Friday, 9 May 2014

Amusing anecdote or feminist problem?

pic from sciencepenguin.com
I wasn't going to blog about this. I was just going to let it slide, leave it as an amusing anecdote and one of my more-liked facebook statuses. But the more I've thought about the encounter I experienced a couple of days ago, the more it's got me contemplating some serious feminist issues.

It may be because I've just watched the brilliant documentary Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes but I'm feeling compelled to share my story with you. Here's what happened:

...

It was nearly 8pm and I was at the market hoping to pick up something delicious for my dinner. I stopped by the African stall and was contemplating getting a portion of their tasty curry while talking to the man serving me. This is a slightly condensed version of our conversation (which was all in French, so he already had the upper hand.)

Me: "Sorry but I think 10€ is a bit too expensive for me." [Why did I feel the need to apologise for that?]
Him: "I could do you a deal. How much do you want to pay?"
Me: "Five euros?"
Him: "I'll do that for you, as a new customer."
Me: "Thanks, that's very kind."
Him: "So, what's your name?"
Me: "Rachel."
Him: [Tells me his name.] "Where are you from?"
Me: "England."
Him: "Do you live round here at the moment?"
Me: "Yeah, not too far."
Him: "What are you doing in Brussels?"
Me: "I'm an intern."
Him: "So how long are you here for?"
Me: "A few more months."
Him: "Do you have a phone number?"
Me: [Quite taken aback at this question.] "Um... Well, no actually. I only have an English one at home." [A lie.]
Him: "Are you married?"
Me: [I was quite shocked at this.] "No." 
Him: "Are you engaged?"
Me: "No. But I have a boyfriend at home." [A lie.]
Him: "Is he English or French?"
Me: "English."
Him: "Well I'm still interested..."
[I wasn't sure what to respond to this so didn't say anything.]
Him: "Are you on Facebook?"
Me: "No, actually. It's, um,  a question of privacy." [A lie.]
Him: "Do you have an email address?"
Me: "Well only my work one..." [Yet another lie.]
Him: "So you really don't have a phone number?!"

And at that point I paid for my curry, said thank you and left.

...

Afterwards, I felt very shaky, and it wasn't till I'd walked away that I realised how uncomfortable I'd felt. I deliberately made sure not to walk back past his stall, and the ridiculous thing is that I'm now nervous to go back to the market for fear of seeing him again.

At first, it had seemed like an amusing incident. You know, the sort of thing you'd come away from, roll your eyes and think 'Geez, some men don't know how to take a hint', while chuckling to yourself. In fact, after putting the story on facebook I got 50 likes and lots of comments, the majority of which were people expressing their amusement.

And it kind of is funny. Why didn't the man get the hint that I wasn't interested? Ha ha ha. Why did he ask for my phone number again? Ha ha ha.

Except now let's think about it a bit more.

This is not the first time something like that has happened to me, and I'm certainly not the first girl it's happened to. Is it sexism? Does it ever happen the other way round? It's hard to imagine, isn't it?

I only got one facebook comment that seemed to read the incident in a serious way - one female friend suggested I post the story on Everyday Sexism, which I duly did. We can debate what sexism is forever, but this site hasn't half brought the debate to the fore. And it's a great thing too.

However, I think the main thing to take away from this incident is not the way the man acted, but the way I responded. 

The day after I posted my facebook status, another friend sent me a link to this blog: Stop Saying "I have a boyfriend" in which the author says women need to stop saying they have boyfriends to fend off unwanted male attention. And I'll admit, it's a line I've used multiple times.

The author says if that's the only line we can use to make men get the hint and back off, then we're essentially saying men "respect another male-bodied person more than they respect your rejection/lack of interest."

I think the article raises a very good point. The thing is, it's easier said than done. And in my case, pretending to have a boyfriend didn't make a difference to the man anyway.

But it made me ask myself, 'Why didn't I feel like I could just say "I'm not interested"'?

In reality, it's not that easy to say that to someone. I wanted to be polite. I hoped that by saying I had a boyfriend the man would stop pushing me and I'd be saved from outright rejecting his advances and making the situation awkward (a very British problem, I'm sure you'll agree.) I should've been confident enough to tell him he was asking far too personal questions. But I wasn't and I didn't.

I may have felt uncomfortable throughout, yet by avoiding bluntly telling him I wasn't interested, I saved him feeling uncomfortable. 

