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?   


  1. We really need to take precautionary measures to insure our safety while traveling.

  2. wonderful article. thank you! highly recommended for other to read.

  3. Hello Erin,
    Take a couple of minutes to read this,
    It's a good read. :-)

  4. Another thing I wish you watched.

  5. The recent incident below (in Sri Lanka) may be of interest: