While I was staying in a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, a bellhop in a beige uniform delivered my dinner. I thanked him before shutting the door.
But he knocked again. When I opened the door a second time, he asked, with a thick Cantonese accent, “would you like the pleasure?”
“Excuse me?” I replied, not understanding and trying to be patient of the language barrier.
“The pleasure,” he said again. “Would you like the pleasure?” Suddenly, I realized what he meant.
“No! Oh my God, no!” I shouted and deadbolted the door.
When I called the front desk to let management know the bellhop was soliciting, they calmly responded, “No problem, ma’am. This happens often.”
Really? What made the bellhop think his offer was appropriate? Was he under the impression that all foreign women were available? Or maybe some women had actually taken the opportunity, making him some extra money. Whatever his reasoning, the proposition unsettled me. It wasn’t until I hit the streets of Kuala Lumpur that I realized cat-calling and men following women for blocks was just common practice.
As a traveler, you often feel like a spectacle, just because people are curious. But other times, the unwanted attention may be blatant sexual harassment. And the challenge here is that you’re not on your home turf, which means the rule of law, and the way locals perceive and interact with women may be completely different than what you’re used to. So it’s important to know how to be safe and know when you should dismiss the attention politely—and when you should fight back.
Dress Appropriately for Your Destination
One way to deflect some of the attention from the get-go is to dress like a local. Do your research on the country you’re headed to and see what others are wearing. It may vary by region: In Bombay, anything goes (though its still important to dress modestly), but in rural Indian villages, a visitor should always wear a salwar kameez to keep covered. Loose long-sleeved cotton shirts and long skirts can achieve the same results in conservative areas where traditional dress might seem overdone. And if you think you’ll need more cover, keep an extra scarf on hand.
Get to Know the Cultural Influences
In Costa Rica, men often stop their cars and hiss at women as a way to compliment them. In the West Indies, men do the same by yelling and smooth-talking in the street. While this can be unsettling for a traveler, in some cultures, these actions are actually meant to express admiration for a woman—they’re not intended to be harmful or threatening (even if they’re still annoying).
But it can be hard for Western women to dismiss this behavior as just part of a different culture. The best approach is to talk to local women to find out what’s typical and how to respond if things get inappropriate. This is also an opportunity to learn what they see as significant issues for women in their culture.
Speak Out, Fight Back
When I was in India, street harassment turned ugly when a man tried to pull me down to the ground as I walked back to my apartment. I fought him off by beating him with my purse until I could escape. People who saw the incident came to my rescue and quickly contacted the police. If someone tries something, it’s okay to do what it takes to ensure your safety.
Make sure the people around you know what’s going on. In a packed bus or busy market, you’re bound to bump into people, but you will immediately know the difference between a push in the crowd and someone trying to grope you. If this happens, bring attention to the situation by loudly shouting, “what are you doing?” Others will likely try to help you, and may step in to confront the grabby person on your behalf.
Contact the Authorities
The police were supportive in my case, but they might not always take such reports seriously, especially from local women—who might have to endure this type of street harassment daily. Sometimes, they are even harassed further for filing a report. In more patriarchal societies, the authorities might simply write a report and send you on your way. Or they may take advantage of the fact that you’re a foreigner by demanding a bribe. Still, always have the local emergency number in your cell phone—but consider carefully the action you take. In a serious situation such as an assault, it’s often better to contact your local embassy first and let them help you resolve the situation with the local police.
While you don’t want to travel in fear, it’s important to be a prepared traveler. Consider taking a self-defense class, which can give you confidence to handle tricky situations you might encounter abroad. As an additional precaution, you can carry pepper spray (or a simple mix of chilis and water in a small bottle).
But don’t underestimate the power of simply remaining aware of your surroundings and trusting your gut. Many times you can feel when a situation is about to get unsafe. If someone calling at you on the street is just a passing thing, ignore it. But if you feel the situation is escalating, make sure you have an exit plan and a strategy.
Have the Right Mindset
When you know it’s likely you’ll experience unwanted attention as a traveler, make sure you’ve equipped yourself with the right mindset and strategies to handle the possibility of street harassment. If you have to speak out, know that you’re not likely to change an entire culture overnight and consider whether it’s your place to be the catalyst. But do consider your privilege as a foreigner. If it will get you taken seriously, don’t hesitate to assert it.
But there’s no reason to travel in fear. Locals tend to look out for visitors to their cities, and most likely, you’ll have no trouble at all. Wherever you go, walk with your head held high and put on a strong face. If you’ve researched your destination and exude confidence and strength, you’re already prepared to take on any challenge that comes your way.