Monday, June 10, 2013

The Think Finger of Self Defense

One day I was on the Delhi metro with my luggage.  I was standing next to a pole near the entrance to the train, guarding my belongings. I fully expected stares and leering, since (a) I was a white foreigner wearing local clothing traveling alone and (b) I had luggage with me—not exactly a common sight on the Delhi metro at the time. I had discovered through my own empirical testing over the past few months that if I turned towards my harasser and, with not a small amount of attitude, clearly said  in Hindi “Kyaa dekh rahe ho?!” (What are you looking at?!) roughly 90% of the time, the harasser would appear very embarrassed and would turn away, sometimes even mumbling back in Hindi something like  "Kuch naheen!" (Nothing!)  or "Naheen dekh raha..." (I wasn't looking!..) Inwardly I would always smile at this exchange. It felt like a mini-victory to me.  I bet you weren't expecting the gori (white girl) to know Hindi, were you? I would think to myself. When you are tired from daily harassment, you cherish these moments.

I decided to apply this strategy one-by-one to each and every man who stared during this metro ride. Most on the train turned away, apparently losing interest in staring at me the moment I turned towards them. Others waited until I spoke and then turned away without a word, visibly embarrassed. I used this phrase 5-6 times over the course of my 35-minute train ride. After almost every stop, there would be a new person who entered the train and began staring, so I kept applying this method. Until the last person. He was tall, hovering almost a foot above my 5’3” stature. And he stared, looking at my luggage and me, eyes following me up and down, taking in my Salwar top, scarf, and khakis. I waited, counting off 30 full seconds in my head before I turned toward him, met his gaze and firmly replied “Kyaa dekh rahe ho?!”

But this man was different. Unlike the others, my speech did not embarrass him—rather it seemed to make him more interested. He took a step towards me and leaned in, moving closer into my space. He stared through me with even more intensity and replied in English with a heavy accent “Oh, were you speaking Hindi? How do you know Hindi?...” The words were innocuous, but the intent behind them was anything but. Everything in my gut told me: This man is dangerous. My gut also told me something else: Don't respond to his questions. It's not safe. I made a choice then to actively change strategies. I stopped speaking to him and did not reply to any further attempts at conversation. I consciously and intentionally turned my head away from him to convey disinterest in conversation, but angled my body so that I could actively monitor him through my peripheral vision. The train car had started to empty out a bit, but I knew I was safe so long as I was on the train—still too many people around. My fear at that moment was that he would follow me to my stop, the more isolated Vidhan Sabha stop and exit with me. For what felt like an hour, but in reality was probably about 10 minutes, I watched him out of the corner of my left eye. I was out of his range—I knew he would have to take at least a step to grab my arm or make any other sort of threatening move. He continued to try to evince a verbal response out of me using aggressively coaxing tones, but he remained standing where he was out of range, and did not move any closer, so I continued to stand firmly and confidently without saying a word. I kept my muscles loose but tense, prepared to react with both my body and my voice if he came any closer. I alternated between forming a fist and a knife-hand weapon with my right hand—not because it is a practical self-defense move (it isn't!)—but because it made me feel strong and reminded me to breathe and focus. I held my belongings, but was prepared to drop them. Although he eventually quit trying to make conversation, this man never quit looking me up and down until he finally exited, just a few stops before my stop. As he left I breathed a sigh of relief, but did not let my guard down until after I reached the "safety" of outside. Needless to say I was quite shaken by this incident.

