Monday, October 1, 2012

Introduction to "Traveling while female"

I created this blog as a public resource for female travelers concerned with issues of sexual harassment while traveling, in particular in South Asian countries. I was inspired to do so by a series of incidents that occurred a few days ago while I was (am) in  India for my dissertation research. These incidents are by far not the first nor are they the most traumatic of experiences that either I or other female travelers I know have faced. But despite this recurring issue, most female travelers, including myself, prefer to minimize their experiences, shrugging it off as "no big deal" or else trying to block more painful experiences from their memory. This is not meant to scare women-- this is intended to be a resource for women wanting to talk through and share their experiences. I believe fundamentally, that it is important for women to share these stories and talk through their experiences, no matter how large or small. Sexual harassment and sometimes sexual assault are realities, even while traveling, and there are too few resources available for women trying to cope with cross-cultural issues.
I should say that primarily I am a scholar and a teacher of South Asian languages, literature, history, and religions, based in the US. I am currently a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago’s Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations. I speak Hindi and Tibetan, and read several more languages. My primary focus is on the history of translation in South Asia, particular the translation of Sanskrit texts into Tibetan, most of which are Buddhist texts of various genres. I am currently in India for my dissertation research and previously have stayed in India twice, each for about three months. I have traveled mostly in the Northern states including Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajastan, and Himachal Pradesh. I have spent the most time in Delhi, Dharamsala, Jaipur, and Leh, Ladakh. I have also spent some time in Kathmandu, Nepal.  My experience with South Asian culture is based on my experiences living in India and traveling somewhat extensively, and based on numerous stories from fellow female travelers.
I should also add that in Chicago, I am a student of Seido karate at Thousand Waves Martial Arts and Self Defense Center NFP. I have taken several classes in their Violence Prevention (Self Defense) program and have recently started volunteering for their Violence Prevention program. I am working towards eventually becoming certified as a full teacher of Self Defense, but since I am in India for a while, that formal process will be a bit delayed. Though I would argue perhaps that I have used the skills and tools Thousand Waves has taught me more in India than I ever have in the US. I should add that I am fortunate enough to have never (yet) had to strike a person to defend myself physically. However the verbal tools we teach such as de-escalation and boundary-setting I have used regularly and certain body language-oriented tools, I have used often as well both domestically and while traveling.
The basics of our self-defense model we call the “Five Fingers of Self Defense”: (1) Think (2) Yell (3) Run (4) Fight (5) Tell.  A variety of handouts explaining this model are available for free as public resources here.   But in summary, we teach Self Defense based on the ethic of least harm. We want to give people a variety of tools so that they can choose the best (and hopefully least violent) way to defend themselves from either physical, emotional, or any other kinds of abuse or violence including sexual harassment, slander, bullying, manipulation, and so forth.  We also encourage people to be advocates for others and intervene on others’ behalf when they are unable to do so themselves. ‘Think’ is about evaluating one’s options, being aware of surroundings, taking the time to pause before responding. ‘Yell’ is not simply about making noise, it is about using one’s voice to control the situation either through boundary-setting or de-escalation. This is done both through tone and through particular choice of words. ‘Run’ can indicate either literally ‘running’ from a situation, or it can be more figurative, such as looking for ways to escape a situation, being aware of potential exit strategies, body positioning, etc. The only hard-and-fast rule we teach under ‘run’ is to never allow yourself to be taken from a more public location to a more private one.  ‘Fight’ refers to doing whatever is necessary physically to protect or defend yourself and others. This is what most people think of when they hear “Self Defense.” As you can see, it is only a part of the variety of tools we teach. And finally, there is the ‘Tell’ finger. The  ‘Tell’ finger is what this blog is about. It is about sharing experiences and talking with others. We believe that through talking about experiences no matter how large or small, some amount of healing can be achieved. Sometimes hearing these types of stories can inspire others to act to defend themselves and others. We believe that through discussing these issues, progress can be made on the ground to address the roots of these issues and stop the cycle of violence before it starts. As I said before, more information on Thousand Waves' approach to Violence Prevention is available on the link provided above, and it is better much phrased than I detail here.
I have created this blog to share my insights and experiences and hopefully to provide a place where others can share their insights and experiences.  For too long I think female travelers have either tried to forget or otherwise minimized their experiences. But pretending these things don’t happen won’t make them go away. If we want to deal with these issues and hope to prevent others from experiencing these situations, we have to be brave and discuss things that can be really quite uncomfortable. I invite all readers to participate and share their stories. If you have a story you would like to share, please send me a message or leave a comment.

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