Au Revoir to Street Smiles: Harassment Abroad

Every morning in Aix-en-Provence, I
am regaled with a chorus of bonjours. It isn’t exactly as pleasant as
the opening song in Beauty and the Beast—although I have been serenaded on the way to school. Each bonjour is accompanied by leering eyes,
kissing noises and an occasional obstruction to my path on the sidewalk.
Catcalling is so common in France, in fact, that our
program director spent half an hour giving advice how to deal with it on the very first day of orientation.

While I realize the prevalence of street harassment throughout the world, I was surprised that a country
that recently passed an incredibly progressive gender equality bill would have
such a serious issue. I thought France was famous for its language of romance,
not derision. On that first day of my study abroad program, I was taught that whenever I walk alone—both during the day and the night—I must mask any facial expression, avoid all eye contact, refrain from “enticing clothing” and never, under any circumstances, smile.

My fellow Scripps students and I initially found this advice sexist, outdated and completely ridiculous. How could a university program
that teaches Simone de Beauvoir promote these backward ways of navigating space
as a woman? Later in my first week, however, I accidentally bumped into a man on
a sunny afternoon, uttered a polite pardon with a smile and was then forced to quickly dart onto another street in an attempt to get him to stop following me. Though unnerved, I still had
no idea that we would deal with this chauvinism on a daily basis, and I
would actually adhere to the advice from orientation.

It’s incredibly challenging to
recognize that this is still the cultural norm in France, a country that affords a much higher level of economic and
social equality to women than most. I’m
constantly reminded how I’m privileged to live in the safe city of
Aix-en-Provence, but what would my experience be like in a larger city in
another region of the world? Despite popular rhetoric in France broadcasting abundant opportunities and equal rights for women, well-informed young students and
old men alike engage in street harassment, and it doesn’t look like their habit is
going away any time soon.

Don’t get me wrong. I am having an
amazing time in the south of France. I love living in a city that is more than 2000
years old, traveling, speaking French, profiting from the concept of an apéro, eating bread at
every single meal and truly engaging with the local culture. I even get to
enjoy free entrance and drinks once a week at a discothèque filled with drunken
teenage girls and older, slightly creepy men. Those free drinks, though? Nice, but I’d give them up for just a week without catcalling.

Shelby Wax SC ’16 is an English major with a minor in media studies. She’s currently studying how to say the common French greeting, coucou, without dissolving into a fit of giggles afterward. 

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