Since studying abroad in Egypt, volunteering in Palestine, and traveling all over the Middle East, I have been conducting informal Comparative Harassment Studies. The first thing you learn when you prepare to study abroad in Egypt is to gird yourself for the harassment, and to dress and behave to minimize it as much as possible. But for all the challenges of living in Egypt, and some of my classmates’ horror stories (boobs grabbed in passing, mobs descending at night), I was never harassed very badly – it was more a constant, quiet whine than anything truly dramatic and upsetting. After graduating college, I volunteered in Palestine and I didn’t experience much harassment at all.
So when I traveled to Tunisia for work in January 2013, I was surprised to find myself getting harassed a lot. I’d wander around Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the major artery of downtown, as night fell (upon reflection, a woman wandering alone at night is probably bound to attract unwanted attention). People would draw closer to me as I walked by to say things that I couldn't understand, so no harm done overall. What bothered me was one guy who wouldn’t leave me alone, even after I declined to engage and even changed my walking route to avoid him. He caught up with me, got in very close to me, and continued pestering me: “Are you afraid of me? Why are you afraid? Don't be afraid!” and repeatedly demanded that I get coffee with him, despite my increasingly loud and strident refusals. I could only escape by shutting a taxi door in his face. Nothing awful happened, but it soured me a little bit to the Tunisian street and made me nervous to go out at night. It also made me glad that I’d read the Gift of Fear, on the subject of enforcing boundaries with strangers, on the recommendation of a travel blogger.
Expats in Tunis said that the harassment has gotten worse since the revolution, as freedom is often experienced as impunity and the rule of law is still slowly being reestablished. But the point is not that harassment is so much worse in Tunisia than in the other countries I’ve traveled. These observations are clearly anecdotal, for one, and the difference may be more situational than cultural – in Egypt and Palestine, I was surrounded by a support network of Americans and locals alike and tended to travel in a group, while I did lots of solo wandering in Tunis.
Because the thing is, lots of Tunisians talked to me when I was wandering around. In addition to the low-grade harassment, there were also multiple people (well, men) who approached me to start conversations. A friendly older man who I quizzed on politics (“Even if Obama came here, he couldn’t get anything done because there would still be demonstrations”); a guy in his 20s who said he worked for Google maps and moved from Sidi Bouzid to Tunis after the revolution to get a job; and a fellow restaurant-goer I chatted with about the milk shortage and the Sheraton Gate scandal. None made me seriously uncomfortable and the conversations were valuable insights into Tunisian life and a chance to practice my French and Arabic, though I did decline their overtures (and they all made them) for coffee or drinks, which was over my comfort line a little bit.
And that’s where it gets tricky. The guidebooks and the anthropologists will all tell you that the Middle East is one of the most hospitable regions in the world. But a lot of those guidebooks seem to be written by men, who get to have a slightly larger comfort zone in unfamiliar places. The point of traveling is to be open to new people and new experiences – but especially as a woman, it's so hard to tell where the line is between that famous Arab hospitality and someone creeping on you. Shut people down early and you risk closing yourself off to new experiences and to “meeting the locals”; engage the wrong person and you risk ending up in an unsafe situation, or at least a very uncomfortable one. Isn't being uncomfortable – stretching yourself outside of your comfort zone – part of the point of traveling? Maybe there good discomfort and bad discomfort, discomfort where you’re still basically safe and discomfort where you might not be.
Being harassed is so antithetical to the spirit of adventure and exploration one hopes to cultivate abroad. Adventure is supposed to feel expansive, to make you feel bigger, but harassment makes you feel small and hemmed-in. And in a very real way, it makes you adapt your movements and your choices when traveling. I read some awesome travel bloggers who discuss ways to make solo lady travel safe and rewarding. I love the practical tips and the “You can do it” attitude, and I am totally on board. But I seldom see discussions of the deeper, emotional impact harassment has on women’s travel experiences, the contradictory impulses of staying safe and exploring. I think those are conversations worth having.
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