THURSTON: How studying abroad made me a feminist

Every day this summer, it felt like another woman was sharing her story of being harassed on the street. There were accounts from high schoolers on the teen blog Rookie and first person articles on jezebel.com. Then, in August, filmmaker Sofie Peeters documented the catcalls she received throughout her day in Brussels, and the video hit a nerve across Europe. And for the first time, I was angry about it.

Yale has afforded me the opportunity to live and work abroad for nearly a third of the time I’ve been a student here — in London, Rome, Madrid, Athens, the United Arab Emirates and many countries in between. I go because I love it, and because these experiences will help me get a job in nine months.

At odds with the excitement of living in new places and new cultures, however, has been the dreary normalcy of street harassment no matter where I go: getting my butt slapped by a passing biker at 9 a.m. in Barcelona, long invasive stares in Sharjah despite layers of shapeless clothing, getting approached on the metro day after day, country after country, in language after language. The content of the harassment doesn’t really matter here (although it matters massively that women keep talking about it) so much as the relentlessness and pervasiveness of that harassment.

As I’ve talked to my female friends who have also studied and worked in various places around the world, the fact that harassment is a problem universal to women, regardless of race, nationality and sexual orientation has only become more obvious. A friend working in Morocco told me about having her crotch grabbed by strangers on the street in full daylight while no one batted an eye.

A friend studying in Bristol, England wasn’t allowed to walk across parts of campus at night because she was told matter-of-factly that she would “probably get raped.”

Another spoke rapturously about her year in India but also remembered “standing in front of the Taj Mahal and being nothing but mad, just because of what some stranger had said earlier that day.”

And every girl I’ve ever met who’s been to Paris comes home with more harassment stories than photographs of pastries on Instagram. These stories are the same in China, Brazil, Canada and Kenya. And also in the United States.

This is insane. But rather than discouraging you, Yale women, from traveling, I hope you take advantage of the chance to go abroad while you have this University to make it easier for you to do so. The benefit of living around people of a different cultural background from yours is that it teaches you to appreciate the humanity of everyone, not merely those like you. In turn, the sooner we (and by we, I mean educated women who live in the U.S. at least nine months out of the year) stop thinking of feminism as merely a matter of national policy, the better. “Women’s issues” don’t uniquely and suddenly emerge during election years; neither are “women’s issues” limited to specific if important agendas like birth control, abortion and equal pay.

Instead, we need to shout about those issues in the context of how female humans are treated as a whole, globally. There is a sense in America and other developed nations that feminism has won, and this allows us to roll our eyes when a woman uses groaners like patriarchy or privilege, and it allows a male-dominant Congress to treat things like female health care as if they don’t affect the fundamental well-being of half of the population.

I stopped wishing feminists would be just a little quieter, however, when I realized that regardless of how developed a country was, what religion its people practiced or whether or not we could communicate, I could reliably expect to be harassed at some point in time.

The problem, of course, isn’t street harassment in itself but the fact that the attitude that perpetuates street harassment tells women they are less than people and should be ashamed for the crime of walking around. (In some less repressed countries, laws make women explicitly less than people.)

I went abroad to affirm the humanity of my fellow humans, but, more important, I learned to assert my own as well. So study abroad because you can, and maybe you’ll become a feminist too— because it’s the only conclusion that remains.

Haley Thurston is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at haley.thurston@yale.edu.

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