Travelling as a woman will always open up avenues that are unavailable to men.
Despite being foreigners and strangers, women often connect with local children, young mothers, and old ladies with an immediacy borne from an innate trust in our gender. We are invited into Indian wedding ceremonies and Thai family kitchens, and given privileges that a male stranger could rarely hope to receive.
But a female traveller will also face prejudice around the world, in the form of sexism and discrimination, misogyny and objectification. She will have to deal with the resulting fears that may arise. Is she safe in this culture? Should she actively alter her behaviour, or her style of dress? How can she best minimise the impact of a potentially threatening situation?
Above all, she will learn to trust that feeling in her gut. The one that tells her, “screw the cultural rules. This simply isn’t right.”
Over the last seven years I’ve travelled through Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and both North and South America, predominantly by myself. Despite meeting numerous men who’ve gone out of their way to treat me with kindness, I’ve also encountered stares and shouts, lusting eyes and flexed hands from car windows and unwelcome heavy steps echoing behind me. Depending on the country, I’ve averted my eyes and refrained from ‘upsetting’ the perpetrator, or I’ve stared back sternly, raised my voice and made sure the surrounding people are aware of my discomfort.
Six months in India in 2012 prompted me to write a piece about travelling safely as a solo female – still the highest trafficked article I’ve ever published – which made me think a great deal about how many women are concerned for their safety when travelling alone.
So after eighteen months travelling through Latin America, I thought it was necessary to address the biggest issue I faced there. The one and only facet of Latino culture I have still not changed my opinions about, because it tapped straight into a core part of my belief system.
Being treated differently, simply because I was female.
Discovering the existence of a ‘machismo’ culture
After just three weeks of living in South America, I was walking through the streets of Cuenca, Ecuador, by myself. The stooped figure of a man in his seventies was approaching slowly, walking stick in hand, and I began to smile even before we passed each other. He was sweet; his suit looked a bit too big for him, and I immediately thought of the quintessential photos you see of male Latino pensioners.
What came out of his mouth wasn’t quite so sweet.
“Mi princesssa…” he hissed with a wide grin, turning his wrinkled and liver-spotted neck to keep his gaze on me as I picked up my pace.
My head was swimming as I marched along the street, thinking disgustedly about how many grandchildren he probably had. How on earth could a grandpa ever think it was socially acceptable to leer at a young woman like that?
As I spent more time in the continent, I quickly came to learn that this wasn’t an isolated incident. Far from it. The machismo element of Latino culture seems to practically demand that men make these types of comment, and I received them so often that I almost stopped noticing.
What I did keep track of, however, was the way it changed me. Walking along the street and noticing a group of teenage boys ahead, a cluster of old men, even a single male figure leaning against a wall while smoking a cigarette; all would prompt a stiffening of my body, a lengthening of my neck, a slight curl of the fists, and a quickened pace.
The cat calls and ‘complimentary’ phrases in Spanish of “my princess!”, “my life!”, “my queen!” were actually preferable to the more silent advances; the lick of the lips and teeth, the sneer and accompanying grin which left no doubt, in my mind at least, of what they were thinking.
Reacting seemed futile. The times where I turned around to glare seemed only to prompt further shouts. I learnt to grow casually wary of old men, young men, street-cleaners and shopkeepers; all of them strangers, all seemingly unable to let you pass them by without a comment muttered under their breath.
So what was I doing to prompt this behaviour?
Well, I was either alone or with other women, for starters. Any time I walked with a man the behaviour either disappeared, or shrank to such a minimum that I didn’t register it – although when I was with a man, he sometimes noticed instead.
Then there were my clothes. One of the factors that often arises in sexual harassment cases is also often referenced in terms of a traveller, because there are so many cultural boundaries you might be overstepping with your dress sense. In India, I was respectful to the point of deference, because I knew how important the act of covering a woman’s shoulders, cleavage and knees was to the local culture. Even if I didn’t enjoy doing it.
But South America is different. There, women of all ages are dressed in much less ‘modest’ clothing – particularly in the hotter, more humid countries – and I wasn’t about to sweat in jeans and jumpers for the sake of not getting catcalled.
Does this machismo only affect me, or other women too?
I can easily say I’m probably more self-conscious than most women. I often feel people’s eyes on me – or rather, I continually notice where the people around me are looking – and I knew that I was often being stared at. So I would pull awkwardly at the edges of my shorts, rearrange my vest, and start walking more quickly.
