Dealing with Harassment

Harassment poster taped to a lamp postThis is a guest post by Laura, our resident expert on female travel.

Many female travelers experience varying levels of harassment on the road, while others may not hear so much as a catcall. Although it happens everywhere, harassment towards women is more common in some places than others, and you should be aware of this unflattering side of travel. No, it shouldn’t scare you or prevent you from traveling, but being prepared to deal with situations will make your travels go more smoothly and help you prevent stress. Here are some situations I‘ve encountered and how I dealt with them.

“How many camels?”
To be honest, I find the worst harassment towards females to be in the Middle East. It‘s difficult to travel there as a female and can be quite stressful if you‘re traveling on your own.

My first trip to the Middle East was with a group in 2008. I had no idea what to expect in Egypt, and I soon found myself cringing every time I heard someone yelling on the street, “How many camels?” In Egypt it‘s common to pay a dowry for marriage, so when men ask this question, they‘re asking how many camels they have to pay if they want to marry you. At first I ignored them, but then I found another way to handle it. After a few days of getting over the initial shock of all the catcalls, I was tired of ignoring it. So the next time I heard, “How many camels?” I answered, “More than you can afford!” This remark usually prompted laughs from the guy’s friends or surrounding vendors, followed by a bit of ragging on the guy. Some of the guys would come back with some other smart remark that usually turned into playful banter. Again, I generally ignore catcalls, but I always judge each situation as it comes.

Woman on the street glaring at a man in a tank top

“We should share a room.”
I heard this one during my second trip to the Middle East, but this time I was traveling by myself. On a bus from the airport into Amman, the Egyptian man next to me suggested we should share a room, “You know, just to save costs.” Yeah, I’m sure that’s why. Noticing a wedding ring on his finger, I said, “Should we call your wife just to make sure it’s okay?”

“What is wrong with you American women?”
In Aqaba, in the south of Jordan, I had a dive instructor ask if he could join me when I was heading out to go snorkeling. It’s a public beach, so I didn’t think telling him “no” would do any good. We snorkeled out to the coral, and he reached over, ripped off my snorkel mask, and tried to grab me. Furious, (thankfully I’m a strong swimmer) I popped up out of the water, only to hit my foot on fire coral. I started reaming him out, and he told me, “I just thought we should switch masks.” Nice try. I essentially told him that it’s disrespectful to grab women and so on. He proceeded to ask me what was wrong with American women. It’s wrong in any culture, but knowing that the Jordanian culture is conservative, I wanted to know if it was okay if a man grabbed his sister like that. After a firm reprimand, I swam back to shore and avoided him the next few days. I learned from this situation that it’s okay to say, “No, actually I’d like to go for a swim by myself today.”

Two camels in the Middle Eastern heat, one is sitting

“Let’s move to the bush together.”
On a 14-hour bus ride from Malawi to Zambia, I thought it was nice when a Zambian doctor who spoke good English sat next to me. After some discussion on education and culture, he got right down to business, telling me that we should move into the bush (wilderness) together. He also would not stop asking if I would sponsor him to come to the U.S. Normally, I would suggest you switch seats when you get a seat buddy like this, but the bus was completely full. I cut him off by telling him I had a boyfriend. Sadly, this did not discourage him, and when we finally made it to his destination, he kissed my hand before getting off the bus. I gave him a fake email at the time, but I think it’s best to just tell the person that you are complete strangers and you guard your privacy. Don’t hand over any information such as phone numbers or emails.

Harassment and assault are situations that female travelers encounter and must learn to deal with. If you‘re in an area where harassment is common, even traveling with one other person helps. If you’re traveling solo, be prepared to answer questions about your fake (or real) boyfriend, and determine how you would handle some of these given situations. Read up on sexual harassment when you travel, as the situations vary and it happens to different degrees depending on where you’re headed. If you‘re a male reader, be aware of solo female travelers in countries where harassment is common. Even sitting next to one of us on public transport or walking alongside us helps to decrease the comments or assaults.

Laura Walker runs the website A Wandering Sole. She‘s been backpacking around the world for seven months by herself and isn‘t afraid just because she‘s a girl. You can get more travel tips from her website or check back here every other Thursday for more stories by her.

  1. I’ve only ever encountered the “how many camels?” and similar harassment you outlined in Morocco. Though I really do hate the harassment you get from stall owners anywhere in the Middle East…it’s like, can’t a girl meander about and window shop without stress?

