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.
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. I wanted to see what treatment she received from the occasional groups of boys and men that punctuated each corner. As we approached a group, I saw their eyes switch to her body.
Maybe I became expectant that this behaviour would come my way, so noticed every time. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.