Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Responding to harassment from acquantainces and professional contacts while traveling

In previous posts, I've focused almost exclusively on interactions with strangers, ignoring the quite common form of harassment many women face while traveling in South Asia (and for that matter, wherever they are in the world): sexual harassment by acquaintances, colleagues, and professional contacts made while traveling. 

The risks of 'immersion'

When traveling in a place foreign to us, as I have discovered, it is easy for common sense to fly out the window. There are so many things around that can distract us from our senses and our intuition
our easiest means for judging whether or not we are at risk. And to an extent, as travelers we may want to be distracted. We may sincerely want to feel out of our element so that we can more deeply immerse ourselves in the foreign culture. Or, at least I do. This experience of immersion and distraction from our own views and presuppositions is one of the many reasons I love to travel and meet with new people.  

There is, however, a risk to this attempted immersion. Especially if we are uncertain of the cultural norms, it can be easy to become so 'immersed' that we may ignore the signals that our bodies tell us when something is wrong. We may misinterpret social cues as benign which would ordinarily register as being "red flags", signals that we should pay attention and increase our awareness. For this reason
and for many others which will be addressed belowsetting boundaries for contacts you meet while abroad can be more challenging.

Many who attend our Empowerment Self Defense courses at Thousand Waves in Chicago report that they find boundary-setting more difficult when it is directed toward a friend, colleague, family member, or other intimate person. While many Americans in particularespecially those of us from the South or more rural Midwest—struggle with guilt over coming across as “rude” or “impolite” when conversing with strangers who violate boundaries, there is sometimes an even greater social pressure experienced when people we know push those same boundaries. Setting boundaries for colleagues, friends and loved ones can be more challenging for many people, even those quite adept at setting limits for complete strangers! 

I am one of those people. 

I was raised on the south-east coast of Virginia, a delightfully urban area only a 30-minute drive from the nearest rural areas in the state. I was taught to be polite, wave, and smile at strangers
which I still enjoy doing even in Chicago, to the annoyance of more than a few passersby! Quickly learning that smiling at strangers was far from the norm in India, I saved my smiles and friendliness for those I had a chance to converse with first. From living in Chicago, and eventually from traveling in India, I learned to set limits quickly and efficiently with strangers, both with my voice and body language. The same was not the case for acquaintances. 

When I was a beginning student of Tibetan and Hindi languages, I strove to practice these languages while traveling, by speaking in Tibetan/Hindi as appropriate with scholars, language tutors and other professional contacts, hotel workers, taxi and rickshaw drivers, and with anyone else I had the chance to meet. This practice created for me an incredible amount of opportunities to have meaningful conversations with a variety of persons across the spectrum of gender, ethnicity, caste, class, education, religion, etc. as I traveled throughout India.  This practice has served me well over the years as a grad student and researcher. I have met many incredible people in India, and forged life-long friendships with more than a few. I love traveling around South Asia and have no regrets about my choice to be open and friendly towards potential friends and colleagues while traveling. 

However, one of the most basic facts of Self Defense is that
—no matter our gender, no matter our age—we are much more likely to encounter violence from someone we know than from a complete stranger. And just as gender-based violence from strangers often begins with smaller, and sometimes more subtle forms of violence (such as staring, catcalling, invasion of personal space) and escalates to larger forms (i.e. stalking, attempting groping on through groping, sexual assault, rape, battery, etc.), so does violence perpetrated by people we know.

For me, while I struggled daily with street harassment which threatened to wear me down emotionally on a regular basis, it was the persistence and prevalence of acquaintance-harassment which I found to be the more difficult challenge throughout my travels. 

While this kind of experience may be common knowledge among scholars trained in ethnography (or alternately for those with personal experience traveling and enduring harassment from contacts abroad), this experience is not commonly discussed among academic women outside of private conversations. This post, in part, aims to serve as a beginning attempt to discuss the obstacles female students and scholars face, which socially and perhaps professionally hinder us from addressing these issues.

When a conversation partner turns harasser... 

