Dealing with Street Harassment in Guadeloupe

March 18, 2016
Dealing with Street Harassment in Guadeloupe

First, I want to preface that Guadeloupe is pretty safe. As safe as much of America. I’ve been warned about some of the local dangers, about pick-pockets, bike thieves and reckless drivers. To me, however, how safe I feel generally depends on the aggressiveness of everyday gendered harassment.

By that measure, Guadeloupe is the safest place I’ve ever lived. Now to the nuance. Because there are levels.

Because I’m mixed race, I blend in here. Unless I wear one of my bolder lip colors, hardly anyone notices me. When they do, I get the usual “tu es belle” (you’re beautiful) as I breeze past. The most irritating encounters have happened at bus stops. Twice, a guy came up to me to ask if I were waiting for a bus.

A convenient opening salvo. From there, conversation dissolves into tu es belle, where are you from, can I have your number, do you have a boyfriend (not necessarily in that order). Like most American women, I was socialized to not offend the menfolk, to let them down easy, with subtlety, or to uneasily acquiesce until I found an emergency exit. I’m working on that.

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One brilliant thing about living abroad, is that it’s an opportunity to do things differently. The second bus stop harasser caught me on a bad day, and if I had missed my bus because he couldn’t see that I wasn’t there to play, I may have kicked him in the shin. To avoid that scenario, and dealing with the French law enforcement, I told him that he was bothering me. Vous me dérangez. I didn’t know what to expect in return. To my surprise, the man apologized, said bonne journée (have a good day), and left! And he never touched me. Not once.

When in public, I put on my headphones and walk fast. If a guy on the street starts talking to me, my face rearranges into a scowl that has disturbed even my best friends. These are tactics I’ve honed over years of being acutely aware that a man may suddenly decide to take liberties with my body. I also have the option of evasion. When I’m not in the classroom, a safe space, I can roam.

The harassment that local women face every day shouldn’t be downplayed, though. Unlike a shopkeeper, I do not have to stay cornered while a man makes advances, and repeatedly demands my number. I don’t have kids to look out for, meaning that I can’t make a quick get-away. Because I am a temporary resident, I don’t have roots here. I have nothing to lose by offending or ignoring men.

These are tactics I’ve honed over years of being acutely aware that a man may suddenly decide to take liberties with my body.

The experiences of the other female teaching assistants in my program have been interesting. All of them are white, a fact that has resulted in vastly different experiences with street harassment. Because they are white, people here assume they are French and from La Métropole, or Metropolitan France.

They are also assumed to be tourists, here to let loose and act irresponsibly. I notice how much more attention they get, how many more times I hear les belles (beautiful women) and les filles (girls). Worse, I hear more of a spectacularly grating sound, like a cross between kissy noises and tongue clicks used to call a dog.

Every woman has heard tips from friends, mothers, sisters, etc on how to respond to such behaviour. No one way is correct. Walking away works in Guadeloupe. Being direct about how bothersome a man is being seems to work, too. But ignoring them may not get them to stop.

And explaining how their actions are unwelcome, even perceived as threatening? Forget it. They pretend to take you seriously while laughing at you. So I thought, why take them seriously? Why not be ridiculous right back at them? Don’t worry if you don’t speak enough French or Creole to express your frustration. Anger is a language spoken and understood everywhere.


Top photo by Pixabay.

About Ima Oduok

Ima is a writer, translator, and world traveler. She originates from the swamplands of Houston, TX which also serves as her launchpad into the wider world.

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