Seeing #MeToo trending from Colombia last week I got the urge to scream Yo Tambien. Living on the Caribbean coast street harassment affects my life every single day in ways that it kills me to admit.
Will I wear jeans and a modest top despite the 30 degree heat? Will I actually be harassed less when I’m dressed up and wearing makeup because men are reluctant to dole out these ‘compliments’ if it looks like you might actually want them?
Will I walk down the busy street where I will be leered at, shouted at, lunged at? Or instead, walk down the dark empty side-street and hope that nothing worse happens?
Will I get a taxi instead of walking home alone, or will the lecherous driver asking where my husband is make me feel more uncomfortable than the dark open road where at least I can run?
Will I laugh it off when one of my teenage students blows kisses at me, winks, or looks me up and down as he swaggers into the classroom?
Will I go to the beach by myself and desperately avoid eye contact with groups of men who mooch past, staring and barking their appreciation? Will I stand my ground when a man chooses a spot two metres away from me on a practically deserted beach? Ignoring the flashbacks this brings me. Will I finally move when he tells me he isn’t going to bother me, and then lies on his stomach in the sea, staring at me?
Will I trust the police, remembering the time when a riot van crawled alongside me, like creepy builders in a white van back home? Will I approach them for help if I’m lost or in trouble, when they look me up and down before drawling ‘Dios miooo’?
Will I go down to the tienda when we’ve run out of drinking water at 8pm, or beg my male flatmates to go, on days when I just can’t face drunken lascivious men?
I despise giving in to this. I despise having to ask a man to do something for me because I don’t feel comfortable doing it myself as a woman. Sometimes I go down looking defiantly disgusting, trackies, panda eyes and my don’t-even-try-it face. Even being noticeably ill with vomit breath, I’ve had a neighbour lean into me at the counter, staring pointedly as I look determinedly away.
When the man on the beach made a point of staring at me I hunched over, belly resting on my thighs and started picking at the ingrowing hairs on my calves. Yeah, you can watch if you want, you fucking perve, but I’m gonna make damn sure you don’t enjoy it.
These are the kinds of silent protests that I allow myself. My lack of Spanish and my quick temper wouldn’t be a good combination in a confrontation. My mum has repeatedly begged me to let it be, worried that if I ‘pull a Kiki’ and lose my shit I could get into trouble. ‘You don’t know what they’ll do to you over there.’
So silent protest is all I allow myself. Even when the rage is building up, and my keys are wedged between my fingers and I’m almost willing one of the bastards to get too close. Fucking try me, I dare you.
While I’ve pictured hundreds of situations where I fight back, being in the situation is completely different. When a co-worker’s son insisted on coming into my flat to fix my window I found myself in such a situation. He wouldn’t take no for an answer and was trying to wrestle my jeans off as I frantically pulled them up. Rather than send him packing with a kick in the balls as I always imagined I would in such a situation, I warned him that my flatmates were in the next room. I even apologised for ‘not being in the mood’ as I fought back my tears.
All of a sudden I was echoing justifications that frustrate me so much to hear from other women. What’s worse is that I felt guilty, had I led him on?
It disgusted me how business-like he was, as if I owed him something for having completed his manly task. What got to me more than anything was the expectation that as a gringa I must be up for it.
I made an excuse that I had to go and meet my friends, and then cried in the street when he messaged me telling me I’d acted strangely.
Frustrated and angry with myself, I blocked him, feeling powerless to assert myself in any other way. I kept playing it over in my head, wondering when this strange submissive force had taken control and stopped me fighting him with every fiber of my being.
My housemate at the time, a feminist with a Colombian boyfriend explained to me that Colombian men can be quite forceful because they are used to women playing hard to get.
I haven’t been consciously avoiding this kind of situation but subconsciously the experience must have taken its toll. I haven’t so much as kissed a Colombian since.
Being constantly harassed means that I’m always on the defensive. Even with guys who I might find attractive. Their hunter like behaviour raises my hackles, and I’m determined not to lower my guard, not to give them the satisfaction, literally. Cutting off my sex life to spite my face.
I’ve lived in Colombia for almost 9 months now. This happened during my first month, on International Women’s day. I hate to admit that this experience changed the way I behave, but it would be naive to think that it wouldn’t.
Around the same time, I decided that my dip-dyed blonde hair had to go. While making this kind of concession goes against everything I believe in, I thought that long black hair would help me blend in and avoid the choruses of ‘What’s-your-name-I-love-you’s that followed me down the street from the moment I left my house every morning.
With dark hair the catcalls are less crass, buenos dias, como amaneciste, adios, mi reina. I find myself wondering whether I’m too defensive. In Wales I wouldn’t find it strange if my neighbours (or even strangers) greeted me, so why do I cringe and glue my eyeballs to the pavement to avoid it? Because of course, it’s always lubricious old men.
While I complain daily about this harassment, I also feel hyper-aware that I’m drawing attention to all the attention that I’m getting. It feels conceited. What’s worse is that these experiences are clouding my judgment of a whole country and culture. How can I try and integrate into a society when one of its defining features quite frankly revolts me? How can I respect a state whose uniformed agents sexually harass me in broad daylight? I can’t help but feel there is something deeply wrong with a culture that accepts ‘no’ to mean ‘try harder’.
When you move to a region that is famous for its macho culture you’re told that you have to accept it, if not respect it, but where do you draw the line between respecting local culture and accepting oppression? When Colombian girls avoid walking down the main street alone at 7pm, can you really brush it off as a cultural quirk, or ‘part of the courtship ritual.’
This Caribbean so-called openness is often fetishized, people see scantily clad women of all shapes and sizes, oozing confidence as they dance in the street, as some kind of ownership of their sexuality. In reality, a woman, or a ‘reina’ as they like to call us, is killed by a man every two days in Colombia.
I’m constantly told that there’s nothing I can do because you can’t change a whole culture. This is what my fellow white girls tell me. Just ignore it. Of course, they’re right, I can’t pick a fight with every man who harasses me, I wouldn’t even make it to work on time.
But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be changed. Honour killings are part of the culture in parts of the Middle East, while female genital mutilation is a tradition in parts of Africa, it doesn’t mean we should blindly accept them, much less be subjected to them as ‘guests in their country.’