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Giving street harassers all the attention they want - and more

By Alison Stein Wellner
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 7, 2011; 2:23 PM

Was it possible that the shopkeeper had just complimented me on my nice eyes? Or - and this seemed more likely - had he really just complimented a different, lower part of my anatomy?

It was early on a steamy July morning, and I'd set out with friends to do some souvenir shopping in and around the souk in Marrakech. We soon fanned out, so I was alone as I idly examined a delicate glass mint tea set and clay tagines of all sizes and wondered whether I'd actually slide my feet into a pair of pointy-toed babouches once I was back home in the States. Then I spotted a table piled high with leather boxes in hues of orange, cobalt blue and purple - the kind of boxes that you might keep on your desk to hold stationery, pencils or paper clips. A beautiful souvenir that might actually be useful? I sped right over, stumbling just a bit on the hem of my black maxi dress.

I picked up a pencil case for a closer look. Just then, the shopkeeper appeared behind me.

"I can emboss your name on the box," he said in English.

I didn't respond to this offer, because I was flustered: I seemed to have backed into something. I twisted my neck this way and that, trying to catch sight of what I was brushing up against. Was it someone's shopping bag? Another table? But there was nothing behind me. Only the shopkeeper. Whose hands, I suddenly realized, I couldn't see.

I took a step sideways. The gentle pressure on my backside vanished.

I quickly walked away. I was pretty sure that I'd just been groped, but the touch had been so light. . . . Perhaps I was mistaken?

In my confusion, I'd hurried away in the wrong direction, so I reversed course, still lost in troubled thought. When I passed the leather store again, the shopkeeper fell into step beside me. "Come to the back of my store, I give you a special price," he said.

He also said I have a "very nice" bottom, although he used a less polite term. Or that's what I thought he said. He spoke English with a strong accent, and if you think about it, "eyes" and that other word I thought I heard do sound very similar. So I wasn't completely sure what had just happened. Had he just offered me a special price because of my very nice eyes? Or had I just been street harassed?

Street harassment is common the world over, and its variations are many: a catcall, a wolf whistle, a suggestive compliment, an obscene gesture - even, in extreme cases, an unwanted touch. It can be a mere nuisance, or it can be the prelude to a more dangerous incident. Either way, it's the sort of experience that makes many women wary of traveling on their own or venturing out alone on foreign streets.

But now, an anti-street-harassment movement has risen in response, an outgrowth of the 1980s anti-sexual harassment movement in the workplace. But while the latter gained prominence in the 1990s thanks to Anita Hill and movies such as "Disclosure," the anti-street harassment movement was slow in developing until the advent of blogging, social media and cellphones.

Now there's LASH, or London Against Street Harassment, which is crowdsourcing a Google map to track harassment incidents. There's a similar entity in Cairo called HarassMap. In the United States, there's Hollaback, an online forum where women can share their stories of street harassment, with blogs focused on New York, Washington, Chicago, Charleston, S.C., and Atlanta, among other U.S. cities. Internationally, there are Hollaback branches in Australia and Israel, and new sites are set to launch in Berlin and Buenos Aires. The latest addition is iHollaback, a cellphone application that allows women to share geocoded photos of street harassers. It's now available in the United States only, but the next step is a global rollout. The motto: If you can't slap 'em, snap 'em.

Had such an app been available when I was visiting Morocco, I could have uploaded a picture of the Marrakech shopkeeper and told the whole world about how he'd touched my merchandise. By pressing a few buttons on my cellphone, I could have shared my story, warned other women, received support from others who've experienced something similar, and at the same time helped gather data on the incidence of street harassment, which is hardly ever reported to the authorities.

It's a viscerally satisfying idea. But as a traveler, I also find it troubling.

After all, I was a guest in a different country and culture. I'd been puzzling over more innocuous misunderstandings with Moroccan customs and language for days. I'd hate to overreact, or even publicly label someone a harasser, if he was only innocently complimenting my peepers and hadn't touched my posterior after all.

I try not to jump to conclusions when I'm traveling abroad, because there's so much potential for misunderstanding. International etiquette books are packed with information on simple gestures that seem completely benign in one culture but are freighted with meaning in another: Don't pat a child on the head in Indonesia, because the head is thought to be spiritual. Don't point with an index finger in Malaysia; it's bad luck. Men who are not romantically involved hold hands in Iraq, and arms are routinely squeezed during introductions in Mexico.

Compliments are steeped in layers of language, etiquette and tradition, making them among the most perilous interactions around. A compliment can be a conversation opener, an apology, a thank you, a criticism. It can even be hostile: In some cultures, such as Samoa, if a person receives a compliment on, say, a necklace, manners dictate that the necklace must immediately become a gift to the complimenter.

Street harassment is frequently couched in terms of a compliment, but just what sort of a compliment is it? According to Hollaback's FAQs, there's an easy test for sorting the good from the bad from the ugly: "A compliment is not a compliment if it makes the recipient feel bad."

The compliment I received did not make me feel good; in fact, it made me feel slightly nauseated. But can I really expect that my own idea of a compliment will follow me everywhere I travel? Didn't that sort of expectation go out with imperialism?

"It's valid to be concerned about different cultural customs," said Emily May, executive director of Hollaback, when I reached her by phone. "But the chances are good that something that's offensive to you is also offensive to the women who live where you're traveling."

I persisted: What if I run afoul of this odds-based argument and still get it wrong? How can I be sure that I'm not applying my own cultural norms, leading to a misunderstanding and an overreaction?

"You seem to be asking whether street harassment is a female traveler's fault - sort of like, that's just what you have to deal with since you decided to travel to another culture," May observed. "But blaming yourself is missing the point. It's one thing if you're going to impose your values on someone else when you're traveling. But by the nature of what the harasser is saying and doing, they're imposing their values on you. You have the right to impose your values right back onto them."

Before I visited Marrakech, I hadn't given any detailed thought to my values regarding street harassment. Still, when I was walking through the medina, with the shopkeeper beside me awaiting a response to his discount offer, I realized that I was, in fact, being harassed.

And then I didn't know what to do.

There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with street harassment. But there are a few guidelines that activist Holly Kearl lays out in her book "Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Spaces Safe and Welcoming for Women" (Praeger 2010), and on her Web site, Stopstreetharassment.wordpress.com, for instance, to be assertive and strong, using statements, not questions: "Leave me alone," not "Would you please leave me alone?" And you don't want to lose it and start cursing and screaming, because that will just inflame the situation.

I didn't know any of that at the time, so I improvised: I said nothing at all, I stared straight ahead, and I held up my hand, flat-palmed, miming "stop." I used it to block my face from the shopkeeper's. And I picked up my pace.

Without another word, he turned around and walked away.

It was over. But after an initial wave of relief, I felt icky for the rest of the day.

Those feelings can be eased by sharing your story with other women, said May: "Technology allows us to share an experience that used to be isolating. The feeling of solidarity is very, very, very powerful."

Although I'm not sure whether I'll ever feel comfortable snapping a cellphone photo of a street harasser, I can say this with certainty: If I'd had real-time feedback from other wired women travelers that day in Marrakech, I wouldn't have had to puzzle through whether I was experiencing a cultural misunderstanding or street harassment all on my own.

Wellner is a New York-based writer.

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