To the Man Who Grabbed My Hair

Rio de Janeiro is a wonderful place during the Carnaval. Foreigners and locals alike come together in loud, colourful street parties, blocos, partying alongside the drummers and more talented dancers until the last of them have disappeared and it’s time to crowd the night clubs and dance the night away. Spontaneous small talk between strangers sprouts out of nowhere; two shirtless guys, both wearing a unicorn horn, high five and continue on their way; the crowd cheers and whistles at a boy and a girl passionately making out in the middle of the parade; the city puts its best foot forward for a weekend of carefree partying and fun in the sun.

But there is another side to it.

Most boys are courteous enough to ask for a kiss, and when you tell them no, some of them might ask again, “just a small one”, but in general they respectfully wish me and my friends a good Carnaval and samba away into the night to pursue the next glitter-covered chica. That is most boys.

We had found ourselves some local company and were sitting in front of a bar, waiting for another bloco to kick off. My friend Sophie was lamenting the fact how there are still guys going around the streets just thinking they can take whatever they want. ‘They’ll talk to and look into your eyes’, she explained her experience to the guys in our company. ‘Then they put one hand behind your neck -‘ she demonstrated the gesture on herself  ‘- and try to hold you there and kiss you.’

I can’t remember if he said anything. Maybe something along the lines of, ‘like this?’ But I can’t be sure. All I know is before I could react, the Brazilian man sitting next to me had his hand on the back of my neck. He grabbed a handful of hair, and while I started to protest that it hurt, he pulled me towards him.

I turned my face away but could feel his breath on my skin as I forcibly pushed him away. The struggle couldn’t have lasted for more than a second, and when he let go of my hair, I saw that he was laughing.

And you bet I let him have it.

I yelled at him until he stopped laughing. I told him to never touch me again or anyone else for that matter like that. I told him it was disrespectful and wrong. And he stopped laughing, but the gleam in his eyes didn’t change, and I knew that even if he wouldn’t lay a hand on me again, he wouldn’t hesitate to pull the same move on some other poor girl.

I wasn’t going to write a post on this experience. It didn’t seem like such a big deal at the time. It was uncomfortable, yes, but I didn’t feel at any point that I was actually threatened – just pissed off. Why bring it up now then, almost a tow months after the fact? Not too long ago we celebrated International Women’s Day, and among all the messages of celebration and empowerment, I noticed a plethora of blog posts, news articles and columns surfacing, detailing what it’s like to live as a woman in a man’s world. Even when the good work for equality has taken strides over the past few decades, the inconvenient truth is that women still cannot enjoy the same degree of freedom as men do. As a woman who often travels solo, the issue of safety is on my mind all the time.

A woman can rarely feel as safe as a man when she travels alone.

It’s a man’s world, and even in some countries that we deem fairly equal for all genders, the stereotypes and attitudes towards what women should be like often dictate that a woman is treated as inferior to a man and almost like an object.  I mean, the man who grabbed my hair and tried to kiss me did it in front of his friends and my friends, after I had already told him no once. He had no shame about his actions. It’s almost like my opinion on what I want to do with my body wasn’t even my choice.

Well, a man can get harassed too, someone might cry out at this point. I agree with that, and if a man has experienced harassment or assault, his experiences should be taken just as seriously than if it had happened to a woman. However, it is much, much rarer for men to experience harassment to a degree that women do.

Even when I haven’t personally had a worse experience than this, a long list of cautionary tales is enough to convince me that anything can happen. So I take the necessary precautions. I make sure no one follows me on the street. I position myself in a way that allows me an easy escape in case I need one. I avoid eye contact with strange men and pull a pretty convincing resting bitch face if I have to walk past a group of guys. I have, in many occasions, thought how to use the knowledge from my fitness combat classes against a real assaulter. (Luckily, I have never had to.)

A part of me has always wondered how I would react if I encountered severe harassment. I know we’d all like to imagine ourselves as Lara Croft kicking ass and throwing around one-liners, but a more common reaction seems to be just to freeze completely. If there’s any good in what happened, well, at least I know now that I can stand up for myself if I need to.

And don’t get me wrong. I would never want to discourage anyone from travelling abroad in a fear that something bad might happen to them – especially not women, since backpacking and exploring  was a very male-dominated field for centuries. The issues with female safety are the same at home as they are abroad, no matter where you’re from (even though, admittedly, some places are definitely more notorious for lack of safety for women.) I simply wanted to write this piece to draw attention to the fact that as unfair as it is, a woman can – nor should – never fully let her guard down. While most women know this, many men seem to be blissfully ignorant to the perceived danger that we worry about on a daily basis.

I’d like to conclude this by telling my fellow female travellers: don’t be scared. Taking precautions doesn’t have to affect the delight of travelling; I know I don’t go around fearing for my life 24/7. That would be exhausting. But the awareness is always there, on the back of my head, reminding me to watch my step.

Go out and explore; it’s a wonderful world out there. But please, take care of your safety.

For some more reading on the topic, check out Adventurous Kate’s post from a few years back Why Travel Safety Is Different for Women. I also managed to dig up some more stories of harassment that solo female travellers have encountered on their trips:

My Fortunate Failed Love Affair With A Vile Chinese Man by Teacake Travels

The Hardest Story to Tell by Free Candie (guest posted)

The First Time I Felt in Danger Traveling as a Solo Female by Be My Travel Muse

I Was Sexually Assaulted in Hoi An, Vietnam by According to Zascha

Street art in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Thanks for reading! I think travel safety is a very important, albeit often an uncomfortable, topic to write about, and one that should be brought up every once in a while. What are your thought on the topic? Do you feel like safety precautions are different for women than they are for men?

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