There is one aspect of life in Colombia that is driving me crazy: street harassment. It might be an issue all over the world (although I’ve never had any real problem in South Africa), but here in Colombia it is unbelievably ubiquitous and is impossible to ignore.
In the short time I’ve been living in here, I’ve come to dread going anywhere alone. When I do have to walk down the street on my own, almost every man I pass feels entitled to stare, hiss, or call out to me. They whistle at you from their cars, hoot as you walk past, open their windows to make kissing noises and hiss “princessa”. Often the cat-calling is “harmless” – although clearly it’s not, since I feel so angry and violated – but sometimes the tone of their voice and glare in their eye is challenging and aggressive. And in a country where sexism and sexual violence are a major problem, it’s indicative of a mentality that will always dismiss the idea of gender equality.
I feel uncomfortable at my SENA centre where I work. I’m constantly subjected to objectifying stares and I’ve had several male students whistle at me as I walk down the corridor. When it’s time to leave, I have to walk the gauntlet of moto-taxi drivers waiting at the exit, avoiding all eye contact as they make suggestive faces and hoping the bus will arrive quickly. It’s easier to ignore if I can pretend I haven’t heard the latest “Bonita!” or the persistent hissing (which seems to be the Colombian equivalent of whistling), so I’ve taken to walking around with headphones permanently in my ears.
I realise that many eyes will linger longer on the lone gringa walking down the street or school corridor, but there’s a difference between a curious glance and an objectifying stare.
Mostly, it’s the sense of entitlement that really bothers me. They are never embarrassed or ashamed of their behaviour, and they laugh if you challenge them. Why shouldn’t they stare at you? Why shouldn’t they comment on your appearance? And if you don’t like it, what’s wrong with you? Frigid white girl, you should be grateful for the compliment!
Latin society, particularly amongst the lower classes where “machismo” is still prevalent, seems to make no apologies for celebrating the “manly man” who can treat women as he likes. Cat-calling is so ingrained in the culture that one local girl just laughed when I asked her about it and said it’s okay if they are “just calling you pretty”. Can you really make a distinction between “Hey, beautiful!” and “How delicious!”? Both are examples of male dominance and control.
This is “normal” in South America, I’ve been told. At orientation, one regional co-ordinator briefly addressed the issue of gender relations, saying that it bothers her, but that it’s not worth worrying about since nothing is going to change any time soon. Apparently, this is an example of one of the many cultural differences we should take in our stride.
Just because it’s not going to change, doesn’t mean I, or any woman for that matter, should just accept it. I refuse to accept sexual harassment as a “cultural norm”. Most cultures are historically patriarchal, many still are, but values and practices change over time to develop a more equal and inclusive society. The feminist in me wants to shout down every man who thinks he can leer at me, or punch the next one who tries to touch me, but I know that will only encourage them further.
I’ve tried to keep an open mind, tried not to let these men influence my perception of an entire culture/gender, but I am failing. I try to remind myself that it’s “not all men”, but according to my lived experience, it is a lot of them. The persistence of the harassment has made me wary and distrustful; Latino men are pretty much guilty until proven innocent in my eyes. I’m sad to say I’ll have to seriously re-consider my plans to stay in Latin America after this year is up. Perhaps it’s much easier to ignore as a traveller passing through, but living with this is maddening. There are so many amazing and beautiful aspects of Colombia and the culture, but sometimes these are overshadowed by daily harassment that has become overwhelming and exhausting.