Does that seem right?

Is it an ingrained male dominance thing?

Or am I reading too far into this?

You could also say I shouldn't really complain about the way I was spoken to yet still accept the discounted curry. Although he said it was because I was a new customer, I find it hard to believe he'd have been so generous was I an old man. I may be wrong, but I doubt it. More likely is he was trying to butter me up before making his advances. And when I accepted the discount, I - perhaps naively - thought he was just being nice. 

And maybe I am guilty of trying to have it all - most times I go to a market I come away with a free passion fruit or a punnet of blueberries that the friendly market stall men have thrown in with the rest of my groceries. But I don 't know if this is because I'm a 21 year old girl, or whether it's just something they do. And what am I supposed to say? "Please remove that passion fruit from my bag, actually. Save your kindness for some other poor student"?

...

Should I just be flattered, thankful for my curry and accept that things like this happen? I mean, I'm sure it was just a harmless (and very poor) attempt at flirting... Or should I read further into this incident and try and reform how I act the next time something similar occurs?

How would you have acted? I'd be keen to know your thoughts so let me know.
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15 comments

  1. I really appreciate your honesty and the way you thought about the situation sincerely. Thinking about it and identifying it as problematic and possibly sexist will help you recognize the next potential situation and you will find easier and more comfortable ways for you to react to this. What we need is more awareness and probably also a more critical mind. Thanks for sharing this and your thoughts about it.
    -Anna

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    1. I think you're right, thanks, Anna.

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  2. Has the world really come to this...
    In 20 years maybe men wont even be able to talk to women without getting written clearance from the minister for women first.

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    Replies
    1. It wasn't the fact that he spoke her that was the problem! I for one don't have an issue with stallholders being friendly and chatting (though I have to say as a Brit I still find it awkward!) But this guy was making advances (probably based solely on appearance since he didn't even know her) in an inappropriate situation (food shopping... what?) and what's more he was uncomfortably persistent. What Rachel's talking about here is the issue of her not feeling like he would respect her lack of interest or her decision not to give her number to a male stranger she bought a curry from (totally legit decision I think!) But the reality is that even if she'd felt courageous enough to tell him she wasn't interested outright (easier said than done) then the response would likely have been the same, or even "Don't be so full of yourself I didn't mean it like that" (seen many times on the everyday sexism project website), which is just a ploy to try and make her feel guilty or embarrassed.

      I think what the "world is coming to" is hopefully a place where men can recognise an inappropriate way or situation to make advances to a woman, and where a woman feels comfortable expressing a lack of interest without fear. Not really rocket science, and doesn't actually endanger men's ability/permission to talk to women, unless they're being inappropriate (something you have to learn in order to function in adult society)

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    2. Thanks both for your comments, and Anon 2, I completely agree.

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    3. Anon 1, this post is related to feminism, which is equality for all. This is just a girl's experience, but it's still not a pleasant experience for a guy, and if anything he would possibly be ridiculed if he complained about a woman making similar advances.

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    4. Femenism is not about equality. Its about everything being done on womens terms.
      And unfortunatley there are too many people nowadays who read a badly written article in the Guardian or The Independant and start calling themselves femenists without actually knowing who they are giving a mandate to. When i ask most young people who call themselves femenists who their favourite femenist authors and intellectuals are they have no idea. And i imagine if they knew the things that modern femenists say and do they would not be so happy.

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  3. Yes, yes and yes. So pleased you blogged about this. xx

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  4. While you were able to almost laugh it off, many people (not just girls) would be really affected by being harassed in a second language, by a stranger, in a foreign country, alone. I'm glad that you're okay, but I hope that in future you can get someone to visit the market with you for a bit of reassurance if you need it.

    I think you handled it perfectly by being gracious and polite, because regardless of your gender you were still the vulnerable one in that situation, and that man was wrong to make you uncomfortable.

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  5. The questions were too personal and each time when that happens we are caught off guard. You handled it well, but it is a disgrace that we have to be very alert all the time. Men should learn to be more respectful.

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  6. I've lost count of the number of times that I've given out fake numbers instead of saying I'm not interested, in case they say they didn't mean it like that and I end up even more embarrassed. After reading your article and the one you linked to, I have resolved to never use awful or untrue excuses again and just be nice and honest.

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    Replies
    1. Glad you know where I'm coming from and good luck with the new stance! X

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