I suddenly started receiving text messages after putting my number in an ad in a public forum. At first I had no idea who the person was but it didn’t take long to check the number and find out that it was a man I had spoken to at one point for no more than five minutes, that he is engaged, and that he has a young kid. I tried the silent “you probably got the wrong number” treatment for a couple of days, but it clearly didn’t work.
This is a very simple example of the omnipresent sexism and male chauvisnism here in Nicaragua, let me explain by giving you an insight to my daily reality.
I love walking. It’s one of my favourite things to do as it gives me access to observe people, talk to strangers and lose myself in contemplation. But I just can’t relax while walking in this city.
“Chela! Preciosa! Muñequita! Princesa! Qué barbara! Ay ojitos! Mami! Chelita linda! Gringa! Bonita! Dame un beso! Ven, ven chelita, ven aca! Wow! A donde vas, te doy un ride! Reina! Ven conmigo chela. Me gusta el color de tu piel. Wow, que ojos preciosos que tenés, espera, ven, oye, oye, chela!!”
Huge trucks sometimes honk their horns so loud I have to cover my ears, and guys on motorcycles drive up really close and do loud kissing sounds as they pass me by. And then there are the whisperers.
Picture this: I walk towards a man, trying to get as far away from him as possible on a narrow sidewalk while ignoring his stares and creepy smirk, hoping that he will keep his mouth shut. He keeps smiling and staring, but stays quiet. I pass, nothing happens, and I relax. And then, just the second I have him in that uncomfortable place behind me, just outside of the periphery of my vision but still close enough to be grabbed, he whispers:
“I will do it all night long with you baby. All. Night. Long.”
Now, let me tell you how it feels to hear this: It’s kind of like a sudden punch in the stomach that makes your mind freeze in disgust for a moment, as if he had just grabbed me from behind with his obnoxious hands and rubbed himself against me, as if the sweat dripping from his forehead just ended up on my neck, as if he mentally took the liberty to rip my clothes off and rape me right there, on the dirty sidewalk. I’m a piece of legs, ass and blue eyes. And I’m all his to own. Actually, I should be enjoying this, get turned on, turn around with a smile and tell him how I’m flattered, go for a crazy sexride with him and his fat belly and hairy face. Or at least smile and say thank you. Otherwise I’m just being a rude, ungrateful bitch.
Usually, I don’t even get the time to react as most of these comments are made on a hit and run basis. Cars swoosh by as I get the hunking horns and “Dollface, princess, beautiful!” thrown all over me like sandbags. The guys sometimes lean all the way out of the widows trying to touch me. They never do, but they pretend to, and it’s enough to put me out of balance for a moment. And it’s not like I’m a special case around here. I might have a lighter complexion than many, but actually – most women get this treatment.
“I know it’s horrible but really, you just have to get used to it. It’s how things work here. Actually, some girls here expect to hear this from men. These guys are harmless.”
No. You will not trivialize sexism by referring to culture or history. You will not blame women for becoming accustomed to daily oral and mental abuse. I’m not afraid of these men, actually – I have a pretty awesome defence armour myself and I don’t let it get to me.. but I open up on purpose, I take the words for what they actually are because I have to, because I know how wrong it is to let it just pass, because I’m angry, pissed off and furious about how these men don’t ask for my permission, how they take the liberty to undress me, love me, kiss me, and own me without checking if I’m okay with it, without a single sign of consent from my side, assuming that they are the kings of the world and sexy as hell and on top of that with the nerve to expect me to feel flattered about them giving me their attention.
Sometimes there’s enough time for me to snap.
Just outside of my office there is a long row of small cellphone shops. The men hang out on the sidewalk outside, chatting, drinking Coca Cola and trying to make people enter their shops. Obviously, they are bored. I pass that place a lot during lunch or when walking to work, and the men would group up as a wolf pack and orchestrate their little serenades to me to the point that I just couldn’t take it anymore. One day I stopped walking and looked at them. They shut up instantly, their smirks faded away. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Dollface!!” One of the men let the word slip out as if it was a tick he couldn’t control, he blushed as I kept looking and there was an awkward silence.
