Friday, January 10, 2014

Some Common Misconceptions about Harassment in South Asia

I have created this document as a resource with the hopes that it can serve as a useful guide for female students and scholars traveling to South Asia.  Because a female traveler never knows when she is simply being commented upon and when she is being tested, it may not always be safe to simply “ignore” harassment. Whether ignoring or confronting harassment is the best response will depend on the situation. In my experience, there is no one “right way” to safely respond to harassment. I created this document in part to share some ideas I hope will help women who are preparing for travel.

I base the ‘facts’ and ‘misconceptions’ in part on my personal experiences as well as the reported experiences of many female travelers I have met over the years. The approaches to handling harassment and violence in this handout come from a variety of sources, many of which are based in feminist empowerment-based models for teaching Self Defense popular in many North American women’s martial arts organizations, such as the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation (NWMAF), but also include recent scholarship on violence such as Holly Kearl’s and Gavin de Becker’s writings. This information is meant as a guide rather than a definitive way to cope with or manage street harassment and I take sole responsibility for the information provided.

Common Misconceptions
Facts about Street Harassment
·         Harassment is a compliment. Men only stare when they find you attractive.
Street Harassment is a form of violence. Because street harassment around the world occurs in the context of (a) fear of rape and (b) systematic inequality of women, it often evokes a fear response in women because of the potential lack of safety that could result. Because a woman never knows if a man is intending to simply comment or if they plan to do more, it can be difficult for harassing remarks and actions to be interpreted neutrally.

Harassment, like other forms of gender-based violence, is about power.  Discussions about harassment or assault that focus on it exclusively on it as a sexual act or as relating to the attractiveness, age, perceived sexual “looseness,” or other aspects of the appearance of the victim conflates harassment with complimentary behavior and may obscure the fact that it is a form of violence.
·         Since there is no taboo against staring in South Asia, foreigners will be stared at regardless.
While staring is a common pastime in many regions of South Asia, and any form of staring can be unnerving for many women, harassment is not always expressed through staring; likewise, not all stares constitute gender-based harassment.  The assertion that the two are equivalent is misguided and potentially dangerous advice for female travelers.

·    Harassment isn’t a real form of violence. The best response is always to ignore harassment.
Like all forms of violence, harassment can escalate from irritating (such as stares, cat-calls, lewd remarks), to bullying or intimidating (threatening looks, restriction of personal space, stalking, propositions for sexual acts, lewd gestures, lewd phone calls, emails or text messages) to assault or attempted assault (groping, trying to enter someone's hotel room, trying to pull someone into a car or alleyway, beating, sexual assault).

Attackers go through a process of targeting, testing, and selection of victims. Harassment is typically a part of the targeting and testing process. If the potential victim "passes" the test, the potential attacker might advance to a more dangerous or serious stage.  If you do choose to ignore harassment, make it a conscious choice. Project a sense of confidence and awareness of your surroundings. Note if there is more than one person harassing and try to get as much information as you can about what their intent may be.

·         Harassment can be prevented by wearing appropriately modest or local clothing and jewelry, and by behaving according to socially accepted gender norms in the region (no smoking, drinking, etc.)
The frequency of harassment and risk of assault can be reduced by wearing clothing and/or jewelry appropriate to the region of travel and by avoiding being seen engaging in behavior that is contrary to local norms; however, nothing is 100% effective. In my experience it is unrealistic to expect that harassment is completely preventable. Excessive attention and questions regarding a woman’s behavior and/or what she was wearing at the time of harassment (or assault) is not supportive and may imply the woman is responsible for the violence done to them. 

·         Harassment is a North Indian problem. If you work/study in the Southern regions of India, you won’t encounter harassment.

Harassment occurs in the South as well as the North; it occurs in villages as well as cities. Harassment may occur with greater frequency in certain regions of South Asia, but there is unlikely to be a region of South Asia that is harassment-free just as there are few places in the United States that are harassment-free.
·         If you avoid going out at night while in South Asia, you can avoid being harassed.

While women report greater frequency of harassment at night, harassment also occurs with frequency during the day. Whenever a woman is in public—whether going by bus, train, auto, taxi, rickshaw, or walking—she can be at risk of harassment.
·         If you travel with a male friend you can avoid being harassed.

