“F#$% you, Mister, I love you!”: My Experience with Street Harassment in Indonesia

Eyes sparkling, smiles stretching from ear to ear, bare feet kicking up dust, the three boys chased after me as I passed on my sepeda (bicycle).  “F#$% you!  F#$% you!”  They shouted.

As an English Teaching Assistant in Gorontalo, this was an almost daily occurrence, as I always passed the same areas during my bike rides.  I often stopped, and tried to teach the boys other phrases in English, and to explain to them that what they were saying was tidak sopan (not polite).  I began to hear “Hello!” and “How are you!?” much more frequently as my grant continued, but I was never quite able to eliminate their cheerful calls of “F#$% you!  F#$% you!”

There were days I was able to remain amused by this, and recognize that this phrase was probably one of the few phrases these young boys, probably no more than eight years old, knew in Bahasa Inggris (English), and that their intention was simply to be friendly.  Those were the days I would stop, engage, and try to educate.  But there were also plenty of days when I simply could not stand hearing them, when their favorite phrase would grate on my soul.  Those were the days I would grit my teeth as I forced a smile, and passed by with simply a nod in their direction.

My different responses to these three boys depended almost entirely on how much I had been harassed that day.  Now, to be clear, harassment was not the only factor that might cause me to be frustrated: feelings of homesickness, frustration with co-teachers, embarrassment at cultural misunderstandings, or perceived failure in my capacity as a teacher might all make it much harder for me to be my usual happy self.  However, I must confess I was immensely more adept at reflecting on these feelings, learning from them, and letting them go.  But the feelings of lack of safety and being so intruded upon that stemmed from being harassed were much more difficult for me to let go, and this was in part due to the frequency of the harassment I experienced.  While I might have whole days where I felt I was beginning to understand the culture I was in, or I might finish the school day feeling that the day’s lesson was successful, there was not a single day when I did not experience some form of harassment.  This daily struggle throughout my three years in Indonesia weighed down on me, and without reprieve, there were days when I invariably broke.

While I don’t want to imply that certain forms of harassment are harder or easier than others, there is no denying that the harassment I experienced was not always the same.  I have spent hours reflecting in my journal, and through conversations with fellow ETAs, trying to piece out what forms the harassment I received might take, and the motivations behind them.  This is not easy task, as harassment, especially in Indonesia, especially of foreigners, is immensely complex, and my constant inability to draw any conclusions is part of the reason it has taken me so long to write this post.  However, I eventually concluded that there were three forms of harassment I was most likely to receive: sexual, gendered, and race-based harassment.

The sexual harassment I’ve experienced in Indonesia was, frankly, the same sh@# I regularly contend with at home in the U.S., even if the way it presented itself was somewhat different.  Cat calls do have a different sound in Indonesia, more closely resembling a sharp hiss than the whistles that are more popular in the U.S., but the intent, and the way men look me up and down, undressing me with their eyes, is the same as that which I have been experiencing in the U.S. since middle school.  More than once I have had men on the street, whom I have never met before, ask me to have sex with them, sometimes in English, and sometimes in Indonesian.  The first time I experienced the dreaded “palm scratch” (this is when a man scratches the palm of a woman’s hand when they are shaking hands in greeting; it is an offer for sex), I’ll admit that I did not let another man shake hands with me for weeks.  For a few months during my second grant, there was a man who would follow me to and from school every day, throw rocks at my door—shut and locked because of him, even though I would have preferred to maintain the open-door policy so common in Indonesia—in the evening, shouting for all to hear that he planned to marry me, and stand, smoking and leering, outside the windows of my classrooms while I was teaching.  Though I was able to enlist the help of neighbors and teachers to keep him away from my house and the school grounds, I was unable to eliminated his presence in my life fully until he moved to another city, and even then, I never truly felt safe in and around my neighborhood.