In one of my research sites, there was a local Tibetan man who worked at a restaurant attached to my guest house. I made it a habit of speaking in Tibetan while in Tibetan-run establishments and in Hindi while in North Indian-run establishments. I will call him Dorjee. 

Our relationship started out friendly and amicable. He would approach my table at the restaurant whenever I dropped by for tea, and strike up conversation, which I enjoyed. It was a relief for him to speak to a foreigner in Tibetan and a relief to me to have someone with whom to practice my Tibetan. Then, gradually his behaviors over the weeks started escalating. 

I was sitting in the restaurant one day. I had briefly chatted with Dorjee in Tibetan while ordering food. After finishing my meal, he returned to chat some more. He joked around with me verbally pretending to mishear me. I had called him “chok tsa po” (funny) which he pretended to mishear as “chu tsa po” (hot water) and so he proceeded jokingly to ask the kitchen for hot water. While his language was playful, something in his tone caught my attention and I began to feel uncomfortable. I played along with the joke anyway, and corrected him saying “No, chok tsa po.” After this exchange however, I started to find him considerably less funny.  

As I left the restaurant Dorjee asked me where I was heading. I answered succinctly in Tibetan “my room. ” He said “ok” and proceeded to follow me closely in a joking manner up the stairs from the restaurant  towards my room.  Confused, I asked him what he was doing. He replied "Going to your room." Realizing he was, in part, playing on a linguistic particularity of Tibetan (my first answer could have also been translated as "[we] are going to my room"), but wanting to set a boundary immediately,  I turned to face him and firmly said in Tibetan "I am going to my room. You are not going!"  He pretended to finally 'catch on' and  stopped following me.  I retreated to the safety of my room and promptly blocked out my reactions to Dorjee's behavior out of my mind. After all, I had more important things to worry about, like doing research for my dissertation!

More disturbing, however, was what happened half an hour later.  I was heading out to go to a coffee shop to do some work. I was on the phone with my partner so I was distracted. Dorjee grabbed my backpack from behind to slow me down and again in his joking manner asked where I’m going. Still not recognizing Dorjee's behavior as harassment, I answered honestly that I’m heading to a coffee shop to do some work. He continued to hold on to my backpack 'playfully'. It didn't feel very playful to me. I was so surprised that I forgot temporarily how to say “let go!” in Tibetan, so said it loudly and firmly in English. I switched to Tibetan and told him just as firmly that I needed to go and that I was on the phone. He then apologized and backed off.  I played it off in my mind as “just playing around” and “harmless” and explained it as such to my partner on the phone who had overheard only parts of the exchange. It wasn't until the next day that I recognized this collectively as aggressive, harassing, and controlling behavior.

A week or so later, on one cold day—a very cold day
I walked into the restaurant for some tea. Dorjee approached me asking me “Tsa po goe”? (Want something hot?) Forgetting the alternate meaning of tsa po in Tibetan (sexually hot or cold), I wasn’t sure what to make of this strangely phrased sentence. I decided to reply with my order of hot chai and momos. He took my order and then returned to my table and repeated the phrase “Tsa po goe”?  I knew at that point that he was trying to tease or play at something but it wasn’t until the third time that he repeated the phrase that I realized he was propositioning me. My initial reaction was embarrassment at the realization that a) I had just missed sexual innuendo in his first statement and b) he was saying something so sexually aggressive to me. Flushing with embarrassment, I made eye contact and glared at him solidly for about 5 seconds to indicate how I felt about his question, said something along the lines of “Not you! Go away” in Tibetan, and pretended to ignore him by burying myself in the book I had brought. Dorjee left me alone for the rest of the day.  I decided to avoid the restaurant after that day. 

I returned to the restaurant only one other time after that incident, about a month or so later. I had decided to move to a different guest house, but one night I had a craving for their pizza (it can be so hard to get good pizza in India), so I went to the restaurant. Seeing Dorjee there, I remained standing by the counter and placed my order to go. I pretended to be uninterested in conversing with him (which wasn't difficult at this point!). He asked why I wasn't sitting down. I politely but firmly replied (in Tibetan) that I'd rather eat in my room. He asked if I was staying at the place next door and I shook my head no, but refused to answer the implied question, again pretending to be uninterested in conversation. When the food was ready, I took it to my guest house room and ate alone in blessed silence, feeling relieved. 