Intuition and the "Gift of Fear"
So what is the point of this story? I share this story to illustrate two important aspects I want to highlight from the Think "Finger" of Self-Defense. One is to trust your intuition. This man’s words were not threatening in content. He was not making lewd comments or actively threatening me. But my instincts and my intuition told me he was unstable in some way; he was unsafe. In self-defense scenarios, we often doubt our intuition. We think we are being irrational. We notice someone following behind us at night, but are afraid to turn around and face them for fear that they are innocent. We don’t want to be perceived as paranoid. We tell ourselves that logically everything appears safe, therefore we’re just paranoid; we’re over-reacting. But irrational fear is different from intuition. Intuition is an informed emotional reaction (a fear response) to a perceived threat; it is neither illogical nor paranoid. On a more subtle level a similar thing happens when people close to us use words to manipulate us. We may intuitively know we are being manipulated. But then our good friend Logic comes to our attacker's rescue and convinces us that there is no "rational" basis to what our intuition is telling us.

Let’s re-examine this scenario. I had discovered a verbal strategy that so far had been overwhelmingly successful for me in Hindi-speaking North India (Varanasi, Jaipur, and Delhi areas). And in fact I had successfully employed it several times in a row on that very same train. But in this once instance, it had the opposite of the desired effect. Rather than embarrass and discourage the harasser from leering, it encouraged and emboldened this man. Logically his words conveyed:  I am friendly. Talk to me. I am safe. Yet my intuition saw through the manipulation and correctly assessed otherwise: Something is different about him. He reacts differently (red flag!). Further if we examine his particular reactions, we see even more disturbing behavior. This man's body language changed, indicating interest. He turned towards me, took a step and leaned in, taking up some of my space (red flag!). He used seemingly friendly words but the affect was off. He was a little too interested in the fact that I had spoken in Hindi. My ears detected the intensity in his vocal tones that his careful choice of words tried to hide, and my eyes took in the intensity of his stare and his body language (red flag!). Based on these indicators—most of which were too subtle or too transient for me to form immediate rational judgments—my intuition then informed me that something was not right about this man and that my words had actually increased his interest in me. Intuition is a powerful tool we all have at our  disposal. If you want to learn more about how to use intuition  and "fear signals" as tools in Self Defense, I highly recommend Gavin de Becker's book The Gift of Fear.

You Can Always Change Strategies
The second aspect of Think I want to highlight from this story is that you can always change strategies. My intuition told me that my typical strategy had not worked on this man—on the contrary it encouraged him further! So I made the decision then to change strategies. I strategically chose active silence as my tool. I chose to stand firmly and confidently (not passively!) allowing his further queries to pass without response, waiting to see what he would do next. After a minute or so of  receiving no verbal response from me, he stopped speaking, apparently content to simply leer for the remainder of his ride.

This is a success story. This man was testing me, to see if I was a "good victim." He wanted to hook me into a conversation to observe me, seeing how I responded. I was targeted. Maybe he wanted to mug me. Maybe he wanted to convince me to come to his cousin-brother's shop to buy something (unlikely). Or maybe he wanted something much worse. My intuition told me not to comply, even to his demands to converse. After attempting to intimidate me both with his body language and tone, I responded with body language that clearly conveyed I was not a passive target and I would fight back. While it wasn't my intention at the time, the fact that I was forming a fist/knife-hand with my right hand probably helped communicate that as well. While in most instances I have found using your voice to set boundaries and clearly state what you want ("Leave me alone! Go away!") to be a very effective strategy in India, in this case, sensing that further verbal communication might actually escalate the situation, I changed strategies (**see disclaimer below!). I chose to wait to use my voice, deciding that if he crossed a physical boundary I would respond then both physically and verbally. I failed his "good-victim" test and he left me alone.