    Great tips!

  2. I have the most problems on buses when men sit next to me. I’m only 5 feet but I’ve learned to use my elbows to make it clear they need to stay on their side of the seat.

  3. I’ve worn a ring, in some places covered my hair and it can help to a degree. I’ve been fortunate to have received little unwanted attention but the I can say when it happens its very unpleasant. Despite this however I won’t stop travelling because of it.

  4. Good tips! I’ve been to Egypt many times and have gotten the very unpleasant catcalls as well. Unlike you I have found though that any reaction (no matter how funny or smart) leads to more catcalls or remarks. So, while it is difficult to just ignore the whistling and calling, it usually works best for me to just keep walking and ignore the guy. I found that too many times, any reaction is taken as an encouragement to keep the conversation going.

    I would like to add another tip… In Egypt (and maybe other Middle Eastern or North African countries), it seems as though the cab driver/bus driver feels some responsibility for his guests. Once I was riding in a shared cab (with 5-6 people), my seat neighbor kept coming closer and closer. I finally told him off very loudly to make sure everybody heard that something was wrong. The cabbie yelled at him some more and after that my neighbor was embarrased enough to keep some distance.

    No matter how annoying some of these encounters can be, I will never stop travelling. The good and fun encounters outweigh the annoying ones :)

  5. Oh, and I meant to give you my 2 cents about the fake ring :) I’ve heard of women trying that with mixed results. For some it worked, for others it really didn’t because of the following reasoning: if your husband doesn’t care enough to accompany you on your trip, then what’s he worth? That’s not my reasoning obviously, but one that I’ve heard.

  6. Interesting article Laura. It would be good to find out more why men in Middle Eastern countries are like this. Is it just their ‘culture’ and that’s it? Doe they have a perception of ‘easy’ western women? I’ve heard on a number of occasions from locals that the English backpackers are the ones to look out for as they love to meet a local. This type of thing can either enhance your travels depending on who you are, but can equally cause some of the problems experienced by other travellers. Do men in these countries (and women) also get a poor impression of western women from the movies?

    It is great to hear in these comments that the women have taken it in their stride and dealt with it as effectively as possible. I know in the travel forums and the guide books to certain countries and places that it tells you to be aware of this type of thing. It is important to read up on where you go and understand what you may come across as a solo female traveller and work out how you are best going to deal with it. There is a great article and comments on the blog by Adventurous Kate titled ‘Should Solo Women Travelers Pretend to be Married. Most people agree that the research on where you go is vitally important and wearing a ring to pretend you are married really doesn’t make a difference.

    I was harassed in Miami by blokes – offered to be taken on someones boat to a casino ship and he would give me some money to gamble with. He really liked my English accent. I made my excuses, finished my drink and went to a different bar…

  7. Haven’t heard the camels question before (thought I’ve had a few others you mentioned)! Most of my own experiences (which I’ve been meaning to write about so thanks for the reminder!) happened in Istanbul and it was an interesting week for me, trying to sort out how to respond/react.

  8. I’ve travelled a lot solo – they know you are lying about the husband/boyfriend thing – in their culture you wouldn’t be allowed out alone if you really had one. If I am solo I never allow a local man to sit beside me – i a local woman wouldn’t – in fact I’ve seen entire buses rearranged to prevent this so women sit next to men and women next to women – if you enter with a western man they will let sit next together – but if you are solo just insist that a woman sits next to you – or sit next to a woman to start off with to prevent the problem.

    The interesting thing is that the further you get off the tourist track the generally the less hassel I had – Syria was dead easy to travel in – no hassle at at all.

    I have also twice had solo men ask me to chaperon them – once in Bangkok and once in Kings Cross, Sydney – they couldn’t work out why I thought it was so funny! (Oh and didn’t work in either place- you just get offers for couples shows rather than just girls LOL)

  9. Thanks for all of your comments! I find wearing a ring is pretty pointless… some cultures don’t wear wedding rings and many don’t take notice as much as we do in the west. However, I do find that saying you have a boyfriend or husband back home deters many or encourages them to back off a bit :)

  10. Theresa

    I hate how different I’m treated in some places when I’m alone versus when I’m with my husband. Most places, if I’m with him, I don’t receive much, if any, unwanted attention. The only place I found this not to be true were certain cities in India, where I experienced some very aggressive attention from men even if my husband was right there. Though this was obnoxious, at least it was equal opportunity harassment. (Have to keep a sense of humor!)