So why did I hesitate to respond in these situations? Those who know me well have probably seen much more assertive (and possibly aggressive) responses from me when I feel my boundaries (or someone elses') are being violated. 

I have spent quite a lot of time thinking through these experiences, and others, recalling what I felt at the time, and in particular, what discouraged me from reacting. One challenge was that my mental energy was tied up, trying to communicate in Tibetan. I was so focused on the immersion experience, on trying to communicate that I lost touch with my body. For me, the process of foreign language immersion made it more difficult for me to be in touch with my body and instincts, which were telling me Dorje's behavior was aggressive. 

In the case of professional contacts while traveling (interviewees, language tutors, scholars, etc.), there is potentially the additional complication of wanting or needing something from that person. There may be some reason why we may feel we need to maintain that professional relationship despite the abusive behavior. Much like harassment experienced in the traditional workplace, we may feel uncomfortable responding to harassing behavior because we perceive the other as having power over us. Others simply fear cultivating a reputation in the workplace for appearing "rude" or "oversensitive."

There is a similar phenomena, I think, that occurs when traveling, especially for those interested in immersion experiences. It is easy to focus so much on showing "respect" for the culture we forget to protect ourselves. Assuming that the behaviors that make us uncomfortable are accepted in the foreign culture, we avoid speaking out, for fear of offense. 

It is easy to forget that just as every American in the moment is not necessarily expressing American cultural values (and may in fact be transgressing them!), the same goes for persons of every other culture. Harassment and violence may manifest differently in different cultures, but that doesn't mean they are accepted by the mainstream culture. South Asian women speak out daily against harassment, so why shouldn't I? Perhaps more importantly, if speaking out is what I feel I need to do to feel safe, then shouldn't I do that anyway, regardless of what I assume to be "culturally appropriate behavior"?   

Over the years I've learned to accept the risk of appearing "rude" towards someone who is violating my boundaries wherever in the world I am. But every once in a while, a new situation emerges—such as this one—where I am just distracted just enough that I don't recognize the behavior for what it is: harassment. And I have to remind myself that I too am only human and will make mistakes on one side or the other as I progress through life. 

Cultivating cross-gender relationships while traveling

I've thought a lot about the gendered aspects of interactions while traveling. Certainly it is more likely in South Asia than in the U.S. that even polite conversation across genders will be misinterpreted as sexual interest (or more accurately, assumed to indicate sexual interest). Should I then avoid conversations with male strangers while traveling—which my male-identified colleagues may not have to do—and thus disadvantage myself as a female scholar? Throughout India, even today it is still more common to see more men in public than women (and to rarely see women in public alone). Should I disadvantage myself by limiting access to conversation partners? As a woman, I am already restricted in terms of safe physical access to public (and private) space. The options many of my male colleagues take advantage of without question (taking local buses in large cities, traveling alone at night, etc.) do not feel like safe options for me. Should I restrict myself in the socially as well by limiting access to professional and/or social contacts? 

Or, perhaps more importantly, isn't even the assumption that I should avoiding interacting with men in public a form of gender-based discrimination? Is it fair to judge an entire gender-identity (even within one country) based on the actions of a few? 

I've endured harassment (and worse) from men I've cultivated 'relationships' with over my travels. But there are countless other men (and women) I've cultivated relationships withprofessional and personalwho have been respectful, supportive and empowering: male scholars who treat me as a professional peer, women who have offered rides without demanding anything in return, men and women who sincerely want to chat and exchange stories about experiences traveling, and men and women who I consider to be my family abroad. 

There are risks in any relationship you cultivatewith persons of any genderwhether at home or abroad. Most relationships will not devolve as mine did. But some might. I share these reflections in the hope that other travelers might feel empowered to cultivate healthy relationships with a variety of people as they traveland feel empowered to weed out the unhealthy ones as well! 

1 comment:

  1. This excellent website really has all the info I needed about
    this subject and didn't know who to ask.

    Also visit my site; rencontre gratuit