The Think Finger of Self Defense
Self Defense starts long before you raise a fist (or palm heel). It starts long before you are even in the situation. The First "Finger" in the Five Fingers of Self Defense is Think. On the surface level it is about 'thinking', about being aware of your surroundings: Where can I go nearby where there are more people around? Where is the closest policeman or police station (if that is a symbol of safety for you)? How can I increase the distance between me and the apparently drunk group of teenage boys leering at me from down the street? Is the man walking behind me meandering—as is more typical for Indian men—or is he speeding up to follow me more closely?  But there is also a deeper level of application. When traveling Think may involve taking steps to educate yourself about what behaviors are typical in that culture and what aren't so that you can notice anomalies like a local person might. If we actively inform our intuition by educating ourselves then our intuition will be based on rational assessments of our surroundings and of people's behavior and not based on blind fear. Think may involve learning a variety of tools and strategies that can be used and deciding ahead of time where your personal boundaries are, and when you would feel comfortable using a given strategy. Think might also consist of being aware of your emotional reaction while in uncomfortable situation (am I nervous or scared?—yep!) and choosing an active strategy to deal with your emotions (counting to 10, deep breathing, etc.). Think might start with the choice to use a particular strategy but then require the flexibility to change your mind about what strategy to use. The uncomfortable truth is that there is no one magical tool that will work for every situation. The good news is we all have many tools and strategies at our disposal, and we always have a choice to decide which one(s) to try in a given situation.

I shared an abbreviated version of the Delhi metro story with a group of women in a Self-Defense seminar in Delhi. I was assisting Pooja Agarwal with a 4-hour seminar for female employees of  Nucleus Software in Noida. I had trained with Pooja and her husband Rahul who is a fourth degree black belt (Yondan) and head of the the Noida branch of Seido karate (the same style I study in Chicago). Up until the point when I shared this story, I wasn't certain that these women took me seriously. After all, what can a white foreign woman understand of their daily experiences of harassment? Of being afraid to travel alone on overnight buses? Of being afraid to travel alone by rickshaw at night?  But there was one woman in the class, who had earlier shared with us a personal story she had experienced where she had tried on three separate occasions to report an attempted assault to the police (once by phone and twice in person) and had been thwarted by police incompetency and/or disinterest on all three occasions. She exclaimed to the class that women needed to take action into their own hands and that the only way to respond to harassment is basically to beat the snot out of every harasser. I watched to see how Pooja handled the situation. Pooja was supportive in her response to this woman, but followed up with a particularly powerful story offered to demonstrate how physically violent responses to harassment can escalate the situation and do not necessarily increase your safety. The story ended with the woman getting hit in the head with a beer bottle swung by the man she had just slapped for making lewd comments from a nearby table in a restaurant.

In the wake of their shocked silence following that story, I jumped in with the above story, hoping to also illustrate that not only is the most aggressive response not necessarily the safest response to harassment but also that sometimes you might need to change strategies along the way. My previous attempts to offer "success stories" from the US had landed flat with this crowd, so I decided to offer a personal story from my travels in India. As I began to tell this story I was shocked to realize these women were listening, apparently riveted. After I finished, I was met with applause. A disorienting experience to say the least. Now, I don't for a moment think that the applause was because I am a good story teller or because my success story was so compelling. But rather, in that moment because of sharing this highly personal experience and sharing how I used these tools that we had been talking about in the past two hours of class, I made a connection with these women. I was no longer just a foreigner assisting Pooja with the Self Defense class. I was also one of them, a fellow woman living with harassment who had successfully used the tools we were describing to keep herself safe.  All from the power of sharing this one experience—one of the most common experiences shared by Delhi women—namely, harassment on public transportation. But that's jumping to the Fifth Finger of Self Defense (the Tell finger), which I'll address more in a later post.

**Disclaimer: In this instance, I chose to avoid using my voice to interact with this harasser, but this may be a fairly rare case, even in South Asia. In every other situation I've (so far) encountered in India, I have found that using my voice to state clearly what I want ("Leave me alone! Go away!" or even "I'm not your girlfriend. Don't talk to me that way!")—especially if I raise my voice a little and insert a bit of Indian Auntie attitude—works much better. I would not generally recommend remaining silent as a strategy. It can be misinterpreted as passive, especially if your body language tells them you are feeling uncomfortable. I'll be discussing strategies for how to use your voice in a South Asian context in my next post on the Yell Finger.**

In the meantime, let's focus on the Think finger and how these principles might be applied to travel to South Asia. What are your thoughts? Anyone have a success story they want to share? 