    My husband does like to remind me that men aren’t entirely immune to harassment. In SE Asia, I basically never had to worry about unwelcome attention, but if my husband went out alone, he was bombarded with offers from prostitutes!

  11. Laura, I love this piece! (As for the last item on your list, I can relate — really regretting giving my real email to that Somali guy at the IDC.)

    Love your tip for sassing them back. (“That’s right, I’m the hottest thing you’ll NEVER get near!” is a favorite of me and my friends at home.) In Italy, I’d occasionally toss out a “Ciao, brutto!” (Hey, ugly!) after I’d been grabbed and Ciao Bellaed one too many times.

  12. Thank you for sharing these stories, Laura….They sound pretty severe but I believe every single one of them. In the middle east, I remember living in Turkey and I was barely 12 years old and when we would walk to the store, the men just gawked and stared at me and my gorgeous mother – she dressed as casual as you can think and I had no idea what else to think except that it must be ok for them to do that. I have learned since then how to return a stare with a look so ugly and severe that the men stop looking at me right away. Don’t get me wrong – I like a complimentary, nice look and I LOVE to turn heads when I travel but to stare and gawk so much as to make you uncomfortable is uncalled for – so do something about it. If the person is so rude, honestly, who cares what their assessment of the American – or ANY OTHER culture – is! They are jerks and they need to be out of your way so you enjoy your travels.

  13. Great article!

    I just came back from a trip in SEA, and was verbally harassed. For this kind of harassment, I usually just walk away… but when someone tried to physically harass me, that’s when my elbows comes to work :)

  14. Moshe

    Great article Laura and thank you for sharing the experience. Well, I don’t think any ring can help for this. This is purely superficial.

    Thanks :)

  15. Scoala de soferi

    I was walking on the narrow crowded foot bridge while a man, walking in front of me to the opposite direction, while passing me, he pinched my thigh. I immidately turned around and slapped him on his back and continued walking like nothing happaned

  16. Katie

    I have not been overly harassed in my travels, but then I haven’t gone to some really “dangerous” places. Most of my travels have been in Europe (where because of my petite size, I can hide among tall people), and in SEA, where I can blend in. I look like a local because I have “generic Asian” looks – dark hair, brown skin, small eyes. I’ve traveled solo and with companions as well. When traveling solo, I don’t wear skimpy clothes. I sometimes wear shorts or skirts, but not those which are super short. Some temples also don’t allow sleeveless shirts and above-knee bottoms, so if you’re planning to go to (Buddhist) temples, wear appropriate clothing, or bring a sarong/shawl with you. I also learn local phrases like “please, thank you, how much, very expensive, where’s the toilet” – but these are standard things, I guess. I also carry a cloth bag/purse which slings over my body – easier for walking (and running away). I have been somewhat harassed by motorcycle taxi drivers in Bangkok, wanting me to ride with them. Since I look local, I just shook my head and walked on, or used the buses (and occasionally the tuktuk). I haven’t been to some countries because of visa and budget issues, but they are on my bucket list. :-) It’s true about the catcalls in Egypt. I have a friend there who’s married to a local, and she experiences those catcalls almost daily. Do try to include the Philippines in your travels. It’s a bit far off from the regular backpacking SEA trail, but it’s a beautiful country and almost everyone speaks English! Kudos to Laura and Matt for this blog. Safe travels to everyone! :-)

  17. Nouran

    Actually, it’s not common in Egyptian culture to pay a dowry of Camels for marriage.. I never heard of it! I’m a 20-year old Egyptian citizen and I never heard of any Egyptian got married by offering camels WTF ?!
    Yes we do have a problem with sexual harassment but people here are very well educated and harassment is not so common in many places in Egypt.

  18. I find these questions frustrating, but not surprising. While I have yet to visit the middle east, I have a Kurdish (southern) boyfriend and many friends from the middle east. My Egyptian friend told me flat out that cat calling could be heard virtually anywhere and that I if planned on visiting I should just get used to it. This could just be something that is seen as acceptable because we as travelers, we rarely follow the local customs like covering our hair and dressing modestly, especially if we are only there a few days.

    While I ate catcalling in general, it has actually happened to me the more in the states than anywhere I else I have visited, so it may not actually be a culture thing. I think in general, if we want to continue traveling solo, we should just role with the punches unless we are willing to really delve in and invest in the local customs. We can’t be expected to be treated like locals if we don’t act like them.

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