I can sense him walking behind me, too close for comfort. I’ve ignored his shouts of “Hey, hey!” and picked up my pace. He comes up beside me and asks if I know the time. I shake my head and say no, and keep walking. Then he asks if I speak Spanish, I lie with another “no” and hope this will be the end of it. I’m used to Mexican men of all ages cat calling and approaching me, but it’s usually nothing more than obnoxious. As a woman traveling alone I’ve become accustomed to ignoring it and passing by quickly. This time it doesn’t work. He walks beside me for a few more paces and then grabs me and tries to put his hand up my dress. Even though it’s broad daylight and I’m walking through a nice part of town, no one else is around. I shove him away and shout “HEY!” along with a stream of curses. He turns around and walks away. I am lucky.
I keep walking even though I should be running. I’m in a state of shock. I’m furious and scared and thankful all at the same time. I wasn’t harmed or robbed. He didn’t have a knife, or a gun. Had he been taller or stronger my protest might not have mattered. I continue walking until there are more people around, too shaken to enjoy my chocolates and beer on the beach like I had planned. I snap a few photos of the sunset and quickly walk back to my hostel.
A million and one thoughts are running through my head. I shouldn’t have been walking alone. Maybe I shouldn’t have been wearing a dress, even though it’s Cozumel and everyone is in beach attire. Why didn’t I run when I noticed him behind me? I want to leave the island tomorrow, I want to cry and call my best friend and eat more chocolate within the safe walls of my hostel.
I am lucky, but I don’t feel so lucky. Sexual assault against women is something that’s talked about often but perhaps not often enough because it still happens. The fact is one in three women worldwide will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. The One Billion Rising campaign did an amazing job raising awareness about the issue of violence against women this past Valentine’s Day, and people all over the world continue to speak out against the culture of rape. The We Go Solo movement has encouraged females to continue traveling safely and I’ve written my own blog about fear mongering and why I don’t believe it’s the appropriate response to violence.
Yesterday it all became even more personal. It would be easier to blame myself for what happened so that I could regain a sense of control. It’s easy to convince myself that I shouldn’t be traveling alone in a foreign country, that perhaps this sort of thing is inevitable and I should shrug it off. It’s easier to feel shame and guilt, to take responsibility than to admit that I’m vulnerable. The truth is no matter what kind of precautions I take, how safely I travel or whether or not I choose to wear a Berka for the rest of my life, I am at risk for violence and sexual assault simply because of my gender. I hate this. I want to SCREAM in frustration at anyone who thinks my body is public property. I want to comfort and cry with all of the women and children who have been abused by someone they trusted and loved. I want to be strong enough for all of us.
I’m going to keep traveling alone. I’m going to keep trusting in the kindness of strangers and the goodness of humanity. I’m going to listen to my instincts instead of that voice constantly reminding me to be polite. And someday if I am blessed with daughters, I’m going to teach them to say no and to have healthy boundaries. I’m going to teach them to respect their bodies and to demand this same respect from others. I’m going to tell them that safety is always more important than being courteous. I’m going to teach my sons to ask permission before they touch or infringe on someone’s personal space. I’m going to teach them to read social cues and body language, to be sensitive to the oppression of others and to protect the weak. I’m going to show them that love and affection are to be cherished and never stolen.
I can’t change the brutal reality of violence and oppression. I can’t protect myself from being a victim to assault. I can’t change the tragic stories of too many women and children. But I can say no. I can stand up for human dignity and equality. I can advocate for those who have lost their voice, I can continue to love in the face of fear and hate, and I can join my voice with others who are doing the same.
“A Man’s Prayer”
Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes Asali shares a beautiful spoken word at the TEDx Women event.