“You should wear the red dress with polka dots,” Wade suggests one morning in Amman.
“Really? You don’t think it’s too tight for here?” I asked.
“Nah,” he says, “you see what all the tourists wear here.”
I will of course wear a long sleeve shirt and leggings under the dress, but it still doesn’t seem conservative enough to me. It’s true, there are a lot of Australian and German women here wearing a lot less than I do, but I still feel uncomfortable about allowing any more skin — or womanly shape for that matter — appear than what I absolutely have to. I want to be respected here, I do not want to be a visual feast.
Chaya with some girls in Jordan
But I wear the red polka dot dress out for my morning walk by myself through the town and market of Amman anyway. When I came back Wade asks “Did anything happen? Like did anyone say anything weird or sketchy?”
“Yeah one guy said something weird in Arabic I couldn’t understand, but nothing else really,” I said confused.
Then I realized what had happened.
“You set me up! You wanted to experiment on me to see if anyone would hit on me! You jerk!” I laughed. “Maybe the fact that nobody hit on me has less to do with what I wear and more to do with my five month pregnant belly,” I joke.
“This girl told me that she got hit on all the time in the Middle East to the point where it was impossible for her to walk around, I wanted to see if it was true,” Wade sheepishly tried to explain, knowing he’d been caught.
Wade recently had to edit a magazine article written by a women studying abroad in Amman, and, apparently, she had a lot of complaints about how men treated her in this city. Though Wade had the suspicion that she may have invited her own problems — as the article was mostly focused on Middle Eastern women dressing in western clothes — and had me go out and unknowingly test this theory for him.
We had so far traveled through Eastern Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, and the amount of times I had been heckled by men in the streets was near zero. We thought that this may have had something to do with me having a man with me, so Wade tried to get me to go out without him as much as possible, to see what would happen.
I have traveled by myself in Central America and South Africa and with only one other female companion in India and Southeast Asia. It’s safe to say I’ve been hit on a fair number of times, but it’s also safe to say that I know how to avoid unwelcome advances as well.
While flirting is generally flattering and not a problem, it can be tough to judge where it is going to lead when you are in another culture. Being smiled at by a man might be flattering, but if you smile back at him is he going to grab your ass?
I hear a lot of women complaining about men harassing them when they travel. It happens. It’s happened to me and I know it sucks. But there are things you can do to minimize the risk. I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming the victim, but I’ve noticed there are a fair number of things American and European girls do that get them more attention from men than what they ask for:
1) Wear inappropriate clothing- There isn’t much of an excuse for this one. Look at what the women around you are wearing, wear clothes that cover similar parts. I wore long sleeves and long pants and sometimes a headscarf in the Middle East. If you’re wearing a sheer miniskirt or a tank top, you’re going to attract more attention.
2) Carrying themselves- Walking and talking like a quiet, demure, subservient girl, as we are sometimes conditioned to do, is an easy default position when dealing with unwelcome advances, but it tends to work against you. Don’t do this. Hold yourself like you are a strong, confident woman who can kick some butt if you have to. Act like a bull dike with sharp horns and stomping hooves. Look people in the face and keep your head up. Remember that your eyes say more in some countries than others, be aware of all the messages you are sending as you interact with people in a foreign land.
3) Approaching men- I almost always ask a woman when I need directions, to find out what time it is, etc. Though it may seem innocent to you, in countries where men and women don’t usually intermingle too much, simply asking directions can be taken as an invitation that may be misinterpreted or taken advantage of. Many countries have thick gender lines, abide by them.
4) Getting drunk at bars, smoking, or causing a ruckus- Especially in countries where women don’t usually do these things, men are going to think if you are wild in one way you’re wild enough to have sex with them. Sometimes this is true, most of the time it is a fantasy.
5) Not clearly saying no- Lots of times women will start getting hit on and respond with”I’m fine” as a polite way to say “no” to an offer of a drink or a companion. By acting polite and saying something ambivalent like “aahh I don’t think so… maybe some other time” to a date or some other advance often is just encouragement for the guy to keep trying. In many countries, passive rejection is a game that women play when they like a man, and it is interpreted as flirting.
Acting in a way that we feel is polite in the US can be confusing in another country. Keep in mind that there are language barriers as well as etiquette barriers. You have to be clear and direct and say exactly what you mean.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t ever do any of these things. I have probably done all of these things at some point in my travels and have gotten attention for it. Sometimes I want attention, sometimes I like being invited out on a date and this is OK as well.
But when you’re traveling in another culture, especially the more machismo ones, you need to be clear about your intentions when dealing with men, and to know that you are sending off signals which could not represent your true intentions. If you don’t want anything to do with a man who is hitting on you, let him know directly, and get away. Any hesitation on your part could be the difference between making a friend and being respected, or being harassed.
Size your situation up immediately, think about what you will do if a man makes an inappropriate advance before it happens. Don’t be taken by surprise.
Trying to bash the gender lines when traveling is not going to send the message that you are a strong and secure women, but it is a symbol that you could be sexually easy. American and European women have the reputation of being sexually easy so it takes some effort to get it through some thick macho skulls that you don’t want any.
The courtship rituals of many cultures are a lot more subtle yet also a lot more absolute than in the USA. A simple look can be enough to make a man think that you want to go to bed with him, a passive laugh or a giggle to ward off an advance could be taken as an invitation that you want more.
In point, if you watch how the women act in the country that you are traveling in and follow suite, you should be alright. If you are in a bar with a complete absence of local women who are not prostitutes, then it may be a sign that you may be in a compromising situation; if the women in the country you are traveling in cover their legs, arms, and shoulders, then there is a good chance that you are going to put a spotlight on yourself if you don’t; if the local women do not talk to men that they don’t know then your intentions may be misinterpreted if you do.
A foreign women tends to have more leeway as far as etiquette in many cultures, and you are often not expected to act exactly like a local woman. It is still OK to have fun and enjoy yourself, but there is a risk/benefit ratio that each woman needs to gauge for herself when traveling.
It is OK to not follow any of this advice and live your travels up without restraint (Western women are often seen as being 10 times sexier than what we really are when traveling in some regions of the world, and this could be fun) but don’t complain if you are heckled by men in the streets of India if you are wearing shorts with a low cut tank top.
Culture is just an assortment of symbols that people of a certain group interpret in common, and what is interpreted as meaning one thing in your culture may mean something different in another. You can decode the symbols of proper man/ women interaction pretty easily when traveling just by watching the local women of a country, by talking to them, and by befriending them. It is not difficult to see that foreign women who abide by a few simple rules of etiquette often travel the world undaunted and without much undue difficulty.
Chaya, pregnant belly, and a fisherman on the coast of the Red Sea in Jordan