Category Archives: feminism

Walking tour: Havana’s best ‘piropo’ spots

Piropo: Untranslatable word. Term used fondly to describe the whistles, hisses, kissing noises and comments any woman should expect as she steps out onto the streets of Cuba’s capital. Commonly mistranslated as ‘chat-up lines’, since the last thing solicited is a chat. It’s more a game of action and reaction, subject and object, predator and prey. For aficionados of everyday sexism, this is a must. Here follows a guide for the best places to experience this intriguing phenomenon first-hand.

Throw yourself right in the deep end if you really enjoy being hassled and head straight to the wonderful maze that is Habana Vieja. Getting lost in these streets should provide a comprehensive introduction to the practice of piropos, especially if you only have a few days in Havana. Listen out for the distinctive ‘Psssst!’ or occasionally ‘Hey lady!’ and try not to recoil visibly at the kisses and winks. Examples of personal comments heard include ‘chica linda’, ‘bonita’, ‘muy sexy’; but there is a wide range of derivatives. You’ll never be bored.

If you’re with a man, forget the whole tour. As someone else’s property you’re officially off the market and no longer fair game for piropos, and so you may run the risk of being well and truly left alone. If you’re lucky, somebody might jovially offer your companion to swap you for his girl, and you can all have a good laugh. But this is the extent of it, so try to stick with women to guarantee that the comments are completely unrelenting.

And as we all know from playground bullying, you will always get the most attention when on your own. This is the best way to really get a feel for it. You’ll probably be offered a lot of sex and, if you’re lucky, maybe a few relationships. ‘¿Te falta un novio?’ (Do you need a boyfriend/ are you missing a boyfriend?) As a woman without a man beside her, a part of you is missing – so apparently it’s a free for all.

Next stop is Centro; the busy roads of the centre. Walk past large groups of men for the best results, although comments from people on their own are pretty common as well. Interestingly, they often come just after you’ve passed, so be patient. This way, since you can’t return the gaze directly, it becomes much easier not to treat you as a real human being – any form of social interaction is cut off.

Venture out to the leafy boulevards of Vedado only if you have ample time in the city. There is a danger of having real conversations with people on these streets, so exercise caution at all times. Still, you’re never far away from a degrading remark or sexual proposition.

If you still don’t feel quite like a sexual object, end your trip on the Malecón. Simply sit down and people will come to you. Read a book, enjoy a conversation – look as preoccupied or uninterested as possible. Be sure to tell people to leave you alone several times, because no seems to mean try harder in the world of street harassment. In the more secluded parts, very occasionally, men masturbate as women walk past. But this is slightly off the beaten track.

None of this is to suggest that women do not face this kind of treatment everywhere. Street harassment is a worldwide problem that may be worse and is certainly more threatening in other cities. The term machismo is perhaps misleading as a culturally specific term that confines inequality to the region of Latin America.

Relatively speaking, Cuba is a very good place to be a woman. Statistics place the country highly in world rankings of gender equality. 50 percent of students in higher education, 60 percent of doctors and 48 percent of high government are women. Childcare is free, as is birth control assistance. Men and women are guaranteed the same salaries. It all looks great on paper, hence why a stroll in Havana can be quite a sobering experience. Equality is quite an empty term if you are reduced to a sexual object the second you venture out into public space.

Havana is one of the most culturally rich and exciting places I have ever been. This makes the constant reminder that, as a woman, you are somehow less entitled to actively enjoy it, a real shame.

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A reflection on ‘women travellers’ …

Cuba, perhaps surprisingly, has been hailed for many years for its record in women’s rights. In 2013, it came 15th in the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report, above both the US and the UK. 50% of university students are women, 60% of doctors, and 48% of high government. Equal pay is guaranteed by law: the Cuban Family Code demands that men share household duties with women, and every female gets free birth control assistance. Needless to say that complete gender equality is an ongoing process rather than a reality, but it is one that the country is taking very seriously.

What I have found interesting while preparing for my visit to Cuba is the way different guides and resources treat the problems that female travellers are much more likely to face than their male counterparts. Most guidebooks include a section on ‘Women Travellers’ somewhere near the back, often given the honoured position at the end of an A-Z (no corresponding section on Men Travellers, unsurprisingly).

I don’t mean to suggest that this section shouldn’t be included – quite the opposite. My time in Cuba will inevitably be filtered through my experience as a solo female traveller. I think it is hugely important to research what to expect and be wary of, and how to overcome the challenges you might face. The advice travel guides give is practical and encouraging, especially in the case of Cuba – a ‘dream location’ for women, according to Lonely Planet. The consensus is that machismo still exists in daily life, manifesting itself most obviously in the perhaps annoying but ultimately harmless piropos (come-ons, whistling, etc.) that women are bound to receive. But in general, we can feel safe, comfortable and respected.

So it is not the mention of these issues that is problematic, but rather the way they are squashed into a little paragraph – a small addendum to refer to, if need be, on the off chance that you might be a woman. ‘Women Travellers’, along with ‘Gay and Lesbian Travellers’, and often ‘Senior Travellers’, are all lumped together in a way that suggests vulnerability and departure from the norm. The main body of the guide represents this norm, catering for the default user – the white, heterosexual male.

Some guides are conscious of this danger – the excellent Moon Guide on Cuba, by Christopher P. Baker includes a clear and detailed analysis of women’s rights in Cuba, and places practical information for female travellers just after the paragraph for men. Some might argue that this belittles the problems that women have to deal with, aiding and abetting that delusional argument that we all live in a happy, equal, post-feminist world where things can be tough for men too, you know. I see it differently. I believe this suggests that it is just as legitimate for us to belong to the world of travel as it is for men. We are no longer a special case.

This is important when it is still seen by many as a challenge for women to travel independently, and specifically for women to write about travel. Historically, men have been associated with public space, able to move freely around a globe that is theirs to document and possess, while women have been confined to the static realm of the home. I recently read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s memoirs of his youthful journey on foot from Holland to Constantinople – an amazing read that definitely deserves its place as a classic of travel writing. But I was struck by how subversive the work would have been if it had been written by a woman, and how different her experience would have been. Leigh Fermor was definitely buoyed on by his tireless zeal for different cultures, his aptitude for languages, and his care for all the people he met – but he was also deeply dependent on his gender. He could turn up alone at the homes of strangers and introduce himself to anyone he met without thinking twice. He might camp out under the stars or walk for miles in the dark alone, and on meeting any other travellers or locals, he would simply say hello and perhaps offer them a swig of his hip flask, and enjoy the pleasure of their company in return.

Because he was a man, this is billed as friendly and forthcoming, rather than unwise or provocative. The differences in the way men and women are treated as travellers and as writers run deep. It makes me sad that women still learn, however subconsciously, to hold back. Sadder still that this is probably to be recommended in many parts of the world, for reasons of personal safety and security.

Yet there is no such excuse with regard to travel in countries like Cuba, which apparently has a great deal to recommend female travellers. Those who teach women they are unwise or unable to travel in such places alone are only blinded by prejudice. But I am hopeful that this is changing, and travel writing and resources need to change too to offer a supportive (but not prescriptive) guide. We shouldn’t be seen as a group that need special protection, distinct from the confident and experienced male canon. It’s not weird anymore for women to chart their own path around the world, so it might be worth rewriting the guides to reflect this, rather than sticking on a cursory note at the end.