I had the pleasure of spending my summer studying language in France. Only one incident disturbed my reverie: I got groped. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. I have traveled to the Middle East, Southeast Asia and West Africa. Men have said things to me on the street before but no one has ever touched me. One night in June, I was walking to meet a friend at the subway stop around 10 pm, just after sunset in Lyon. I followed the same route, through a slightly rough neighborhood, which I took every day to get to school. I’d been warned to pay attention at night in this neighborhood but didn’t worry too much since I would only be there for about 10 minutes. As I approached the station, a man crossed the sidewalk, grabbed my chest and walked away laughing. I was shocked.
Not only was I shocked that a stranger felt he had the right to invade my personal space, but also I was shocked at my reaction. While I felt an externally focused anger at him, I also felt an internally focused guilt. My mind immediately jumped to the question “What did I do to provoke this?” Was my outfit too revealing? Should I have even been in this neighborhood? I was wearing a knee-length dress and a long sleeved sweater but the fact that I asked shows that I have internalized a “blame the victim” mentality. Whether I should have been in that neighborhood alone at night is a thorny question. In an ideal world, I would be able to walk anywhere at any time of day without a problem. Knowing that we sadly do not live in an ideal world, I tried to use my best judgment. In France, I didn’t worry about walking in that particular neighborhood at night partly because I was relying on general compliance with social norms that recognize sexual harassment as an unacceptable behavior and often a crime. While France has its share of sexism with its acceptance of overbearing male attention and marital infidelity, sexual harassment is recognized as an offense and the National Assembly recently strengthened its sexual harassment law. 
This incident made me feel vulnerable. It seems simple but I had never really felt truly vulnerable in the past where I couldn’t protect my physical safety and I couldn’t reasonably expect others to respect it. Why? By virtue of being a woman and being alone. That night, I asked a fellow (male) student to walk me home. I felt like an inconvenience and a child. He was more than happy to walk me but I just wished that I could walk around with the same liberty as him.
This truly was a minor incident in the scheme of things. I could (and did) avoid that neighborhood at night for the rest of the summer. However for many women, the space where they feel vulnerable is not just one neighborhood. It’s their entire society. They are subjected to harassment simply by trying to participate as full citizens due to a social acceptance of these behaviors. In many societies where there are no laws against sexual harassment and accepted as routine, it can inhibit women’s ability to transport herself across town or graduate from school. For example, the Burma CEDAW shadow report in 2008 describes how “women and girls interviewed revealed how they had been touched and groped sexually by men in crowded buses and other public places, including by men they knew well. Most women and girls keep silent when they suffer such harassment because they think it is shameful to talk about this to other people, and feel guilty and afraid that people will look down on them and gossip about them”. 
The situation was similar in Lebanon in 2010 according to a Freedom House report where women, “are often subjected to gender-based harassment outside the home, most often in the form of sexual harassment on the street and at work. Victims prefer to confide only in people close to them and are made to feel ashamed should they decide to report such incidents to the police, who often do not know how to deal with these issues”. 
The current situation is even worse in Swaziland according to a State Department report, “Legal provisions against sexual harassment were vague, and government enforcement was ineffective; no cases have ever been brought to court. There were frequent reports of sexual harassment, most often of female students by teachers. Numerous teachers and some principals were fired during the year for inappropriate sexual conduct with students. Some teachers threatened students with poor grades if they did not provide sexual favors to them”. 
The experience of studying the status of women around the world is very different from experiencing it firsthand. I can’t compare the vulnerability I felt from one minor incident compared to the horrors that so many women around the world endure. Yet, I have a deeper understanding of the women who feel powerless in the face of harassment. They’ve calculated that the best choice is to avoid it; the same calculation that I made when I avoided that metro stop. I am now even more amazed by women around the world who willingly face harassment to change their societies for the better.
1. “French parliament adopts sexual harassment law”. August 1, 2012. Accessed online at: http://www.france24.com/en/20120801-france-parliament-unanimously-adopts-new-law-sexual-harassment
2. Hudson, Valerie M., Mary Caprioli, Chad Emmett, Rose McDermott, S. Matthew Stearmer, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, “WomanStats Codebook,” http://www.womanstats.org/CodebookCurrent.htm, [August 22, 2012].