  1. I am so impressed with your writing Erin. Great stuff. I will share a story of my parents using the THINK finger (actually almost all others too, but I will focus on THINK). My parents had gone to the bank to withdraw a considerable sum of cash. They used the think finger in many different ways. Before the situation - they had made sure to take a bag that they could handle well to put the money in. They had also thought about going together and not just one person so that one of them could help the other if they landed in an unpleasant situation. Now when they moved out of the bank with the money, their senses were anyways quite alert. In the situation - when they were standing, waiting to cross the road, my dad saw a cycle rider coming too close to him -almost directly at him. His intuition told him that this was not OK. here was something WRONG! He held tighter to the bag. In the same instance, he felt someone tug at the bag from behind. That is when my mom started yelling as she noticed the man pulling the bag. While yelling, she pounced on the man pulling the bag and pushed him away. When me dad turned back to see the cycle rider, he was no where to be seen.
    After the incident - my parents came to the conclusion that these guys were a pair. The cycle rider probably tried to direct the chosen victim's attention to saving him/herself from bumping into the cycle, while the partner from behind would pull the bag (or any such item) from the victim's hand. They shared the story with us and that made all of us wiser. Also they made sure they had in place alternate arrangements to withdraw money rather than travel to a far off bank.
    This story was inspiring to me n many ways. One was my parents' planning, other was their willingness to trust their instincts, then their alertness and finally their ability to use the SD fingers! I am so proud of them!

    1. Wow, what a fantastic story Pooja! Thank you for sharing. Good use of all five Fingers! THINK and YELL are quite obvious. RUN is there too, I think with their body positioning once the second person arrived. And of course FIGHT and TELL. Very good example for THINK: advanced planning, awareness of their surroundings, trusting their intuition. There's so much there! Excellent story and I'm glad your parents shared it with you! I'm inspired every time someone I know shares a personal success story. It empowers me to know that I have such AWESOME, strong people in my life.

  2. I don't know if I'd call this a "success" story, although it's successful in the fact I came out unharmed.

    I'm currently travelling alone in the Philippines (well, I have settled in Cebu City to teach ESL, but do intend on travelling further). I have learned to cope with the stares, the "hello beautiful"s, and the finger-pointing, because I have learned to assess each situation individually rather than live in fear (they're all trying to kill me!) or get too comfortable (everyone's so friendly!). I have read The Gift of Fear and there is a great chapter about Stranger Danger being bullshit - what we need to know is HOW to talk to strangers, and how to read them.

    While in a hotel, I personally visited the girls at reception to ask about the faulty internet connection in my room. They sent a maintenance man (who also act as bellboys) up to my room with me fix it. Now that I rethink the situation, I realise I was acting on instinct I didn't know I had, and although I conversed with the man some part of me was giving off warning signs and I unconsciously followed them.

    -When he made small talk, I would answer questions but not elaborate. When he asked if I was travelling alone, I quickly brought up the fact I was visiting male cousins, something I do not normally mention.
    -When in my room, I left the door wide open and stood close to it, something I do not normally do.
    -I took note of his wedding band, something I don't normally notice, thinking to myself, "Oh good he's married, he won't hit on me."

    He fixed my internet connection, and about 20 minutes after he'd left my room phone rang. I assumed it'd be reception and answered. It was a male voice.

    Him: "Hello? What's your name?"
    Me: "Who is this?"
    Him: "Need to come back to discuss."
    Me: "I don't understand. Who is this?"
    Him: "This is Johari. Need to discuss..."
    Me: "I don't understand."
    Him: "Can I come back into your room?"
    Me: "Why?"
    Him: "I'm lonely."

    I hung up, to which the phone immediately started ringing again. I considered answering and screaming at him, or answering and hanging up, but ultimately chose No Response. I locked and barricaded my door, then got on the internet and wrote a mass Facebook message to my Filipino cousins plus my boyfriend back in Oz, detailing the exact time and nature of the incident, then passed on details of the hotel, my room number, and phone number.