The packaging may be somewhat different, but inside this sexual harassment is the same.  In Indonesia, I was just as likely to be harassed if I was wearing conservative clothing bought at a Muslim boutique as I was if I was wearing a t-shirt and cropped pants (which is as much skin as I dared show in my conservative ETA sites), just as in the U.S. I was just as likely to be harassed in my unflattering convenience store uniform as I was in a sundress; and in both places, if I complain about harassment, one of the first questions I am asked is “What were you wearing?”  Also like much of the U.S., there is the assumption that this treatment is permissible, and that women have the responsibility of dealing with it, of thinking of it as a compliment.  It seems we women cannot escape the “culture of men,” as one Ibu in Malang put it, shaking her head as she explained to me[1], “Actually, they should not be this way.  Malang is in Java.  Javanese culture teaches men to respect women.  But they do not.  Malang is majority Muslim.  Muslim culture teaches men to respect women.  But they do not.   It is because of the culture of men, which somehow is stronger than the other cultures these men belong to.”

This “culture of men,” or what would be called male culture in the Western world, not only was most likely one of the root causes of the sexual harassment I experienced, but also played in to what I have decided to call gendered harassment.  I want to differentiate it from gender harassment, although I probably experienced that as well, as I wasn’t necessarily being harassed for my gender, but rather was experiencing a certain level of harassment because of my gender.  The difference is slim, but I do think is there.  Often, this harassment mirrored the harassment I would experience as a foreigner, which I will get to in a moment, but it was more persistent than what I believe men might experience.  Someone might follow me on my walk to work, pestering me with questions, asking for photos, even after I had repeatedly said that I wanted to be left alone and was trying to walk as fast as I could, practically leaping over the holes in the Jakarta sidewalk, in an attempt to be rid of the person.  I am very much convinced that people would not be so adamant in harassing me if I was a man.  I am not saying that a man will never experience this kind of harassment, but there is something in the power a man inherently holds in society—especially in a place like Indonesia, where gender roles are much more divided than they are in the U.S.—that means he is usually listened to when he says no.  As a woman, I do not command the same respect, and so it is harder for me to stop the harassment aimed my way.

Perhaps the most common form of harassment I receive is race-based harassment[2]Bule is a term used for Caucasian foreigners in Indonesia, and it is a word that I have heard shouted at me every. single. day. since I arrived in Indonesia.  Because I am a bule, people call out “Mister!” at me wherever I go[3].  Teachers and students pinch my nose, squealing “Mancung!” (this literally means “long nose”), telling me how much they wish their nose was like mine.  I have more than once had babies pushed into my lap when trying to lesson plan in cafes, and I cannot count the number of times I have been in the middle of a conversation with friends when someone has come up behind me a dragged me into a photo with them, without asking permission and without introducing themselves.  Kenalkan dulu,” (“Introduce yourself first”) has become my mantra when it comes to photos.  I am not going to let someone take a photo with me, so that they can post all over social media and gain social points with their peers, if they aren’t going to at least tell me their name first, and listen to mine.  If the people are asking are clearing in high school, I make them ask me for a photo and introduce themselves in English, as I know that all high school students in Indonesia are required to study English.  Sometimes I have to help them, and that is fine, but I feel they might as well get something more valuable than just a photo from meeting me (though they may not see the value of these two things the same way I do).  And if people don’t ask, and try to force me into a photo, they don’t get a photo, but get a lecture on politeness instead.

I was once at a lampu merah (red light) on my motorbike when a man pulled up beside me and shouted, “Mister!” at me; I nodded in his direction, but kept my focus on the traffic light.  After shouting at me a few more times, and being clearly unsatisfied with my response, he reached across the space between us and pushed me.  Mostly due to my shock at this treatment, I and my motorbike fell just as the light turned green, and were pushed forward by the car in front of us.  Somehow, I managed to escape with only scrapes on my hands and what I am pretty sure was a broken toe, all of which I was fortunately able to treat on my own with supplies from the local alpotek (apothecary, or medicine shop).  While not all forms of race-based harassment are so physical or so extreme, the fact is they can me just as dangerous as other forms of harassment.

The bule treatment, as I have come to call this race-based harassment, is not only the most common form of harassment I receive, it is also by far the most complicated.  I am targeted and harassed because of the color of my skin, but part of the reason why I am harassed is because of years of colonialism and Western media causing Indonesians to internalize the idea that I am more beautiful because I have lighter skin.  The harassment I receive is different from that received by foreigners of color, again largely due to history and media, and even the harassment different people of color receive is never quite the same.  Someone who is African-American, for example, would be subjected to harassment that looks different from that experienced by someone is or presents as East Asian.  The issue of colorism[4] is one all ETAs must contend with in different ways throughout our time here, and the way it plays into harassment is just one of them.

