Sunday, June 14, 2009

International House of Cat Calls

There's such a variety: they hiss at you like snakes, they make kissing noises, they whistle, they might honk their horn or slow down in the car and stare at you. I get told I'm pretty or asked if my hair color is natural. Paramaribo is not the worst place I've ever experienced this type of attention, but it's worth posting about.

I think the worst place I've ever been, as far as cat calling goes, is Merida, Mexico. Of course, back then I didn't modify my dress at all. I used to pity the Mexican girls who worn tight jeans no matter how hot and humid it was. And I couldn't understand it, why they didn't feel free enough to wear shorts like me. I don't know if they got as much unwanted male attention as I did, with or without hiding their legs. I don't know if it would have been that much better if I had conformed and suffered the heat in denim and long skirts. I usually cover my legs here, and still the bobagem persists.

It's not like there aren't any places in the United States where women get harassed just for being women. Canal St., New Orleans being a prime example. But I stand out here more than I do in most places in the U.S. (Although most people think I'm a Dutch girl, not American). Maybe Surinamese women get heckled too, but I know most of the attention I'm getting here comes from my being white, female and foreign at the same time.

What I want to know is just what men 1) want to happen and 2) they think will happen. I would like to conduct a survey, randomized of course, of Surinamese men's opinion on these questions:

1) What do you want when you (whistle, hiss, kiss, honk, heckle) women on the streets of Paramaribo?
a) I want her to smile at me
b) I want her to teach me English
c) I want her to marry me
d) I want her to get in my car and have sex with me like I see in the movies

2) What do you think will really happen?
a) She will love me forever
b) She will give me a rude hand gesture
c) She will ignore me but secretly like it
d) Yes, I really think she will get in my car and have sex with me. It happens in the movies.

There are a variety of ways for women to deal with this annoying phenomenon. You can ignore it. I don't believe that in any culture it is rude for a woman to ignore a stranger when he talks to her in the middle of the street. But ignoring it can only last for so long before you get really mad and flick someone off. And that can be rude to the other people who witness it and don't know you were being harassed. You can learn something clever in the local language and make a joke out of it. Or you can engage the man in dialogue. This might not always work- but sometimes when you confront a man about his bad behavior, he is at the very least shamed in public. That has worked for me just a few times.

Yesterday I was walking home from the malaria clinic when I heard "Sssssss, Sssssss" hissing at me. Usually I do ignore these things, but I turned around and said "Ssssss, Ssssss, what?! what is that? what is it that you want?" The man was at a table with his friends drinking beer. I think he was a little surprised. He threw up his arms and said "But- but I love you!"


Nafeeza said...

This happens to me when I go to Guyana and I look like all the girls there. I also experienced this in India, where I also looked like the other girls there. I was even dressed like everyone else and you probably couldn't pick me out of the crowd, but it still happened.
I'm sorry that you have to experience that. I've already been warned by my uncles and male cousins, and one bought me ear plugs. I remember just putting my ipod in when I was in India because it got so bad. Hopefully it will get better soon....maybe.

Heather said...

Earplugs! That's such a great idea! It's true, I don't really know that the attention is just for being white. I should talk more with Surinamese women about why they think it happens. I just don't understand why men think they might be sucessful with it.

But really, it's not stressing me out so much, I think it's kind of funny sometimes.

Juliana said...

Heather, Thanks for this post. You totally made me laugh. I've never critically evaluated WHY the harassment takes place...never gotten past the pissed off stage. So, I applaud you for this! Suriname sounds like its kind of intense. I agree, Merida was the worst. A few men there told me that Yucatecan women like the attention. (I'm not so sure!) India was also intense. Men STARE (I mean REALLY, really stare) but they don't make rude comments, which I appreciate. However, there were no Indian women out at night and few during the day which was a bit disturbing... "But, but I love you!" -- That made me laugh. Almost (almost!) cute!"

Amaly said...

This is definitely hilarious, I would love to see that survey carried out! In Bangladesh is was so extremely horrible that when I moved to Merida I thought it was nothing!! seriously- compared to the levels of staring, groping, hissing, negative commments, sexual gestures/innuendos and offers in Bengali (because they thought that I didn't understand) that were directed my way when out in public--- have hardened me against any kind of attention I get now. We (the other pcvs & I) used to exchange tactics on how to get them to stop- not a whole lot would work, but shaming them did; and asking other people walking by why they were doing that also worked. And then having men beat up the offending man also helps. lol. Good luck Heather!

June said...

GREAT points Heather! I experienced this several times in Merida and I'm not even a blond/redhead! I wish we could do something to teach these men some respect! I also agree that it is entirely unfair for women to have to wear uncomfortable, hot clothing to prevent unwanted male attention. I'd love to see some research done on this topic

Carly said...

It's funny - I think living in Mozambique prepared me for some of the men in DC... most of the men who harass here are Latino/Hispanic and after Mozambique I think I can ignore it better and not take it as personally. One of my roommates absolutely hated it and it drove her crazy! She'd come home angry every day. I liked that after awhile, we confronted the men in Mozambique and told them to apologize and that we wouldn't leave until they did! I think that helped a lot. It seemed like they just did it to see what they could get away with and when we confronted them, they at least felt somehow ashamed of it. I agree with the others - would love to see the results from your quiz!

Cara said...

I love your survey! So true, I've wondered myself many times what these men seriously think will happen if we take them up on their ridiculous and frequently perverse offers. I've tried everything to combat this phenomenon. I've tried ignoring them outright, stopping and staring at them for long stretches of time without saying anything (this may ... Read Morebe culturally inappropriate in some places but where it is not try it, it totally freaks people out), making loud vomiting noises, screaming "I'm not French!" when they addressed me in French ("Bonjour Cherie") and once, when I had really had enough, I confronted a dude in the middle of the market, asking him did he REALLY think I was going to go home with him? Yes, I do understand Malagasy and you, sir, are RUDE! But these days, when I sense someone is being inappropriate (I never hear what they actually say because I have my headphones on, but you can spot those looks and gestures a mile away) I just smile and wave real innocent like. Cara McCarthy at 11:43am June 24
I pretend they have just said something like, "Good morning! I hope you have a great day!" I'm not sure how this is received by the cat caller but I feel it doesn't let them get away with saying things sans response from the target, but said response is neither accepting nor rude, just kind of ambiguous. And then I go about my merry ... Read Moreway. That seems to work in America. In Suriname, because I won't have the advantage of speaking the language, I think I might go back to ignoring the rude people. Can't wait!

Chioma said...

haha this has been something I've heard Heather analyze since we were in Mozambique :) "ss sss Ola moça!!" I thought this was just something that happened to white women while abroad too. But imagine my surprise when this started happening to me here in N. Houston!! I would say that most of the men cat calling out their windows here, however, would be unashamed to mark response "C" in your survey!!

Anonymous said...

We Surinamese men like pretty things...And (most of) our women can appreciate the way we express admiration for their beauty. can be annoying. But most of us just want you to smile, wave and be on your your way.
And mind you that even the "ugly betties" get their share.

So next time you are in Suriname...enjoy the "psst.." and " hallo sweet thing" or whatever it is. It is never meant as an insult or anything negative. But act like you're all that when it happens...and it probably wont happen again. At least not with that bunch.