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Opinion Editorial on Sexual Harrassment in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Waiting at traffic lights in Chiang Mai has become quite fascinating to me… Before you assume I’m either a nutcase or living a severely unfulfilling life, hear me out. Not only do drivers spend a lot of time at traffic lights here, especially at those fiercely dull 99-second ones, but there is always a lot going on at them, from shouted conversations through helmets to exasperated slumping over handlebars. If you pay attention, you can learn a lot about people’s personalities by watching them at the traffic lights, like the drivers who dangerously zoom through lights that have just turned red, or the ones that sit around twiddling their thumbs once they’ve turned green. And then there are the ones that suffer from funny false-starts – jerking forward momentarily only to be shunned by the omniscient red light, and then skulking back to behind the white line while the other lane smugly goes before you.
My initial happiness with my two-wheeled vehicle. And no, I definitely don't drive in dresses and flip flops.

One thing I know I don’t enjoy about the traffic lights… is being a small girl on a big bike. Being a small girl in a big car wouldn’t be an issue, and is probably far less dangerous than riding a bike at all, but the latter is so much more efficient – and besides, who doesn’t prefer driving in effortless straight lines with plenty of roadly-freedom, as opposed to crawling along small soi between claustrophobic parked cars, or mounting pavements and other public property in a bid to get from A to B? There’s no logic in driving a car here, yet at times, I find myself wishing I could hide behind some metal doors and tinted windows; if not for a false sense of security, then at least for some privacy.

Back home, I liked my small, Honda CBR125R, for being quick and convenient (and “cute”, although I’ve heard that’s not an acceptable term for sports bikes). I liked it because it taught me how to be an overly aware driver, and gave me a sense of anonymity when riding around my city. I liked how I always felt as if I were the only person on the road, besides a few meandering cars here and there. Riding my “cute” bike around was simple, fun, freeing, and for some reason, lacked the attached dose of daily sexual harassment. Nobody gave a crap about my choice of transportation in context to my gender. Absolutely no one was interested in a female stranger driving a two-wheeled vehicle – and why on earth would they be?

That’s all changed now, living in Chiang Mai, being a girl on a slightly bigger bike. (A Honda CBR150R, to be precise).

There was nothing very entertaining about traffic lights in my home country (besides the fact that we call them “robots”). I was always taught to avoid routes with traffic lights wherever I could, as they tend to house the most opportunistic window-smashing bag-snatchers. If criminals didn’t own the spot, then street kids did, and there were only so many silver coins I could dish out in a day. Yet, in Chiang Mai, I’ve traded feeling wary of criminals to feeling wary of men. Instead of trying to hang on to my silver coins I’m now trying to hang onto bits of my dignity.

My first bike! Makes me feel all fuzzy inside...

Before I moved here, sexual harassment was something that occurred when I walked around the mall, where men undressed me with their eyes regardless of what I wore. At home, unwanted sexual advances were something that occurred at nightclubs or parties, where men threatened me with their bro-jokes and slurred words, regardless of whether I cared or I heard. And while I’m aware inappropriate sexual behaviour happens everywhere (I was grossly groped by a stranger in a crowd just a few weekends ago at Warm Up Café), I’ve found the majority of young Thai men in Chiang Mai to be quite tame. By that, I mean the most provocative thing I’ve heard so far is one of them meekly asking me for a kiss at a bar. When I didn’t oblige, there were no swear words or angry gestures – instead, he promptly turned around to tell his friends of his failure and plenty of teasing and laughing ensued. For the most part, I’ve found Thai men to be quite polite and careful not to overstep their boundaries – even the ones who might think they are achingly-gorgeous still seem quite unsure and clumsy with the opposite sex (I wonder, is this how they compensate for their misguided fears of women?). Endearing? Yes. Irresistible? Maybe, to some. Intimidating? Not a chance.

So why is it that being a female on a motorbike attracts so much attention here? In 2014, isn’t it now universal that the word “Hello” – or even worse, farm animal noises – followed by ridiculous leering, is not attractive, nor is it an adequate way to introduce yourself to strangers? And the surprising thing is, the guilty are always young Thai guys – the same ones I’d expect were more polite – who all end up hanging off their scooters looking like drunk sloths, and while they might be hoping for some sort of positive reaction for their unique pick-up line, all I’m really wondering about is how stupid they might be for not wearing a helmet.

However, not all of this traffic light banter is negative. One phenomenon I find quite amusing is being invited to spur-of-the-moment drag races, with much bigger men on their much bigger bikes, revving and spluttering in a bid to get me all excited for our race. Sadly, I can never reciprocate this enthusiasm, as just driving down the road to pick up Som Tam doesn’t make me feel very daredevil-ish. So here’s a tip for all men on big motorbikes: small girls on (biggish) bikes don’t want to race you. It would probably be safe to assume that the “biker” girl in question is not a wannabe stunt racer, and most likely doesn’t spend her past time perfecting finishes against fellow vehicle operators. Come to think of it, the only races I’ve ever participated in have been on foot, and let’s just say, I’m even less proud of my feet than I am of my motorbike.

Ugh, I just wish you were a car!

And that’s just it – I’m not proud of my mode of transportation, I’m not smug about it, or even all that content with it anymore. It gets me from home to work and back again, and is always appropriately dirty (I only tend to give it a wash after it’s been graced by an ungraceful pigeon plop). It sometimes cuts out for no reason, as older bikes do, and somehow manages to command different prices with every petrol fill-up. I always wear long pants and sleeves, even in the heat, and never make unnecessary loud noises with my accelerator (another thing men haven’t learned yet that is highly unimpressive). All of the above certainly doesn’t make me a “bad-ass biker chick”, as some of these guys must think, and definitely doesn’t mean I’m asking for chat-up lines when waiting for the light to change, or inviting you to race me in the middle of the day.

If ignoring these daily unwanted interactions was easy or even possible, I’m sure I would. But that doesn’t mean I should. I’m of the opinion that sexual harassment, however minimal, leads to more worrying things like sexual assault or worse, and that normalizing inappropriate behaviour towards women and girls has no part in a progressive society. And, personally, I don’t like wishing that I could hide when driving down the road, or that I should cover myself up to avoid unwelcome attention – I should be able to drive whatever I want, and wear whatever I want, and do pretty much whatever I want without fear of any degree of victimization. So, besides the few absurd high-fives and thumbs-ups that I’ve got from men (and women), I’m now dreaming of the day I can upgrade to a car, or better yet, move to a country where nobody cares what you drive as a woman (I can think of a few places that sadly aren’t an option). While Chiang Mai can be proud of itself for having relatively safe streets and a lack of children begging at the “robots”, it can be adequately ashamed of the attitudes of these men at intersections… wouldn’t it be nice if everyone acted the same way on the roads, with their anonymity behind windows and helmets, as they did in person, face-to-face? I sure think so, and that’s what I’ll have to keep hoping…
by Adrian Fleur

This article first appeared on the CityNews website on 6 March 2014.

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