The lines between these kinds of harassment are not always clear cut.  For example, I am more likely to be sexually harassed in Indonesia than an Indonesian woman because I am foreign: Western media portrays women as highly sexualized and sexual, and while I recognize that is some ways this can be empowering, the way it has been interpreted in Indonesia is that Western women always want sex, and this adds to the idea that men have permission to harass women.  The intersection of these different harassments and is why I eventually realized that I would always experience the most harassment if I was alone, a little less if I was with a foreign female friend, yet again a bit less if I was with an Indonesian female friend or with a male foreign friend, and almost none if I was with a male Indonesian friend (though being alone with a man after dark could, in turn, create endless gossip if I was in a smaller community).

If there is one thing that is simple and clear about harassment is this: it sucks, and I, and no woman, no person, should ever have to deal with it.

I have learned to stop feeling guilty when the harassment makes me angry, and I “lose face[5]” by yelling at someone on the street.  I have tried to educate when I can, and where it is appropriate for me to do so[6].  But truthfully, these are not skills I should have needed to learn.

I see amazing work being done by scores of women, both in the U.S. and in Indonesia, to rid the world of harassment.  I live in stubborn hope that someday girls, and every human, might not need fear walking out on the street alone, wherever they live, and whatever they wear.

For now, I keep my head down on the street, necessary self-protection, but keep my fury alive, fueling my motivation to play my role in creating the world I want to live in.

Go ahead.  Hiss in my direction.  Call me “Mister,” one more time.  See what happens when you do.

I mentioned in a footnote a few Indonesiaful pieces by ETAs of color, speaking to the treatment they receive while in Indonesia, which is very different from what I receive.  I want to put the links to those pieces again here, in order of publication:

“Black Sweet: Grappling with Skin Color in Indonesia” by Nina Bhattacharya

“Where Are You Really From?” by Julius Tsai

“Experiencing Colorism in Indonesia” by Kayla Stewart

[1] I am translating here from Indonesian.  I also want to note that this Ibu was quite special, in the way she thought about these things.  Rarely did I come across women, especially older women, who would place the responsibility of harassment on men, rather than on women.

[2] It took me a long time to decide what to call this form of harassment.  It’s root cause is absolutely in my race: the color of my skin, the texture of my hair, etc.  However, I did not necessarily want to refer to it as racial harassment, due to the connotations racial harassment has, especially in the Western context, and the fact that I do not share the same experience.  However, I was also hesitant to call it “white harassment,” or something along those lines, as that seem to add to the idea of white exceptionalism (why do I get a special name because I am white?), and because it seemed to echo the idea of reverse-racism, an idea I was obviously not trying to convey.  After speaking with several American friends who have also lived in Indonesia, one of them suggested race-based, and feeling that this language offered something of the complexity I was looking for, I decided to use that terminology.

[3] I don’t exactly know why Indonesians only seem to know the male form of address in English.  I always try to correct people, explaining that it is better to say “Miss” or “Missus” to women.  Some days I can find being called “Mister” a bit amusing; other days I want to throw up my hands and shout, “I am a g@# d@#& woman, and proud of it.  So, call me ‘Mister,’ one more time, and see what I do.”

[4] There have also been several good pieces written for the ETA online magazine Indonesiaful by ETAs of color regarding their experiences, such as “Black Sweet,” “Where Are You Really From?” and “Experiencing Colorism in Indonesia,” and I would encourage people to read them.  I also reflected more in-depth about my own whiteness during my first grant, in a blog titled, “Warning, Visibility May Vary, or, Being White in Indonesia.”

[5] In many Asian cultures, including many of those in Indonesia, becoming noticeably angry is a huge cultural faux pas, and one should always exude an exterior that is calm and content.  When excessive emotion, especially of the more negative sort, is shown, a person is said to have “lost face.”

[6] I am a foreigner, and Indonesia is not my permanent home.  I have recognize that such social justice education is better led by an Indonesian, and whenever possible, I take the back seat.


One thought on ““F#$% you, Mister, I love you!”: My Experience with Street Harassment in Indonesia

  1. Pingback: A Long, Complicated List of Love: 100 Things I Absolutely Adore and 100 Things that Endlessly Frustrate Me About Indonesia | All for the Love of Wandering

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