Sunday, 7 December 2014

Wolf-whistles, cat-calls and the lost art of conversation

The time has long come for me to write something about Colombia's cultural attitudes. This week, I'd like to touch on a subject that affects my life on a daily basis here, and yet to many seems widely insignificant - street harassment.

Stop and smile: how things should be
Photo Credit: Kelly Taveras
Just to outline the situation: it is virtually impossible here for a young woman to walk in the street alone without receiving a variety of wolf-whistles, cat-calls and/or other unwelcome greetings as she goes along. Now, I am all for a pleasant compliment, or a bit of nice conversation to brighten up the day, but after 10 minutes of stares, mumblings and random phrases I am already fed up, and I haven't even got to the bus stop yet. What's more, the majority of men (unfortunately, this is definitely a one-gender issue) who do it, do so in a very cowardly manner - either they call from across the street, or say 'good morning' to you - something I am normally quite happy with - when you are on the point of walking past, in such a way that it is impossible to respond without stopping and doing a 180 degree turn. They are obviously not looking for conversation.

In fact, it is this attitude that is the most disturbing. I have, on several occasions, asked the cat-callers to stop, and clearly showed my discomfort with the situation, but this seems to have no effect. They simply don't care. Which makes me wonder what the point of all this harassment is in the first place. If the objective is not to get my attention, what is the purpose? I can only deduce that it is some kind of personal gratification, to see the object of your attentions looking uncomfortable and walk just that little bit faster. One of the more disconcerting experiences is simply simply to be stared at, without relief, the whole time you are walking past. This is obviously not in order to pay you a compliment - how could it be? - and I do not enjoy it. Just because I am female and look somewhat different to the normal female physique in Barranquilla, does not give you the right to look at me as if I were a piece of meat (and this doesn't only happen to foreigners, may just I point out).

On this vein, I don't appreciate being called 'gringa' (which I am not), or being yelled at in English - or even German - due to my white skin and blonde hair. Lose the stereotypes, people! I have a (white) Argentine friend who has possibly even more right to be annoyed when people speak to her in English without asking first - apparently, there are no other types of white people in the world than Americans. I don't think I'm far off the mark when I say this is racism. There is a big difference between someone who is genuinely interested in having conversation with you about where you're from and someone yelling, 'Hey, American girl!' across the street.

The sad truth is that things don't need to be like this. I am perfectly happy to stop and chat with someone on the street who is willing to chat about what I'm doing here, and how I'm enjoying my time in Barranquilla - and that does happen (people here are generally very friendly). But those who don't ruin it for the others. Don't hide behind your prejudices and stare at me from a 100m distance. And ask me first before you speak to me in English! My Spanish is just fine, thanks.

Now, I know that the people I want to speak to are very unlikely to ever come across this post - I wouldn't be friends with them on Facebook, for a start - but let it be an indication of how much this world needs equality. This is not just a problem that affects Colombia, as you can see in this video made in Manhattan about the very same issue, and it is not just this one thing - there are hundreds of others that are yet to be dealt with. As Emma Watson mentioned in her recent speech about gender equality at the UN, "All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing" (Edmund Burke). So, good people, do something. Thank you.

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