Just when you thought I was gone forever…

// 4 January 2008

The more eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed a distinct lack of posts from me recently. This is not because I have seen the light and decided to abandon my stint at The F-Word for a career as a glamour model. It is because I have spent the last six weeks in Central America eating termites, climbing active volcanoes, drinking “local” alcohol purchased in old Pepsi bottles from street vendors of questionable personal hygiene and other such dangerous activities after which I am probably lucky to have escaped only with a broken toe and an unexplained rash. However, before I departed on my big dangerous adventure, I did promise our fearless editor that I would return with as much feminist-type stuff to write about as possible.

I had of course had fantastic visions of securing killer interviews with downtrodden indigenous women who had undergone forced sterilisation, teenagers who didn’t know what a condom was, people whose relatives had died from back-street abortions and stuffy politicians who thought that women should all go back to the cocina and make them some gallopinto. Unfortunately, the fact that I was more inclined to climb volcanoes than to ask random women about abortion laws, and the fact that my Spanish is far from fluent, meant that I returned with nothing quite so spectacular. I do however have some (rather crude and elementary) musings about young Central American men and their attitudes to women.

The last time I travelled outside Europe was to Egypt where, as I’m sure many readers are aware, harrassment of women, and Western women in particular, is a serious problem. My friends and I couldn’t walk down the street without enduring gangs of men hissing at us, shouting lewd things, groping us, oblivious to the word “no” in any language. That wasn’t the worst of it though: I was extremely lucky to escape from a tour guide who tried to drag me into a cave and take my clothes off – without a lot of luck and a good backfist strike I’m certain I would have been raped. So I’m sure you can appreciate that I was a little apprehensive about travelling to Latin America, where I had heard that the men had something of a “Casanova” reputation.

I’m pleased to say that in Central America, my experiences suggest that this reputation is unjustified. The frequency with which men showed an interest in me was certainly greater than it is at home, but that interest was expressed in a thoroughly wholesome fashion. Generally speaking a man would come up and introduce himself, conduct a bit of small talk and ask me if I wanted to go out for a drink with him that evening. When I politely declined, he would simply say goodbye and wish me a pleasant stay in his country. At no point did I feel pressurised or intimidated by anyone who came on to me. In London, men often seem to express an interest in me by following me home, shouting lewd things, staring in an aggressive manner, not taking no for an answer and thus forcing me to be rude, calling me names when I tell them I’m not interested, and then there are always those lovely rape threats to contend with. Although I heard many female travellers complain about the number of men trying to chat them up, I’d much rather take a hundred Mexican “Casanovas” than one creepy guy who follows me home from the Tube station. These are generalisations of course, but as a trend I didn’t find the amorous attentions of the men I met out there anywhere near as obnoxious as those of some of the lowlifes I have to contend with back home.

There was one thing in particular that I wasn’t madly keen on about Central American men though: they seem to think that women are incapable of doing ANYTHING without their help. And I mean anything. It doesn’t offend my feminist sensibilities in the slightest if a man helps me carry something heavy, unscrews a jar for me or fetches me something off a high shelf, but insisting on taking my hand as I climb down a flight of steps? Or helping me with the massively demanding task of walking round a corner? I used to be a gymnast for heaven’s sake! At first, I found this mildly amusing. I didn’t really mind – they were just trying to be helpful, and it seemed rude and ungrateful to scowl and say that I was perfectly capable of doing it on my own, thank you. But after a few days, it began to wear extremely thin. It wasn’t the implication of female incompetence that got to me, but the constant unwanted physical contact. The guiding arms in the small of my back, the grasping hands, the complete strangers insisting on touching me, however innocent and non-sexual it was. I don’t enjoy being touched by strangers, and it set my nerves on edge trying to sidestep all of the outstretched “helping” hands. Alas, the men also seemed much more inclined to offer such chivalry to young, attractive women than to older ones. At one point as a few of us were getting onto a boat, I was behind a sixtysomething woman who was carrying a big rucksack and who would probably have been grateful of a helping hand. But it was me whose hand was taken as I walked onto the boat, not hers. I don’t know if this guy expected me to be impressed with his act of “chivalry”, or if holding some Gringa’s hand for five seconds was the nearest he’d come to getting his rocks off all year, but either way I wasn’t impressed.

Then there were just annoying little incidents that demonstrated perceived female inferiority. At one point I went on a riding excursion and despite telling the guide that I had been riding since I was a child and could easily handle a forward-going horse, I was assigned a geriatric pony who was apt to fall asleep every five minutes whilst a less experienced male companion struggled to rein in the equine equivalent of Speedy Gonzales. Whenever it came to negotiating with taxi drivers, they were only interested in speaking to the guys. The general feeling I got was that the men out there liked women and certainly didn’t wish them any harm, but didn’t believe them as intelligent or capable as men. As a woman, I was viewed as a sort of oversized child with delusions of adult competence. However, at no point did I feel like screaming or beating anybody over the head with a hardback copy of The Second Sex, so it can’t have been that bad.

Although all of the countries I visited were more inherently patriarchal than Britain, it didn’t seem that attitudes towards women in general were any worse overall than they are at home. It would be interesting to see if I still had that view after living there for a while, rather than simply visiting. To a visitor, gender disparity doesn’t stand out as a massive problem, and yet in countries (Nicaragua and El Salvador. Oh, and Chile too, but I’ve never been there so can’t comment) where women are denied abortions for ANY reason, it’s impossible to see how this could not be the case. And the fact that I have returned home with lots to say about Central American men but nothing to say about the women is significant. I simply didn’t meet any women at all, other than the ones who were trying to sell me handicrafts in the street with five kids in tow. Perhaps the reason that patriarchy doesn’t stand out as a massive problem over there is that the people oppressed by it don’t have a voice. It’s all very interesting and I wish I had more to say about it.

For now however, I am content to come back down to earth and resume the enjoyable task of helping to bring F-Word readers all the best in feminist-related reading material. A happy new year to you all!

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