Dealing with Harassment on the Road

A woman standing alone on a busy street dealing with harassment
Posted: 10/28/2010 | October 28th, 2010

This is a guest post by Laura, one of our resident experts on female travel. Dealing with harassment can be an unfortunate reality of solo female traveling, and it’s difficult to know how to handle a tough situation once you’re in it. Laura is here to share some advice on what to do if you find yourself in an uncomfortable position.

Female travelers of all ages and experience levels will encounter harassment on the road. Although it happens everywhere, harassment toward 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 challenging 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 toward females to be in the Middle East. It’s difficult to travel there as a woman and can be quite stressful if you’re on your own.

My first trip to the Middle East was with a group in 2008. I had no idea what to expect, 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 also always judge each situation as it comes.

A busy street lined with stalls in sunny Morocco

“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 OK?”

“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 OK 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 OK to say, “No, actually I’d like to go for a swim by myself today.”

A woman walking down the street in a busy foreign city

“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 US.

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 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 currently resides in Portland where she runs Amsha, an accessories and home goods brand produced in East Africa. In addition to running her business, Laura works as a job coach for newly arrived refugees in her city. She works with clients from all over the world, and uses her limited knowledge of Swahili to serve Congolese clients. She also serves clients from the Middle East, Asia, other countries in Africa, Central America, and Cuba.

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