I’ve been physically assaulted twice. Both times I was walking home alone at night. And both times I was compromising my safety. In the first instance, circa 1993 in Monterey, California, I was drunk. In the second instance, I had earbuds in, music blasting, as I walked down Calle 23 in Havana. While in theory every person has the right to drink, listen to music and walk home alone, life experience – especially mine, growing up in violent, drug-riddled New York – teaches girls something wholly different. All women reading this have certainly suffered objectification, harassment, assault or been grossly propositioned in their lifetimes.
Between the first and second instance, I did two things which completely transformed my life: I quit drinking entirely and I took self-defense classes for women. When the nearly 6-foot tall man came upon me from behind as I walked down Vedado’s main thoroughfare – one of Havana’s busiest neighborhoods – I knew exactly what to do. And I did it, sending that guy running like a cheap pair of stockings.
I’m telling you all of this because several friends and acquaintances here have been assaulted lately. My friend Veronica, a beautiful, buxom young woman who reaches 5-feet tall in heels (which she never wears), was walking to a friend’s house one afternoon when a man on a bicycle tried to rip away her purse. She fought back and he sped off. Simply a botched robbery? Perhaps. An opportunistic crime gone awry? Maybe. But then the same thing happened a couple of weeks later as she walked home from work. It was barely dark and she was just a block from her house. When she told me about the first incident and then the second, it reminded me of her bus story. Some years ago, when Veronica was 20, she and her friend Luna were riding the 69 bus on their way to an art show. The bus, in typical Cuban style, was packed to the gills and kept cramming people in. If you’ve ever suffered a ride on a Cuban bus, you know there isn’t room to slip a shim the bodies are squeezed in so tight. Normally (and normal) people accommodate the crush by angling away sensitive, erotic parts or by strategically holding a bag or knapsack over said parts. But there are others who treat a bus or subway ride as a golden opportunity for some free frisson. As the two friends gossiped and laughed, a nasty old dude started pressing his nasty old cock against Veronica. Luna launched into a story about her ex, oblivious. “Chica. We’re getting out at the next stop,” Veronica said, metal glinting off her voice. “But we’re not there yet!” Luna responded. “We are getting off!” Veronica said staring hard at Luna. Right before making their move, Veronica turned on a dime and nailed the guy in the balls, hard, with a well-placed knee. This petite young woman is not the easy target she appears – to thieves or molesters.
But not every woman and girl has the same wherewithal as Veronica. A US college student studying here for the semester quickly mastered the fixed-route taxis known as ‘almendrones.’ Hold out your hand, ascertain if they’re cruising the route you want and climb aboard these old Detroit hulks with half a dozen Cubans; 35 cents later, you’ve arrived at (or close to) your destination. It’s customary to sit two up front with the driver – when those seats are available. This college student, I’ll call her Laura, rode shotgun until another passenger stopped the car and opened the front door. Laura scooted over towards the driver, as you do. After a couple of blocks, the driver pushed his hand up her skirt and parked it on her inner thigh. Terrified, appalled, she froze and issued no response, instead just willing the ride and indecency to end as soon as possible. Laura didn’t know what to do or what she could do or maybe she feared a reaction would put her in further danger.
This isn’t uncommon, especially in cross-cultural situations where the code of conduct and norms, consequences and sensibilities are confusing or unknown. In another episode – for want of a better word – a group of young people (again, from the United States) were at a guateque replete with music, dancing, a roasted pig, and free-flowing rum. As the night grew darker and boozier, one of the locals who was too-well lubricated at this point, started dragging one young foreign women after another on to the dance floor. He was literally grabbing at them, laying hands on them, virtually obligating the party guests to dance with him. Uncomfortable to a one, they didn’t know how to deal with the guy and were afraid of doing something inappropriate. While I know exactly what I would do if someone manhandled me or stuck his hand up my skirt, the cultural context and local sensitivities are factors worth considering: my Cuban friends were unanimous in their opinion that most Cubanas – but not all – would tell the driver to stick his hand where the sun don’t shine and tell the drunk to get lost (or worse) as soon as he laid hands on her.
No matter where you’re from, sometimes we don’t have the resources or reserves to confront these situations as we’d like. Case in point are two Cubanas I know. Both are in their early 20s and both were recently raped – one in Centro Habana, the other in Vedado. The woman in Vedado went home, tried to scrub the violence away, a stream of tears mixing with the shower’s spray and called a friend. He ran to her house to provide succor and a momentary sense of safety. The other woman, I’ll call her Lucía, was attacked just a few blocks from her house as she walked home from work. Lucía, a beautiful, stylish brunette, has an Adele-type body – tall, strong, and solid. Still, her attacker overpowered her and had his way. Although quite near her house, she went straight to the police and reported the attack. They applied the standard rape kit, took her statement and a description of her attacker. They quickly caught the repeat offender who was on parole and sent him back up the river.
Maria Elena, Esther, Iris, me and probably you – we’ve all known gender violence of one type or another. My question is: what are we going to do about it? What can we do about it? Raising awareness is key of course. Showing solidarity for other women is also necessary – now more than ever, that’s clear. What does that mean? For one, don’t judge or criticize other women’s reactions (or non-actions) in the face of this violence. Not everyone has the will or tools or strength to fight back. Many women are taught – indeed, society consistently reinforces the ‘women as polite and submissive’ paradigm – and so we swallow and withstand all kinds of repressive bullshit so as not to be labeled a ball-buster. How extremist! Over time and across history, women have been reduced to one of two polar opposites: pussy or bitch, Madonna or whore, if you will. Any women CEOs reading this (and bringing down smaller salaries than their male counterparts) surely know what I’m talking about.
To break this paradigm and increase our personal security, we need to support each other. If you’re out with friends and see a woman being harassed or made uncomfortable by unwanted attention, extend a hand, invite her to your table, pull her into your dance circle, safeguard her drink while she goes to the bathroom. The same holds for when you’re in the street at night. If you come across a woman walking alone, offer to accompany her. There is safety in numbers.
One thing every woman and girl can do to marshal and augment their inner strength and confidently protect themselves is to take a self-defense class. These classes changed my life and I have seen it change others’ as well. I’m determined to begin offering a course at Cuba Libro so more women can tap into their power. The problem is, I haven’t yet found a qualified instructor who can impart the necessary techniques, concepts and strategies, while at the same time creating a safe space for women to share their stories, tears, fears, and traumas – an important element in the empowerment dynamic. If you know anyone who fits the bill (maybe yourself?!), please get in touch. Fluent Spanish is a must.
In the meantime, anyone anxious to jump start their safety skills should immediately get a copy of Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence. Or rather, get three: one for you, one for a friend and one for Cuba Libro. It will make a difference.