When my being a woman wasn’t defined as “not man”

I recently had the privilege of speaking at a feminist conference in Zagreb organized by CESI, the Center for Education, Counseling and Research, a human rights-oriented non-governmental organization that has a strong women’s rights focus. Like any type-A-personality international traveler, I researched things to do and see in the city, as well as traveling conditions for women.

Earlier in the year, I had been fortunate to have spent time in Morocco, Jordan and the Middle East with a mixed-gender group as part of an international cultural exchange fellowship organized by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations. During that trip, I noticed that the looks from men whom our group passed on the streets varied based on whether we were all together as a mixed-gender group compared to a few women walking together versus any one of us women walking alone. So as I prepared for my solo trip to Zagreb, I wanted to know what to anticipate when traveling to a corner of the world that would be new to me.

While women’s traveling blogs told me Zagreb is a generally safe place for women traveling alone, I wasn’t fully prepared for what it would feel like. This blog, originally posted on Huffington Post, is my attempt to capture the experience.

I have a confession to make. My second night in Zagreb, Croatia’s capitol, I did something shameful. Something I never would have done in the United States….

It’s a desire to avoid lectures [and recriminations] about how my decision-making could have led to risks to my safety and well-being that has stopped me from telling everyone what I did that second night in Zagreb. Until now.

I walked home. Alone. After dark. A little over an hour before midnight. In a foreign city. Where I didn’t know one word of Croatian. Not “thief” or “fire” to draw an instinctive response, rather than “help,” as self-defense instructors have taught as a tactic to increase the likelihood that someone will be willing to become tangled in a complete stranger’s problem. 

I had no map in my head estimating the distance to the nearest well-lit gas station or hotel or other building where people would be if a man approached me or followed me and made me uncomfortable.

I didn’t walk with keys staggered between my fingers, ready to gouge some man’s flesh, should he attempt to grab me.

I’m not ashamed of walking home alone after dark, or my decision to do so in the first place. I had tested my comfort of the city the night before, getting a sense for which were the main streets and how often public transit swept people along the more frequently-used corridors.

What shames me is that I felt more comfortable doing this in Zagreb than anywhere I’ve been in the country I call my own.

In every city in United States that I’ve visited or lived in, I’ve been made painfully aware that if I’m alone when the sun goes down, I don’t feel safe walking more than just a few blocks on my own. If I have to walk much farther than 3 or 4 blocks, I subconsciously tick through each of the defensive tactics to protect myself that has been drilled into me since before I graduated high school: Scan my surroundings. Take note of whether there’s a lone man in front of me. Is he walking erratically? Is he slowing his pace to let me catch up so he can distract me with conversation? Is there a group of men behind me? Are they drunk? Maybe high on testosterone, trying to impress each other by taunting the woman walking alone at night? What’s the most direct path to my destination? Are there lights along the entire route? What about places to duck in where other people will be if I feel threatened and need the cover of a group? Am I ready to feign unconsciousness to become deadweight if a man grabs me from behind? Are my soles hard enough to cause pain by unexpectedly kicking backwards into the man’s shin?

Walking alone to my hotel in Zagreb after a late-night meal felt at first like an act of defiance, to test myself and my own willingness to not be cowed in a foreign country…. [But] that feeling faded so quickly I hardly recognized it — because I was overwhelmed by my own feeling of invisibility. That’s the only way to describe what it felt like once I realized that the men I passed on the street weren’t noting my approach. They weren’t stopping mid-conversation to watch my progress as they would a ball being passed during a football game. They didn’t scan me from head to toe as though estimating my measurements. They weren’t staring out of the passing tram’s windows at me like I was an animal at a zoo, swiveling their heads to catch as much of my journey as possible before being swept on to the next attraction along the tram’s route.

I felt like I wasn’t even there for them to notice.

When another woman passed me from behind, there was the same non-response from the man approaching us from the opposite direction.

It’s jarring to realize that night in Zagreb that to others out on the street that night, I was just another person. I was not a woman, different from the men I passed.

After getting back to my hotel, I realized I wasn’t prepared to not guess how many men would attempt to start a conversation with me, ogle me, catcall or otherwise interfere with my solitary walk, alone, in the dark, as happens when I’m at home. More than that, I was angry: Angry that in my country, a man’s aggressive interference in a woman’s walk down the street is normal. Angry that when a woman does walk home, alone, in the dark, just an hour shy of midnight, her decision-making is questioned, rather than condemning only the ogling, cat-calling, conversing, grabbing or molesting by men whom she passes.

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