupatta (scarf, also sometimes called chunni, depending on where you are) over her head and then temporarily shield her face and turn away from the staring male. This communicates that you are being appropriately modest and the male is violating the (Indian) expectation of respect for women. I’ve tried it. It works about 85-90% of the time for me, but  I’m also quite pale and have light-colored hair and thus receive more harassment than darker-haired or darker- skinned foreign women. For others it may be even more effective.

It is always appropriate in an Indian context for a woman to get indignant and angry and yell at offensive men, especially for stronger forms of harassment such as touching, being followed, or if at any point you feel ‘trapped’. Actually, it’s not uncommon for an Indian woman to get offended and yell over things like being overcharged as well, so the power of your voice should not be underestimated. The offending male will back down (from whatever he is doing) and generally apologize profusely, begging the woman to not be angry. Why? Because it is embarrassing for the man. Capitalize on this. In extreme situations, you can also hit someone with your shoe or alternately throw your shoe at someone. They will be (rightfully) offended and generally leave.  Since this is a highly offensive move, it should be saved for when all other verbal techniques have failed  and should only be used if you feel threatened. There are of course a variety of physical self-defense techniques that can be learned and practiced which are helpful. Any kind of physical technique would likely surprise the offending male and convince them to leave. Women are not generally taught to defend themselves in India (nor are men, for that matter), so any kind of  physical response will have the element of surprise.

In situations where you feel uncomfortable because of Indian males, seek out female company, Indian or foreigner. I know female travelers who prefer second or third-class AC trains over 1st-class trains, because there are more people in the berth in lower AC trains and hence a greater chance of there being other female allies. You always want there to be another woman around if possible, so a 1st-class AC is inadvisable. Also try to avoid general (non AC) class, because theft, groping and so forth are more common there. If you have to ride general class, then find a family or group of females to sit beside. Similarly, sit down next to females rather than next to males on buses, chai stalls, etc. Indian women in particular are great allies. They are more likely than Indian men to speak up when another male is being inappropriate and come to your defense. Befriend Indian women. It will give you added protection and it gives you a way to safely interact with locals and learn more about the culture.

Always talk with other females who have been to where you are going before traveling. But here’s the caveat. Not every female traveler is as knowledgeable as others about travel advice. There are three qualities that  I would recommend searching for in a female traveler to solicit for advice. I think this is valid advice regardless of where you want to go:

1) Look for a female who has spent significant time (3 weeks minimum but longer is better) in one given place. Six months in India staying in each town no more than 3-5 days (or even a week) is not equivalent to a 2 month trip of 4 weeks in each spot. Always solicit advice from females who have done homestays if at all possible. If not, then ask advice from those who have stayed the longest in one town or city. Many countless female travelers that I have seen throughout my travels only truly see glimpses of India. They spend less than 2 days in a given place and spend at least 50% of their time in transit. While this is a valid style of traveling if you want to see more places in a smaller amount of time, the amount of depth that person will experience of the culture is commensurately small. They will have lots of great advice for finding the best deals on hotel rooms for short stays, bargaining with  travel agencies, and for finding safe restaurants off the bat, but by spending so little time in an area, they will not learn enough about the culture of that area to understand the complexities of gender dynamics to prepare you for issues of sexual harassment. Look for women who have several ‘friends’ in a given area. That often indicates they have spent enough time there to have people to go back to visit. If the person can’t tell you their favorite place for chai, they likely haven’t been there long enough to advise you (though that’s not a hard-and-fast rule). In my experience, there is something that happens when you spend more than a week  in a place. Locals start recognizing you for one. That is generally a good thing. Many countless travelers come through and they learn nothing about the foreigner and the foreigner learns nothing about them. Foreigners become numbers on a scorecard of how many thalis or how many minutes of internet they sold on a given day. Likewise, when you stay for a longer time, you learn more about the culture and habits of the place. You learn where the locals drink chai. You learn what time the locals go to temple (if they go). You learn where they shop, what’s the best way to get around, and where to find the best prices. And you learn to accept and experience a city or town as it is. The longer you stay in an area, the more you converse with locals, the more you learn about Indian culture (in that area) and the better equipped you are to handle questions someone coming to India for the first time may have. Those that stay in each place for only a few days simply don't have the time to immerse themselves and thus their understanding of Indian culture, let alone what constitutes sexual harassment in India is limited. These are the people who will produce blogs like the above that puts staring and  men who don’t make eye contact in the same category as indecent exposure.

2) Look for females who have traveled alone around in the target country. There is often a huge difference in experience between a woman who has traveled with a male companion and a woman who has traveled with one or more female companions and one who has traveled alone. Women accompanied by men are harassed considerably less often (if at all). Women travelling with other women are harassed quite often, but still less frequently than women travelling alone.  Women who have successfully gone anywhere in India alone will be better equipped to advise you how to be safe and the best ways to respond.

3) In India, look for women who have spent their significant time in the state or area you want to visit. There are ways in which each state in India can feel like a different country. I imagine other countries can be quite similar in this way. Villages are vastly different from towns and towns are vastly different from cities. And cities are vastly different from tourist hot spots. It is important to point out regional differences. For India, some states (Himachal Pradesh, Punjab) are much more relaxed and open to foreigners than others. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in particular are known for being the roughest states for foreigners, let alone for foreign women to travel in.  Seek out people who have spent time in the state (if not the city/town/village) that you intend to visit for their advice. Pay attention to how the female foreigner says they spent their time. If they spent a month in Dharamsala attending Buddhist teachings or a month in Manali or Leh, Ladakh doing treks, or if they spent a month hopping around from city-to-city within a given state, their experience is going to be different  from someone who lived for a month in an apartment in Delhi, or did in a homestay in Varanasi.  Trying to learn about Indian culture from tourist places is like hanging out at Times Square in New York to understand the way New Yorkers live.  In cities known for sight-seeing such as Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, it is easy to only see the tourist sites and rarely (if ever) interact with locals apart from purchasing a few things or hopping from auto rickshaw to auto rickshaw.  However, even in tourist cities, many women do succeed in interacting with locals through homestays, paying guest houses (bed and breakfasts) or even just by chatting (appropriately) with locals in restaurants, temples, and mosques. So always pay attention to what the traveler you are asking tells you about their travel style: where they spent the most time, and how they traveled and try to determine how applicable it is.

I hope this has been a helpful post. In my next update, I plan to talk about more general approaches to safety while traveling, including how and when to appropriately use fear as your guide.


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