Maybe I became expectant that this behaviour would come my way, so noticed every time. Maybe I focused too much of my attention on it. I’m sure I picked up on it more often than my fellow travellers. But it wasn’t just related to me: I often saw men gawping at other women in the same way – even if the women themselves didn’t seem to register it.
In the Colombian coastal city of Santa Marta, I walked back to my hostel with a group of female friends through what can only be described as a gauntlet; men lounging on either side of a narrow street, hands in their pockets while staring, whistling, hissing, and making lewd comments in Spanish at every foreign girl who walked the last few metres to the hostel’s front door.
Not just annoying or uncomfortable – it was downright threatening.
During these incidences, I often wondered whether I was simply being too reactionary – too soft – and that other women might not find it a problem. Hell, they might even enjoy the attention that I found so problematic!
Walking through the narrow streets of Cuba’s capital of Havana one day, I found myself behind a Cuban woman and slowed my pace. We were both dressed for the July humidity; denim shorts, a thin, loose, sleeveless top, hair tied back, sunglasses over our eyes, umbrella on an arm. Plenty of skin on show. I wanted to see what treatment she received from the occasional groups of boys and men that punctuated each corner.
Also, I wanted to see how she reacted.
As we approached a group, I saw their eyes switch to her body. I saw them look her up and down, lips stretching into smiles. I saw their mouths move in unheard mutters – ‘Que bonita! Preciosa!’ – and their shoulders start to sway.
From behind, you wouldn’t even know that she’d registered their presence. Her head remained upright, her speed never faltered, and she walked straight past them. But there was no possible way she hadn’t noticed. The only assumption I could make was that she had the same mentality as I did: “Ignore them, ignore them, ignore them…”
But surely women can’t be treated like this everywhere?
The way I chose to travel in South America may have had an impact on how much of this attention I received, of course. I spent a lot of time in places that weren’t hugely populated by tourists, so I knew that the stares were often simply for being white, being foreign, and being alone.
But again, I’ve spent enough time in different countries and cultures to know the difference between being seen as an object of curiosity, and being treated like a piece of meat.
Moreover, my major issue stemmed not from the staring itself, but from what it represented. Did these men think they were entitled to some sort of dominance over me? A type of ownership of my body that I was unaware of?
Even more worryingly: did they even know or care that their behaviour wasn’t only insulting and threatening, but also completely one sided, and something that women around the world have never been able to do?
What do Latino men actually think about machismo?
Of course, encountering this type of behaviour on a regular basis for eighteen months was always going to reach a boiling point. For me, that happened on a side street in the small town of Cienfuegos, Cuba – my last country of six in Latin America.
I’d already realised that Cuba takes street haranguing to new levels, but usually it’s simply a selling tactic – not an act of machismo. Nevertheless, I still noticed the standard whistles and full-body stares that I’d come to expect.
A female friend and I had spent the afternoon taking pictures of the city’s dusty streets and its inhabitants, and were about to try escaping the heavy rain cloud that hung above us. We weren’t paying attention to the three middle aged men standing on the street corner ahead of us – but we both heard the sound they made as we passed them, clear as day.
A “chh-chh-chh” rang out – what’s known as a ‘kissing sound’ or ‘piropo’ (a flirtatious compliment) – and the meaning of the noise was self-evident.
My friend was from Paris: slim, petite. Together, we didn’t make an imposing force. But we both spoke Spanish almost fluently, and both had the same reaction. Indignation. Like a small whirlwind, we both turned our bodies, mid step, to face the tall Cuban responsible for the noise. A lazy smile was plastered across his face.
“Why did you make that sound at me?”
The aggression in my tone made the words jump from my lips like bullets. I could feel my heart pumping; the adrenaline raced down my arms and I felt shaky. I don’t often get involved in direct confrontation, but I simply couldn’t help myself. After eighteen months, I’d had enough.
His smile barely faltered. Instead, the tall Cuban told me it was meant exclusively as a compliment. “I’m saying you look good, chica!”
I explained that I didn’t care whether he thought I looked ‘good’ – that it made no difference to my life if a male stranger voiced his support about my clothes or my body.
Yet he seemed set on the belief that I should feel only empowered and confident after being ‘kissed’ at. That it was intended to be a morale boost – that he (and apparently all other men by extension) did it solely to make us feel good about ourselves.
I explained how it made me feel like I was a piece of meat and he laughed uproariously. Two tall women walked past our little group, and he asked them what they thought of the ‘piropo’ noise, repeated it for them so they knew exactly what he meant. The girl – a Colombian – laughed and said she didn’t mind it, exactly, but she could definitely do without it.
