There I was, alone with the Mar­rakech Masher

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ALI­SON STEIN WELL­NER

Was it pos­si­ble that the shop­keeper had just com­pli­mented me on my nice eyes? Or — and this seemed more likely — had he re­ally just com­pli­mented a dif­fer­ent, lower part ofmy anatomy?

It was early on a steamy July morn­ing, and I’d set out with friends to do some sou­venir shop­ping in and around the souk in­Mar­rakech. We soon fanned out, so I was alone as I idly ex­am­ined a del­i­cate glass mint tea set and clay tagines of all sizes and won­dered whether I’d ac­tu­ally slide my feet into a pair of pointy-toed babouches once I was back home in the States. Then I spot­ted a ta­ble piled high with leather boxes in hues of orange, cobalt blue and pur­ple— the kind of boxes that you might keep on your desk to hold sta­tionery, pen­cils or paper clips. A beau­ti­ful sou­venir that might ac­tu­ally be use­ful? I sped right over, stum­bling just a bit on the hem ofmy black maxi dress.

I picked up a pen­cil case for a closer look. Just then,

the shop­keeper ap­peared be­hind me.

“I can em­boss your name on the box,” he said in English.

I didn’t re­spond to this of­fer, be­cause I was flus­tered: I seemed to have backed into some­thing. I twisted my neck this way and that, try­ing to catch sight of what I was brush­ing up against. Was it some­one’s shop­ping bag? An­other ta­ble? But there was noth­ing be­hind me. Only the shop­keeper. Whose hands, I sud­denly re­al­ized, I couldn’t see.

I took a step side­ways. The gen­tle pres­sure on my back­side van­ished.

I quickly walked away. I was pretty sure that I’d just been groped, but the touch had been so light. . . . Per­haps I was mis­taken?

In my con­fu­sion, I’d hur­ried away in the wrong di­rec­tion, so I re­versed course, still lost in trou­bled thought. When I passed the leather store again, the shop­keeper fell into step be­side me. “Come to the back of my store, I give you a spe­cial price,” he said.

He also said I have a “very nice” bot­tom, al­though he used a less po­lite term. Or that’s what I thought he said. He spoke English with a strong ac­cent, and if you think about it, “eyes” and that other word I thought I heard do sound very sim­i­lar. So I wasn’t com­pletely sure what had just hap­pened. Had he just of­fered me a spe­cial price be­cause ofmy very nice eyes? Or had I just been street ha­rassed?

Street ha­rass­ment is com­mon the world over, and its vari­a­tions are­many: a cat­call, a wolf whis­tle, a sug­ges­tive com­pli­ment, an ob­scene ges­ture — even, in ex­treme cases, an un­wanted touch. It can be a mere nui­sance, or it can be the pre­lude to a more dan­ger­ous in­ci­dent. Ei­ther way, it’s the sort of ex­pe­ri­ence that makes many women wary of trav­el­ing on their own or ven­tur­ing out alone on for­eign streets.

But now, an anti-street-ha­rass­ment move­ment has risen in re­sponse, an out­growth of the 1980s anti-sex­ual ha­rass­ment move­ment in the work­place. But while the lat­ter gained promi­nence in the 1990s thanks to Ani­taHill and movies such as “Dis­clo­sure,” the anti-street ha­rass­ment move­ment was slow in de­vel­op­ing un­til the ad­vent of blog­ging, so­cial me­dia and cell­phones.

Now there’s LASH, or London Against Street Ha­rass­ment, which is crowd­sourc­ing a Google map to track ha­rass­ment in­ci­dents. There’s a sim­i­lar en­tity in Cairo called HarassMap. In the United States, there’s Hol­laback, an on­line fo­rum where women can share their sto­ries of street ha­rass­ment, with blogs fo­cused on New York, Washington, Chicago, Charleston, S.C., and At­lanta, among other U.S. cities. In­ter­na­tion­ally, there are Hol­laback branches in Aus­tralia and Is­rael, and new sites are set to launch in Ber­lin and Buenos Aires. The lat­est ad­di­tion is iHol­laback, a cell­phone ap­pli­ca­tion that al­lows women to share geocoded pho­tos of street ha­rassers. It’s now avail­able in the United States only, but the next step is a global roll­out. The motto: If you can’t slap ’ em, snap ’em.

Had such an app been avail­able when I was vis­it­ing Morocco, I could have up­loaded a pic­ture of the Mar­rakech shop­keeper and told the whole world about how he’d touchedmy mer­chan­dise. By press­ing a few but­tons on my cell­phone, I could have sharedmy story, warned other women, re­ceived sup­port from oth­ers who’ve ex­pe­ri­enced some­thing sim­i­lar, and at the same time helped gather data on the in­ci­dence of street ha­rass­ment, which is hardly ever re­ported to the au­thor­i­ties.

It’s a vis­cer­ally sat­is­fy­ing idea. But as a trav­eler, I also find it trou­bling.

Af­ter all, I was a guest in a dif­fer­ent coun­try and cul­ture. I’d been puz­zling over more in­nocu­ous mis­un­der­stand­ings with Moroc­can cus­toms and lan­guage for days. I’d hate to over­re­act, or even pub­licly la­bel some­one a ha­rasser, if he was only in­no­cently com­pli­ment­ing my peep­ers and hadn’t touchedmy pos­te­rior af­ter all.

