About a month ago, I woke myself up screaming:
¡Váyase de mi cuarto! ¡Váyase de mi cuarto! (Get out of my room!)
I lay awake on my back for a few bleary moments, allowing my dream world to ebb away and the reality of my room to sink in. A strange man was not trying to enter into my room, as I had been dreaming. I could feel the hard springs of my mattress beneath me, the overwhelming darkness around me, the full silence after someone has yelled into the night lingering in the air. I breathed a sigh of relief. I was alone and safe in my bed. I rolled over and went back to sleep.
The next day, I talked to my host mom over coffee at the kitchen table. “I heard you screaming last night,” she said. “What happened?” I grimaced inwardly, wondering at the best way to explain my unconscious actions and conscious feelings. “The most difficult thing about living here, for me, ” I began, “is machismo.” I am not used to a culture that accepts such blatant harassment of women. I still have not adjusted to receiving catcalls, in English and in Spanish, about my appearance and my body every time I leave my house to go anywhere. I have tried to learn how to put on a mask of passivity, to protect myself against the feelings of anger and fear with every comment. Despite my efforts, the damaging effects of living in a machista culture still manifest when I am sleeping.
I have come to accept that dealing with catcalls will be my constant battle during my time in Nicaragua. I have experimented with all kinds of responses to try to find what feels and works best for me to accept and at least feel at peace with the situation. I have made silly faces at harassers, sneered, pretended to vomit, shouted, snarled. None of these consistently leaves me feeling good. Maybe it’s nice to express the anger I feel at the time, but it doesn’t lead to feelings of satisfaction or peace. In addition to a variety of responses, I find it helps to talk to friends about my experiences. The advice of Nicaraguan women is always to learn to ignore it. My best friend here, Martha, recently told me a saying: Cada mañana antes de salir me unto aceite para que todo lo que me digan para ofenderme se me resale (Every morning before I leave I put oil on myself so that everything people say to offend me rolls off). “You have to learn to be strong in Nicaragua and not let people’s words affect you,” she tells me. I know Martha has my best interests in mind and just wants me to feel happy, but I want to insist on being angry: street harassment leads to violence! If men feel entitled to objectify women, they will then feel entitled to physically harm them, because women are no longer humans when they are seen as objects. I am not an object. I am not a thing. I am a PERSON and as a human I deserve respect, as do all women in Nicaragua and the world.
I want to be clear that while street harassment appears much more rampant, in my perception, in Nicaragua, the objectification of women occurs all over the world. My sister is harassed by men when she goes running in one of the beautiful parks of Brooklyn. My friend endures catcalls while walking and working in London. We do not need reminding of the despicable comments regarding women made by President Trump. The widespread acceptance of such treatment towards women enrages me and makes me more impassioned than ever to fight back.
So what is the best way to respond? What is the best way to fight back? For me, my response depends entirely on the specific situation: whether the man is drunk, whether he is in a moving vehicle, how I happen to feel that day. A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), Alba, wrote an excellent guide to responding to street harassment, featured here on the GAD blog. Her recommendations serve well on a personal and day-to-day basis for any woman living in Nicaragua, and other places as well.
As far as the large-scale fight against machismo, the patriarchy, and the objectification of women goes, I am encouraged by the many different types of responses to street harassment. There is a fantastic Mexican Punk Rock band that shoots confetti guns at street harassers, while calling them out on the offense through powerful, angry song. Eleanor Gordon-Smith, an Australian reporter on the radio program This American Life recently took to the streets of Sydney to interview men about why they catcall, and attempted to explain to them why it can cause so much damage. My fellow Peace Corps Volunteers have addressed harassment here in Nicaragua on the radio and through ongoing discussions.
I am delighted by the responses of so many passionate and intelligent women (and men), but I also feel discouraged by how much of an impact it has on my mental health, without my even realizing it. But the only things to do is to carry on in my own personal little battle. While ignoring harassers does work most of the time, and even has a power in itself in not even acknowledging the perpetrator, sometimes I feel better to at least reply with: “leave me alone” or “don’t speak to me like that.” Most importantly, I want to raise awareness about the harmful impact harassment has on so many women and I want to continue participating in dialogue about it. We all just want to feel safe everywhere we walk in the world. Creepy men may still make it into my nightmares, but in my day dreams, I am fighting them all back.
This image, and the “Rosie the Riveter” image, were created by American-Panamanian artist Debi Hasky, who’s work addresses women’s empowerment and women’s rights.