In an effort to make them feel how I did, I copied their noises, their stance, their facial expressions – I gestured towards my thrusting pelvis, pretending to be one of them – I made them laugh. But I don’t know if they truly understood the reasons for my aggression.
A half hour conversation ensued on that Cuban street corner. At one point, the Cuban’s elderly friend, all pot-belly and moustache, gestured to my shorts and the resulting bare legs I was walking with, and said, “How can you expect us not to pay attention when you’re wearing something like that?”
A fact that should have absolutely no relevance to being harassed.
My French friend and I eventually left when the conversation had turned, the tall Cuban saying that we were shutting ourselves off from opportunities. That we were living inside our own bubbles by automatically taking these noises, catcalls, stares and gestures as ‘negative’.
That Cuba was a different world to our European one, and we should be breaking down the barriers around ourselves instead of raising them higher.
I walked away bristling with rage, yet also strangely tired by the whole conversation. Men don’t seem to understand that they don’t have a right to make women feel uncomfortable for simply being themselves.
Other attitudes to this Latino machismo behaviour
I wrote an article touching on this subject for the Colombia-based site ‘Medellin Living’, and the comments were really interesting. Some of the male commenters seemed sure that women – local Colombian women, particularly – were buoyed by male cat callers; that it was a boost to their self-esteem and was taken as a compliment.
Conversely, the women commenting – again, some of them foreigners but mainly locals – said it made them feel “uncomfortable, intimidated, and sometimes even disgusting”. One woman said she usually keeps on walking and says nothing, out of fear of something bad happening.
“It has nothing to do with how you dress or how you act, I’ve been out on the most unflattering clothes you can think of and would still get them (piropos). Sadly, I think it’s just a cultural thing for the men in Colombia and Latin America. I usually just ignore it and try to be as serious as possible, even if wish I could just slap them or something.”
In preparation for writing this article, I also asked for input on my Facebook page. In response, one woman said this:
“I guess the question is if women in Latin America are rather privileged or not. Tourists might think they are not because of what they read in the media about abuse etc, but most of the women in Latin America know they are treated like princesses by men/gentlemen.”
When I questioned what she meant, the woman continued:
“If you go to Mexico, the man is always supposed to pick you up, pay for you and your girlfriends, open the door, throw you a party, ask you to be his girlfriend – basically behave like a gentleman. You can see Mexican girls experiencing culture shock when they go out with a European guy.”
There’s a partial truth to this. When I lived in Ecuador, the guys I was friends with were constantly driving us around and paying for our drinks – a lovely gesture, right? But despite being grateful, I often felt rather uncomfortable. Like something was automatically owed of me because of their generosity.
And I have a huge problem with women expecting this treatment from men, as it throws up numerous issues of inequality.
I guess inequality is what my whole argument comes down to, really; that by being catcalled and objectified in South American streets by Latino men, I am somehow worth less than them. They have given themselves permission to objectify me, whereas I could never do the same to them – the culture simply won’t allow it.
And why is it so one sided, anyway? Why don’t groups of women stand on street corners, arms crossed and mildly aggressive, wolf whistling at young pieces of male meat as they walk quickly and embarrassedly past?
One comment on my Facebook page stood out from all the rest, though. An American woman said,
“My experiences in South America have been overall better than my neighborhood in the US. I would rather be called beautiful in Colombia than have worse things shouted at me, but what would be even better is if all men would be quiet.”
But they will never be quiet. Not until they understand that they can’t blame their behaviour on a cultural idiosyncrasy, and instead look deeper to the real reasons behind it.
So why did you spend so long in Latin America?
This article could be interpreted as a rant against all men in the continent, which is not my intention at all. I met a lot of wonderful guys in South America, and would never want to tar every Latino man with the same brush.
Moreover, I barely ever felt like these whistles and stares were actually intended to be harmful. It’s worth mentioning that I was never actively threatened by anyone – which, for a continent that would-be travellers are warned against for its danger levels, is quite telling.
There are so many things I love about Latino behaviour – and this goes for both men and women. The levels of confidence; the tactility between friends and people you’ve only just met; the passion and expressiveness; the constant desire to dance, laugh, and live purely in the moment.
But I spent eighteen months adjusting myself to every other Latino idiosyncrasy – losing my concept of personal space, eating guinea pig, accepting that things will never run on time – and despite trying to gain some understanding about it, the blatant sexism and oppressive machismo culture is the only thing I still cannot accept.
I’m pretty sure that means I never will.