I try not to jump to con­clu­sions when I’m trav­el­ing abroad, be­cause there’s so much po­ten­tial for mis­un­der­stand­ing. In­ter­na­tional eti­quette books are packed with in­for­ma­tion on sim­ple ges­tures that seem com­pletely be­nign in one cul­ture but are freighted with mean­ing in an­other: Don’t pat a child on the head in In­done­sia, be­cause the head is thought to be spir­i­tual. Don’t point with an in­dex fin­ger in Malaysia; it’s bad luck. Men who are not ro­man­ti­cally in­volved hold hands in Iraq, and arms are rou­tinely squeezed dur­ing introductions in­Mex­ico.

Com­pli­ments are steeped in lay­ers of lan­guage, eti­quette and tra­di­tion, mak­ing them among the most per­ilous in­ter­ac­tions around. A com­pli­ment can be a con­ver­sa­tion opener, an apol­ogy, a thank you, a crit­i­cism. It can even be hos­tile: In some cul­tures, such as Samoa, if a per­son re­ceives a com­pli­ment on, say, a neck­lace, man­ners dic­tate that the neck­lace must im­me­di­ately be­come a gift to the com­pli­menter.

Street ha­rass­ment is fre­quently couched in terms of a com­pli­ment, but just what sort of a com­pli­ment is it? Ac­cord­ing to Hol­laback’s FAQs, there’s an easy

Though ha­rass­ment is of­ten phrased as a com­pli­ment, iHol­ says, “A com­pli­ment is not a com­pli­ment if it makes the re­cip­i­ent feel bad.”

test for sort­ing the good from the bad from the ugly: “A com­pli­ment is not a com­pli­ment if it makes the re­cip­i­ent feel bad.”

The com­pli­ment I re­ceived did not make me feel good; in fact, it made me feel slightly nau­se­ated. But can I re­ally ex­pect that my own idea of a com­pli­ment will fol­low me ev­ery­where I travel? Didn’t that sort of ex­pec­ta­tion go out with im­pe­ri­al­ism?

“It’s valid to be concerned about dif­fer­ent cul­tural cus­toms,” said Emily May, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Hol­laback, when I reached her by phone. “But the chances are good that some­thing that’s of­fen­sive to you is also of­fen­sive to the women who live where you’re trav­el­ing.”

I per­sisted: What if I run afoul of this odds-based ar­gu­ment and still get it wrong? How can I be sure that I’m not ap­ply­ing my own cul­tural norms, lead­ing to a mis­un­der­stand­ing and an over­re­ac­tion?

“You seem to be ask­ing whether street ha­rass­ment is a fe­male trav­eler’s fault — sort of like, that’s just what you have to deal with since you de­cided to travel to an­other cul­ture,” May ob­served. “But blam­ing your­self is missing the point. It’s one thing if you’re go­ing to im­pose your val­ues on some­one else when you’re trav­el­ing. But by the na­ture of what the ha­rasser is say­ing and do­ing, they’re im­pos­ing their val­ues on you. You have the right to im­pose your val­ues right back onto them.”

Be­fore I vis­ited Mar­rakech, I hadn’t given any de­tailed thought to my val­ues re­gard­ing street ha­rass­ment. Still, when I was walk­ing through the me­d­ina,

with the shop­keeper be­side me await­ing a re­sponse to his dis­count of­fer, I re­al­ized that I was, in fact, be­ing ha­rassed.

And then I didn’t know what to do.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all ap­proach to deal­ing with street ha­rass­ment. But there are a few guide­lines that ac­tivist Holly

Kearl lays out in her book “ Stop Street Ha­rass­ment: Mak­ing Pub­lic Spa­ces Safe andWel­com­ing for Women” (Praeger 2010), and on her Web site, Stop­streetha­rass­ment. You want, for in­stance, to be as­sertive and strong, us­ing state­ments, not ques­tions: “Leave me alone,” not “Would you please leave me alone?” And you don’t want to lose it and start curs­ing and scream­ing, be­cause that will just in­flame the sit­u­a­tion.

I didn’t know any of that at the time, so I im­pro­vised: I said noth­ing at all, I stared straight ahead, and I held up my hand, flat­palmed, mim­ing “stop.” I used it to block my face from the shop­keeper’s. And I picked up my pace.

With­out an­other word, he turned around and walked away.

It was over. But af­ter an ini­tial wave of re­lief, I felt icky for the rest of the day.

Those feel­ings can be eased by shar­ing your story with other women, said May: “ Technology al­lows us to share an ex­pe­ri­ence that used to be iso­lat­ing. The feel­ing of sol­i­dar­ity is very, very, very pow­er­ful.”

Al­though I’mnot sure whether I’ll ever feel com­fort­able snap­ping a cell­phone photo of a street ha­rasser, I can say this with cer­tainty: If I’d had real-time feed­back from other wired women trav­el­ers that day in­Mar­rakech, I wouldn’t have had to puz­zle through whether I was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a cul­tural mis­un­der­stand­ing or street ha­rass­ment all on my own.


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