Monday, November 24, 2014

When Your Tween Gets Catcalled

As the grown woman in our family, somehow i thought it was only me who gets catcalled on the streets of Nicaragua.

And even then, not when my still-innocent tween daughter is in tow.

I started to notice the marked difference in attitudes between "sex object women" and "women who are mothers" when we first arrived here and i was still biking my daughter to school. In typical developing world fashion, we rode together on one bike, her seated side saddle on the rack we'd bought specifically for school commutes. It would be a relatively peaceful ride, albeit hot, as i pedaled up the slight incline that you encounter in Granada when moving away from Lake Cocibolca.

Ometepe island, Nicaragua -- with Lake Cocibolca on both sides
On the way back from dropping her at school, the ride would be easy and slightly downhill, but it was then the onslaughts would come.  The second she left, i lohhh yous, the beu-dee-fulls -- and the worst, the Latin American hiss, sort of sharp "sss" sounds -- would start. It's like clockwork. One second i am a mother cycling her daughter to school, the next i am an object of affection for every construction worker, driver and ambling walker i pass.

Like men all over the world, the men here seem to do it at the last possible moment, to me showing their cowardice -- to photographer Laurie Anderson, "forcing the woman to backtrack if she should dare to object." Her tactic was to photograph every man who catcalled her on the streets of 1970s New York. Then she made an art installation out of it. Brilliant. 

Forty years later, it is still happening all around the world, and is certainly a part of life in Latin America -- though a part many North American women learn to barely, seethingly tolerate. My approach is to ignore completely anyone who treats me that way. It might be part of their culture, but it is not mine, and in my mind catcallers don't deserve any sort of reaction at all. Part of me believes Latino men do it to foreign women more, just because they love to see our reactions. So i give them none, and i try to waste as little energy as possible on this ridiculous form of attention.

That is, until i heard it was happening to my 11-year old too. 

She told me one recent night at dinner that she's never been brave enough to stick her tongue out at people, even from cars when she and her friends were goofing around... but now that guys hiss at her or call her baby, she's not bashful about it anymore. Turns out, she's been getting hissed at while in the transport car that now takes her to school, and she's taken to using her tongue to show her disgust.

Ironically, i've given up biking her to school on the back of my bike, partly to avoid the heat and of course the daily hissing onslaught, and in turn, she's the one who's getting hissed at. She has a flash of lightning-blonde hair, and i can imagine that the men who see her passing hardly have time to recognize that she's a mere child. Or at least i hope that's the case, else my disgust erupt like a Nicaraguan volcano.

I told her my approach and reiterated my philosophy that people who give her unwanted attention or try to hook her attention for ill ends deserve none of her attention at all. I told her that boys and men who treat women with respect don't act like that. I reminded her that i never see older men, who apparently have enough wisdom to know better, do that, and that's because they've learned to respect women.

Beyond that i don't really know what else to say, because it's a situation that also confronts me every day.

Other times we talk about how to nail a man in the balls really, really hard with her knee if anyone ever tries to touch her. We go over my dad's old advice that the "head goes where the nose goes," and how to put two fingers in a person's nostrils and pull back. I try to tell her, at the same time, that violence begets more violence, and that those tactics are only last-ditch efforts to get away, not to be used unless you really, really need to.

Like every parent, i walk around with daily terror of the what-ifs and the fears that come with allowing your own heart to walk outside your body. In some ways Nicaragua is safer than the USA; in other ways it's not.

I am steeled a bit by organizations such as Hollaback! and Bitch Media, where people share stories and speak out against catcalling -- but alla that's not doing me much good when my baby is getting it daily, right now, in a taxi on the way to school.

For now, i sticking with the "ignore" tactic, trying my best to avoid trouble... but still, i ain't gonna object to my baby's coping strategy -- the glorious, defiant, hollaback tongue.


Rebs said...

When my child was born and the midwives announced 'it's a girl!', I actually felt bad. Because I know how HARD it is to be a girl. The catcalls and the breasts and the men telling us to smile.

At 9, I think she's safe from catcalls for a few years now, because she's mistaken for a boy more often than not. But I worry.

A friend of mine wrote this a few years ago when her 12 year old was catcalled at an intersection in downtown Toronto

#jessicahateshashtags said...

When I came to Reno the first time, I thought it would be sweet to walk Jeff to work downtown one day. On the way back, I was taking a photo of one of the many creepy old motel signs. An old truck pulled right up next to me, and hissed a dirty, faceless, "Hello," at me from inside. There have only been a few times where I have actually been propositioned as a hooker in my life, and every time it's the most degrading feeling on earth. But as I was stopped outside the Castaway Inn taking a photo with my phone, I immediately realized that was what was going on. And without even thinking, suddenly it came back to me how you treat those men. I turned and at the top of my pretty, polite, Midwestern blondie lungs -- without even thinking or hesitating -- I belted out from deep in my belly: "F*ck off!" Those tires squealed and that guy peeled off faster than he crept up behind me to solicit me. The whole intersection looked at that truck driving away, briefly looked at me, then went back to their business. And I walked home pissed off, but amazed that I even knew how to raise my voice that loud anymore. And I wasn't afraid or ashamed. I was really proud of myself, actually. Because he was the one who peeled off, and I stood my ground. I didn't run away. He did. I used my might, my voice, and my anger. And I won.

#jessicahateshashtags said...

Oh also, these:

Cat Calling Ain't the Rage in MSP

I Can't Lie, I Have a Thing For Flowcharts

(Also, I'm not promising these actually turn out as functioning hyperlinks! Kisses!)

Nico said...

Thanks for the info, Reb! And #jessicahateshashtags, i love that you did that. Here though, yelling like that is kinda not cool. Sure, it could make me feel good for a while, but people tend to laugh and make fun of the "weak" foreigners who can't handle the culture... so i still think it's best to say nothing, not looking their way, acting like they don't exist and not letting them know they bothered me...

#jessicahateshashtags said...

Man, back in the US, yelling your lungs out at a rapistmobile takes guts. The peer pressure down there at all ages and genders sounds oppressive to me. No maid service is worth having to silence yourself when you know something is unjust, my love... Boys like seeing tongue. They think that's flirtatious. Being cussed out on the corner? There's no mistaking they crossed a line with that. And even when I had my fancy jobs, and had maid service in those hotels Monday through Wednesday, there was still nothing better than sleeping in my own bed with the cats when I was home every weekend... Have you and baby bear made your pro and con lists yet? That was how I could always tell when all the cash in the world wasn't worth it anymore, both the need to make such a list itself, and the contents of the columns.