Anya Schulman is an English and Creative Writing student at Kenyon College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at University College London in England in 2015.
You don’t need me to tell you that it’s hard out there for people who identify as female or femme. Everyday sexism is inescapable, and street harassment ranks among its ugliest expressions. Street harassment can vary depending on your location, or simply your luck. However, when studying abroad, it’s important to prepare oneself for a transition from what may be a safe space, relatively free of harassment, to the opposite.
In my own experience, going to a very small, isolated school in a rural environment means I’m more likely to encounter protesters telling me that “homosexuality is a sin” just outside campus than I am someone hollering at me from their car. This changes over the summer, when I’m home and have to dodge catcallers or inappropriate behavior on morning commutes or while going out at night.
I always respond to them, as long as I’m sure I’m not actually in danger. My go-to response is to ask them if they’d call their mother that and to point out the misogynistic nature of their statement. This characterization applies because I’ve never been harassed by a woman, or while I was in the company of a man/masc-identifying individual. In this way, street harassment tends to be a form of violence specific to the female experience.
People may have varying levels of comfort with this strategy. Personally I think remaining silent reinforces the oppression behind the insult itself, unless your safety depends on it, but not everyone feels comfortable confronting harassment head on. When I was preparing to study abroad, I wasn’t sure what the transition from New York to London would be like with regard to street harassment, and was even more uncertain about what I’d experience traveling beyond the UK.
London actually proved to be slightly better than New York as far as the street harassment I experienced. That being said, this margin was small. A close friend of mine experienced harassment from a group of men while she was waiting for a bus alone, to the point where she feared for her safety. Long story short: harassment is everywhere. And while I can’t eliminate harassment on my own, I can offer some strategies and resources to protect yourself while in an unfamiliar place.
1. Use headphones.
If you don’t want to be bothered while you’re commuting during the day, use your headphones. Keep the volume low enough to hear while you’re taking public transportation or crossing the street though, and make sure you pay attention to your surroundings. There’s a reason why articles have circulated recently about how to approach a woman wearing headphones: it’s near impossible to engage with her, because her attention is occupied. This applies to potential harassers. Do not do this at night, or alone somewhere where you don’t feel safe. It’s very important to be able to hear if someone is behind you etc. in those scenarios.
2. Respond safely.
If you choose to respond, make sure you’re safe. This means being in a public space with many witnesses, a group of friends, or that the safety of a building or mode of transportation is available to you.
3. Have emergency contacts handy.
Program contacts such as police, the IFSA-Butler emergency number, and your host country’s equivalent of 911 into your phone as contacts, so they can be easily accessed.
4. Reach out to your resources.
If a problem is pervasive or an instance of harassment is especially taxing or causing you to fear for your safety, reach out to your program coordinators. They’ll be familiar with the local resources that are available for support and protection. For example, the IFSA-Butler London staff has a psychologist available for students who’d like to meet with them, free of charge.
5. Keep your friends in the loop.
If you’re using Uber or a similar service, take advantage of the features that allow you to share your route and ETA with friends if you’re traveling alone or concerned about getting home.
These strategies are targeted at an individual studying abroad in a metropolitan area, with a program and resources comparable to those that were available throughout the program I participated in at University College London with IFSA-Butler. This is not representative of all programs, countries, or experiences. Encounters with street harassment are subject to change with travel, too. I went to Rabat, Morocco, to visit friends on a program there, and the magnitude and frequency of street harassment was much higher than in London (unless we were accompanied by a male friend).
It can be frightening to find yourself somewhere without the comfort and resources of your program. Make sure to familiarize yourself with the closest embassy and its contact information, should any serious problems arise. Try to travel with a partner or friend as well if you’re concerned for your safety. This information can be found at the US Department of State website. Finally, remember that your safety is a right, your mind and body are beautiful, and they are yours alone.
Experiencing harassment abroad reinforced instincts I’d already developed, but it also illustrated the importance of advocacy amongst women worldwide. I knew, of course, that misogyny can be found almost anywhere one might travel. Likewise, the everyday camaraderie that exists amongst women (going out at night, walking on a street alone, or trying to navigate a new city) is universal. For every disheartening encounter I had with someone abroad, I experienced a different interaction that restored a bit of my hope in human kindness. This is reflective of life itself, not just traveling. I’m looking forward to a lifetime of travel, and I hope to continue addressing incidents of harassment and sexism until they cease to exist.