Dominican-American college student submits research on her experience of harassment abroad
Feminist studies student project challenged the question of “well what were you wearing when it happened?” after experiencing harassment
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I encourage all women to not feel restricted because they are thinking of straying away from norms. Being a leader gets you farther than remaining a follower or observer in this life.
Maria Isabel Castillo is a Dominican- American and senior at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania double majoring in Theatre and English—Passionate about the arts, she focuses on acting, modeling, and creative writing, while using fashion as a form of self-expression.
“Art is something that I can never live without, it’s part of me, which is why picking these majors made sense,” explains Castillo, who shared her story as a Latina, woman of color, studying abroad with AL DíA.
Castillo explains how experiencing sexual harassment and objectification while in Paris, Portugal, and London frighten her.
Upon arriving in Paris, a group of more familiar faces and her made their way toward the Eiffel Tower closer to 1am, when a group of aggressors surrounded them and spoke in different languages.
“I could not comprehend, but the looks on their faces told us everything we needed to know,” Castillo recalls. “Running in heels—passing drivers [who] made spectacles of us while crossing the streets.”
Men did not approach women who were with men, which angered Castillo. She felt ashamed at the thought of needing a man by her side to avoid unwanted attention.
While traveling to Portugal with six women from the program, a man barged into her hotel room without confirming if able to enter—later she found out this individual worked for the front desk of the hotel and needed some forms filled out.
These experiences only contributed to Castillo feeling uneasy about her surroundings, especially while in Lisbon, Portugal—consisting of alleyways and desolate streets.
“After heading home one night from a bar with one other person on the trip, things began to feel strange,” recalls Castillo, who shared her experience in the Travel Memoir for the program. “As we began approaching the final street to turn on to get to our hostel, a car passed us then began reversing, blocking the street off. I found myself having a face off with the driver, looking him directly in his eyes. It was clear that he was looking at us if we were targets.”
Castillo further adds “after what seemed like the longest minute of my life, the man drove off.”
The Portugal News reported that “a third of university students in the Lisbon metropolitan area have been victims of physical sexual violence at least once, but very few report the assaults and rarely to their own university.”
The support she received from her feminist studies class made her feel “seen” and “heard.”
In her final project, she was assigned a creative research on a topic related to Feminism— the project was based on the #MeToo movement and how it relates to the way women are over sexualized and how women are often blamed for being assaulted/harassed. The project challenged and goes against the question of “well what were you wearing when it happened?” A common rhetoric that inflicts and discredits the victims experience.
“Women are put in exhausting positions. Every time we walk out the door we are taught to prepare ourselves for what might come with being in our bodies,” Castillo emphasized in her essay. “These conditions in which we live under are sad. Conversations about sexual harassment are happening, but many like myself still remain fearful towards these kinds of behaviors.”
Student harassment in depth
Yearly, many students from across the U.S. participate in study abroad programs to pursue college studies in a foreign country short-term or long-term.
According to NAFSA, the leading organization committed to international education and exchange, working to advance policies and practices that build global citizens with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in today’s interconnected world, “during the 2019-2020 academic year there was a decline of 53% from 347,099 students to 1262,633 students as the COVID-19 pandemic halted student abroad participation. The current total represents less than one percent of all U.S. students enrolled at institutions of higher education in the United States and less than 10 percent of U.S.”
“Cultural sensitivity does not mean that you need to submit to behaviors that invade your personal boundaries or that make you feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Educating yourself about sexual harassment, violence, and gender dynamics abroad can empower you and your friends to make safer choices,” states Yale University Study Abroad program on its website.
Every study abroad program provides guidelines and recommendations to ensure a smooth and safe travel, but this isn’t always the case for most students. Some students abroad are victims of discrimination, financial hardship, and sexual harassment attributed in some cases to the social and cultural differences from student’s country.
For this reason, students should familiarize themselves with local laws and the program should ensure traveler safety should an incident arise.
Villanova University provides an International Studies Student Handbook including how to navigate and prevent sexual assault— trust your instincts, limit alcohol intake, don’t accept drinks from strangers, and have a buddy system.
One key piece of advice the university offers is “if you see someone in danger of being assaulted, before stepping in, make sure to evaluate the risk. If it means putting yourself in danger, call the police instead, but don’t leave the potential victim alone with the attacker.”
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) is the largest anti-sexual assault organization in the United States explains what consent looks like, which is “consent is about communication.” Also, understanding you can change your mind at any time and receiving confirmation before initiating any physical touch.
“One in five students (21%) experienced sexual assault abroad, with non-consensual physical contact the most prevalent form,” a study conducted by The National Library of Medicine found. “Women, those under age 21, and those with a history of sexual violence were most likely to experience sexual violence abroad.”
As I say, “common sense is not common anymore,” was it ever? My hope is that one day no woman will ever have to say the phrase “Me Too” again.