    Once the phone stopped ringing I picked it up and reported the guy to reception. The girl passed me on to her supervisor, who assured me he would be fired immediately. I hang up and waited. When the phone rang again I answered, but it was him again. I heard him say, "PLEASE" before hanging up. The phone started ringing nonstop.

    In the end, reception did ring, but I was confused by the call as they said, "The staff have been told not to disturb you", which didn't put me at ease. My cousin also called the hotel, and they apologised to her, saying they had already received complaints about "Johari" attempting to enter guest rooms. I began to suspect he had been warned but not fired, especially as he had a history of this behaviour and yet was still employed. So I asked to change rooms, and that I was accompanied by a reception woman while doing so, which they complied with. The woman who assisted me was very apologetic but vague.

    A few days later, when I was checking out and sitting in the lobby, I saw "Johari", in uniform and stationed near the hotel cafe. I felt him watching me and was overcome with anger. I straightened up and gave my body language it's best Don't Fuck With Me stance and flipped open a magazine, ignoring him but keeping him in peripheral vision. My cousin soon arrived and we left together, not glancing back.

    Like I said, I was unharmed (if shaken), but am not sure the staff member was adequately dealt with.

    1. Dear Renee,
      Thank you very much for sharing your story. I'm very sorry to hear this happened. I would definitely consider this a success story. Since you've read the Gift of Fear, I'll add that I also consider the opening story a success story. She was assaulted but she also escaped with her life. In this situation, you trusted your intuition and kept yourself safe while Johari was in your room. And when he was harassing you by phone, you reached out to friends and family via Facebook to let them know your location (very smart move!) and demanded reception send you a female employee to help you move to another room. And when you faced your attacker again--because that's what he was, he violated your emotional safety and threatened your physical safety--you faced him firmly. I'm very sorry to hear the hotel staff didn't take this incident more seriously. The fact that they've received numerous complains yet still employ Johari is disturbing. I would certainly agree they didn't adequately deal with him!

      If you haven't already, would you consider writing a negative review for this hotel on some travel sites (like Lonely Planet, etc.) and share your story there? Often tourist hotels rely on positive reviews from travel sites, so if they get reviews saying one of their staff has repeatedly attempted to assault female patrons and the hotel still employs him, that might embarrass them into firing this employee. Or would you at least be willing to share the name of this hotel here so that the readers of this blog know to stay away from this hotel!

      Thank you again for sharing your story. I hope your future travels are safe!

    2. Thanks for your kind words, Erin! I've taken your advice and written a negative review via Trip Advisor, and may also do it via Google Reviews, etc. I was fair but firm: "I would not recommend this hotel on the basis that management allows a staff member who has a history of harassing or threatening female clientele to remain in their employ." If you or readers are interested the hotel is:

      The Diplomat Hotel
      F. Ramos St, Cebu City, Philippines

      I must say, the majority of the staff were friendly and kind, if unsure how to deal with the situation. But to give one rotten person repeated opportunities to terrorise female guests is a deal-breaker.

    3. Thanks Renee for sharing this with us. I would definitely agree with you! If the hotel staff cares so little about female safety that they continue to employ this person after he has repeatedly terrorized women, then this is not a comfortable safe place to stay.

  3. A nice article story. Thanks for your story. Your story imitates the Self Defense For Women. In today's world, the women should learn about self defense to protect themselves. Various seminars and training institutes are teaching and sharing the information about Self Defense For Women.

  4. Very nice information, Thanks for sharing...

  5. Than ks for sharing this wonderful blog. Keep doing the good work..

  6. Hi Erin, On the occasion of Raksha bandhan, I thought you should see this. You'll like this.

    1. Dear Ganesh,
      Thank you for sharing! That was a very good piece. I hope you had an nice Raksha Bandhan.

  7. Your information is really very interesting and useful..Thanks for sharing such information.

    Self Defense