I have traveled to 50 U.S. states and 17 countries (excluding countries where I’ve only been to the airport). Mostly I’ve traveled with my family, friends, colleagues, or my male partner. It’s, of course, when I travel alone that I face the most street harassment.
My current trip to India to attend and present at a convening of UN Global Safe Cities partners from 24 countries later this week is no exception.
I know this, of course. I only traveled to Egypt three years ago once my dad agreed to go with me. If I was ever not by his side for an instant, I was usually harassed immediately. In Ethiopia last year, I presented at a conference for the US State Department. One afternoon when I walked on the streets near the hotel, I was accosted and followed several times by men. (“I just want to make friends. It’s the African way.”)
I was in India five years ago for another UN safe cities conference and I did not book a flight until I had found someone with whom to travel. She was a female friend my age. We faced some harassment during our three days of sightseeing, especially when we went to Agra, but it was mostly “just” excessive staring. I think we were a buffer for each other in a sense. This time, if I venture in public I do not have that buffer.
I arrived in India last night and the conference is at a very nice hotel near the embassies and government buildings in Delhi. It’s a much less crowded and more upper-scale area than much of Delhi, it’s also not very residential. So it’s not super crowded and I also thought it might be “safe” for me to take a walk this morning when I had down time. I will be primarily at the hotel without time to get around the city, so I at least wanted to see the surrounding streets. I kept telling myself, the women here do this every day. I can do it, too.
On Google Maps, I spotted a park about 3/4ths of a mile away. It was just two turns to get there, so I didn’t bring a map or hefty guide book and knew if I just paid attention, I could easily get there and back. It was over 100 degrees and bright out, so I donned a hat and sunglasses and dressed in pants and a tshirt. I didn’t see any other non-Indians around and instead of being able to blend in and walk unobserved, several men picked me out and picked on me. Men in auto-rickshaws tried to get me in their vehicle, promising to take me to the best shopping. One man on foot followed along side me for nearly 10 minutes (maybe less, but it felt that long), telling me there were political demonstrators the direction I was headed and it would be dangerous and that I should go with him to the tourist office to book travel to Agra or to go with him to the shopping area. It took a long time to shake him off, he was so insistent on telling me the right thing for me to do. And he straight up lied. There was no political demonstration.
A few other men approached me to ask personal questions and try to tell me where to go or what to do. I persevered to my destination only to find that, like the museums, it was closed on Mondays. Gardeners were doing yard work. I had no interest in continuing to be accosted and harassed and turned around and went directly back to my hotel. I was harassed up to within a block of the compound. I was so relieved to be back.
I thought perhaps the harassment was more because I was white/Western = someone with money than because I was female, but my gender certainly played a role. At dinner, I found out that a white male colleague had also taken a walk this morning – for two hours – without incident. And I think if I had been with someone else, we may have still been approached, but I think the first time we said no, that would be it. All but one of the men who approached me were very persistent and insistent on interrupting me and bossing me around and disregarded my “no thank you’s” until I straight up became rude and shouted no or ignored them. I also don’t think I would have been asked personal questions if I was with someone else or if I were a man.
For more context, there were probably 50 men to every one woman I saw during my walk, so I certainly stood out simply for being female. But I did not observe any men harassing the women I saw. Twice men literally bee-lined for me instead of an Indian woman nearby. (This is in contrast to my last visit when my friend and I witnessed several Indian men harassing Indian women. One was the driver of our auto-rickshaw who swerved to the sidewalk to harass a young woman waiting alone for a bus.)
One of my other colleagues who arrived this afternoon from NYC said she was harassed by the customs officer at the airport. He began persistently interrogating her about her marital/relationship status because she too was traveling alone.
Street harassment is a problem everywhere and in my experience, it is certainly always more pronounced when I am alone, no matter the country. I hate that I need an escort to feel safer.
I am sorry to be missing out on seeing more of Delhi, but I’d rather be un-harassed, especially during a week when harassment is a focal point of my thoughts and work. Especially in an unfamiliar area and country, it is draining and exhausting to deal with it and you have to be on 100% high alert, unsure about anyone’s intentions or for how long they will follow you or what they may escalate to doing.
I am grateful for the privilege to be staying in a hotel where, so far, I have not faced harassment and feel relatively safe. I hate that havens like that are necessary (and that many women do not have places they can go to feel safe). I wish that everyone could feel safe everywhere, myself included.Share on Facebook