“I pass by here almost every day, and I wish I could explain to you how extremely uncomfortable you are making me feel with your disrespectful comments. I’m not a piece of meat, I’m not a doll, nor a skincolour, nor a pair of blue eyes. My name is Caroline, hello, how are you doing? Please feel free to say ‘Good day, how are you?’ to me when I pass by, I have no other choice but to keep walking by your shops so I ask you to stop acting rude and start treating me like a person so it can be a much nicer experience for all of us.”
They just looked at me, blushing. “Hello beautiful Caroline, how are you doing today?” one of them suddenly tried, breaking the silence, looking like he was making a huge effort.
“I’m fine, thank you, have a nice day at work!” I smiled and continued walking, thinking about how these men seemed completely incapable of communicating with women on a different level. About how this had become such a norm that there was no other alternative. About how sad this was.
A couple of days later when I was walking by the row of cellphone shops, nodding hello’s and smiles at the same men and getting good day’s and courteous kindness back, a young guy ran up to me and started walking beside me “So, what happened the other day? People say you don’t like that they call you dollface.” “That’s right, because I have a name and I think that dolls don’t have brains – but women do. What do you think?” “But you look like a doll, you should be happy!” “I promise you most people get happier if you wish them a good day than if just you keep telling them they are beautiful.” he said that he agreed and shook my hand on it. “Okay, have a good day then. I will ask you out one day – I hope you don’t mind.”
All the men I have confronted have reacted the same. First of all, they blush really bad. Then they try looking as question marks and I can almost hear them whistling the “It wasn’t me” tune, or a hint of “whoah, what’s the matter with this girl?” but then they blush again and nod a couple of times as I leave them under an uncomfortable cloud of silence. It takes a fair amount of energy from my part to stop and hold a short speech about women’s rights to complete strangers, and I feel like a didactic and annoying old hag who thinks she has the right to preach to people and refuses to accept norms – but it actually does work and they never go back to shouting at me. Sometimes I even get a response and once a young guy in Granada came running after me to say “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know this was how I make women feel. I will never say it again.” we walked together for twenty minutes talking about objectification and it was actually clear that it had gotten straight to his heart, I thanked and congratulated him on understanding.
“I see your concern, but you can’t educate the entire male population of Managua!”
a friend laughed. “I’m trying by starting to preach to the taxi drivers, they have access to a lot of people!” I joked back. Obviously I’m not going to go on a full-on crusade against the sexism in Nicaragua. But I just can’t take enforcing the defenceless woman image by not speaking up when I get this and I consider it a serious problem that has to be highlighted, always.
Going back to those messages. They might be far from as explicit as being mentally raped on a sidewalk, but they still take for granted that I have no other option than to feel flattered, and absorb somebody’s imaginary plan of our perfect life together – based solely on his affection for my assumed perfection. This man has by no means any idea by who I am, what I like, what I think, what I want, how annoying I can be when I can’t make my mind up about things, how I almost never cook and how much I love dancing. Still, it doesn’t matter. I’m his queen, his everything, all I need is to give him my hand and we will be together forever and he will finally be able to sleep again. Because my eyes are beautiful, because that’s all that matters, because he’s a bit tired of his fiancée, because who cares about personality and intelligence, anyway? Aren’t you flattered?
“Let me know if he continues bothering you, I know somebody in the company of his cellphone carrier who could block his number for a couple of days. You know, just to make sure he takes you seriously. If he keeps on, I can call him.”
Knowing that friends are willing to take on Mafia methods to protect you feels reassuring, but it’s still the wrong way. A man calling another man up to “scare him off” is just a continuation of letting the boys take care of business. Men talking to men, agreeing on territory, solving it over a beer. I don’t want my stalker to stop bothering me because he respects another man, I want him to stop bothering me because he respects me!
But then, sometimes you just get really, really tired of all of this and agree to play along.
“I’m sorry, I’m married.”
That’s what I finally told the young guy from the cellphone shop when he kept asking me out. Because “not interested” is unfortunately not always an option..