While traveling with someone--such as a male companion--may keep you more safe from harassing comments, many women report being harassed in public while traveling with a male companion, whether friend, relative, or dating partner/spouse. 
·         Harassment is simply a "rite of passage" that female scholars traveling to South Asia have to face.
While many women do report feeling “stronger” after surviving experiences of harassment (and other challenges) in South Asia, these are generally after-the-fact interpretations of their experiences.  For someone currently experiencing regular or intense harassment, the “rite-of-passage” rhetoric is not necessarily supportive or empowering.  This rhetoric may additionally risk implying that a woman needs to endure verbal or potentially physical or sexual abuse in order to become a better scholar.
·         The "degree" of harassment experienced will determine a person's emotional reaction to it.
Harassment is a very individual and personally subjective experience. Different women will react differently to experiences of harassment. The impact cannot be determined by a specific quantity, quality, or duration of experience(s). Factors that can impact an individual’s experience of harassment may include the victim’s age, race/ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, previous experience with travel, previous experience(s) of harassment, past experience(s) of abuse, assault, or other forms of violence, availability of support structure in South Asia, among other factors. It is difficult to predict how an individual will react to experiences of harassment or how it will impact them in the future.

How can we support women experiencing harassment while traveling?
  • Consider reaching out to ask female travelers about their experiences abroad; be an active listener.
  • Realize that systemic harassment can potentially be traumatic for an individual as it constitutes violations of safety and of the body in public space.
  • If appropriate, suggest resources for counseling or therapy through your institution’s counseling services
  • Consider sharing resources that you or others have found useful for feeling empowered while facing harassment in the moment.

Bibliography and Additional Resources
de Becker, Gavin. The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals thatProtect Us From Violence.  New York: Random House, 1997.
Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2012.
Stop Street Harassment!
Traveling While Female: A blog on street harassment, sexual harassment and sexual assault
for women traveling to India, South Asia.
Violence Prevention Resources made publically available via Thousand Waves Martial Arts
and Self-Defense Center, NFP:

Author's note:
I originally wrote this first as a handout (which is accessible as a downloadable pdf via my page) in order to provide resources for interested teachers, educators, researchers, administrators and others who advise or otherwise prepare students for travel to South Asia for either study or research/work. While this handout was conceived as a resource to benefit non-South Asians who travel to South Asia, I hope that the information is useful for South Asian men and women as well.  As always if you have any thoughts, concerns, questions, or corrections, please feel free to email me directly via the feedback link on this page.

Erin H. Epperson
Ph.D. Candidate, University of Chicago
Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations

Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of the University of Chicago, the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, or any of its affiliated faculty or staff members. The views contained therein are solely the opinions of this author and should not be taken as representing the University of Chicago or any of its representatives.


  1. Great tips, I like the guidelines you've laid out here...helpful!
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  2. Nice post, I bookmark your blog because I found very good information on your blog, Thanks for sharing
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  4. Hello Erin. I am forwarding a link that explains more about the helpless police system in India. Take a look at it in your free time. It's from one of the TV shows in India.

  5. Living in any of SE Asian country isn't safe.You have to protect your own self and it is quite torturing that may be the person staring you would come up and do something bad to you.World is really turning into hell now.It is a shame to read girls of just 5 years is getting raped,the merciless people harm her so much,the girl doesn't even know what has happened with her.Lying in the hospital she ask her mother what has happened with her why is it paining so much.How would her mother react how would you react.Its sad very sad.

  6. I had a great time reading around your post as I read it extensively. Excellent writing! I am looking forward to hearing more from you.
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  7. Thank you for taking the time to publish this information very useful! I've been looking for books of this nature for a way too long. I'm just glad that I found yours. Looking forward for your next post. Thanks :)


  8. Nice information Erin, I bookmark your blog because I found its have good information , Thanks for sharing, please keep writing.

  9. Street Harassment is way too prevalent in the world. Women, rather EVERYONE, should have the ability to walk down a public street and offices without fear of being harassed.
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  10. Its very useful to me. Wonderful blog.. Thanks for sharing informative Post.

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