Dealing with Harassment while Traveling

As a 22-year-old woman who usually travels solo, harassment has become a fact of life for me, especially unabashed stares and cat calls. Is it unpleasant and frustrating? Yes, of course. But over time I have learned many strategies for dealing with harassment while traveling, and they make a big difference!

Basic Tips for Dealing with Harassment while Traveling

  • Ignore it, if at all possible. The harasser is looking for a reaction, so don’t give them one!
  • Learn key phrases such as “go away” or “leave me alone” in the local language. But still try to ignore it first – some harassers become even more “enthusiastic” if they think you speak their language…
  • Walk in groups, especially at night, to avoid appearing vulnerable and unprotected
  • In many countries, women don’t sit in the front seat of taxis and female travelers should mirror this practice
  • Avoid traveling alone to unfamiliar areas at night or being intoxicated, as this will make you a target

Although I did some harassment while traveling alone in Pakistan, it was much less prevalent than I’d been expecting. Instead, I was overwhelmed by the friendliness of pure strangers, such as this family that invited me to join their picnic, or this archeologist who explained the process of restoring mosaics!

Body Language and Dress

Monitor your body language and maintain a stern, uninterested expression, especially when walking alone. Wearing dark sunglasses is also a good way to appear uninterested and unapproachable. In many countries, strangers of the opposite gender do not interact unless there is a purpose (i.e. a transaction between a cab driver and passenger or shopkeeper and customer). As a result, making eye contact, smiling or responding to comments/questions from a stranger/passersby in the street is often interpreted as a sexual advance.

Some locals may push boundaries with regards to cultural norms surrounding dress. But as a guest, you should dress modestly both to be respectful and to ward off unwanted attention. Before your trip, be sure to research what clothing is appropriate to wear at your destination. My rule of thumb is to dress at least as modestly as the “average” local, especially if traveling alone. I believe that people should have freedom of dress, but respect for cultural norms is essential. It is an immense privilege to travel when most of the world is immobile, and so it’s important to be respectful when entering communities that are not your own.

Avoid cultural appropriation while still dressing conservatively and in line with local customs!

Race: Dealing with Harassment while Traveling

Harassment isn’t just about gender – it’s often racially charged or motivated. This is especially an issue for women of color, as the relationship between race and gender can play out in unpredictable ways when it comes to harassment. If you’re a person of color, you probably know this all too well and can speak to this issue much better than I. But I would like to say that everyone should be aware of the complicated relationship between race and harassment. Recognize that everyone experiences harassment differently, and be ready to step up if a friend needs help or support. For more information about race and harassment abroad, check out these articles from Amanda Away and Lewis and Clark.

I also recommend that you be selective when agreeing to selfie requests, and this is for two reasons. One, men will sometimes take this opportunity to try and grope you. Two, these requests often (but not always) come from the idolization or exoticization of different races. Obviously, this is incredibly problematic, so it’s important to recognize that these selfie ops can perpetrate this issue. I’m not saying that you can’t ever take photos with locals (I still do it sometimes), but rather to be conscious about the bigger picture. When I do agree to take a photo with someone, I try to get to know them as well. Showing interest in their experiences, perspectives, history and culture can help to counter the (not-uncalled-for) stereotypes of travelers.

Be aware of your positionality when it comes to selfie requests, but don’t be afraid to engage with locals and make new friends!

I hope you found some useful tips from this post on dealing with harassment while traveling! For more information on this topic, check out my post on health and safety abroad. Or check out all my posts about travel tips, such as accessing money while travelingpacking for study abroad, the best travel apps, and finding cheap flights!

Happy Travels!


1 thought on “Dealing with Harassment while Traveling

  1. Very wise advise. Before I lived abroad for the first time (at age 26) all I was told was “when in Rome, do as the romans do” That advice was given broadly. It included eating the local foods (even though I had to break my 4 year long vegetarian regime) but also dressing modestly. I first lived in Guatemala and learned quickly that grown men to not wear short pants or tank tops. I then worked in Thailand where similar clothing etiquette was expected, but also that men and women never touch or make eye contact in public while at the same time men who are pals will walk down the street hand-in-hand; I would even have strangers come up and grab my hand to walk beside me and ask where I was from (out of innocent curiosity I presumed, but also sometimes to be able to practice their English)
    But for me, the adaptation I had to make to fit in that still seems like both a huge imposition but also as a great gift had to do with facial hair. Since freshman year in college I always had worn a full beard, but in northern Thailand that became problematic. I was volunteering in a mission hospital and would be working with small children. In the surrounding rural villages parents told their offspring the myth of “the goat man” who would sneak into houses at night and eat misbehaving children. When the medical director met me for the first time, he scurried me away to his bungalow where he leant me his straight razor to shave off my beard before anyone else in the hospital saw that I literally was “the goat man”! I must say though that having the sun on my full face for 3 months was worth it, even though my own family didn’t recognize me in the photos I mailed home!

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