International Studies & Programs

Being a Woman Abroad

The majority of students who study abroad are women and they report back that they have had incredible experiences. However, in certain locations and programs, women may have a difficult time adjusting to attitudes they encounter abroad, in both public and private interactions between men and women. Some men openly demonstrate their appraisal of women in ways that many women find offensive. It is not uncommon to be honked at, stared at, verbally and loudly approved of and, in general, to be actively noticed simply for being a woman and, in particular, a U.S. American woman. Sometimes the attention can be flattering. Soon, it may become very annoying and potentially even angering. Local women, who often get the same sort of treatment, have learned through their cultures how to respond to the attention.

Eye contact between strangers, or a smile at someone passing on the street, which is not uncommon in the U.S., may result in totally unexpected invitations and some women feel forced to avoid eye contact. You will have to learn the unwritten rules about what you can and cannot do. Women can provide support for each other. You may wish to get together several times early in your stay abroad to talk about what does and doesn't work for dealing with unwanted attention. U.S. women are seen as liberated in many ways and sometimes the cultural misunderstanding that comes out of that image can lead to difficult and unpleasant experiences.

These cultural differences may make male-female friendships more challenging. Consider the implicit messages that you are communicating, messages that you may not intend in your own cultural context. Above all, try to maintain the perspective that these challenging and sometimes difficult experiences are part of the growth of cultural understanding, which is one of the important reasons you are studying abroad.

Female travelers may be more likely to encounter harassment such as unwanted sexual gestures, physical contact, or statements that are offensive or humiliating. Uncomfortable situations such as these may be avoided by taking the following precautions:

  • Dress conservatively. While short skirts and tank tops may be comfortable, they may encourage unwanted attention.

  • Avoid walking alone late at night or in questionable neighborhoods.

  • Do not agree to meet a person whom you do not know in a non-public place.

  • Be aware that some men from other cultures tend to mistake the friendliness of U.S. American women for romantic interest.

  • Some students wear a ring to ward off advances and tell men that they are either engaged or married.

If you feel uncomfortable while traveling, you may wish to speak with trusted locals to gain a better understanding of local culture and to learn tips for navigating your host culture. You may also wish to take advantage of resources like the U.S. Department of State Guide for Women Travelers.

Remember that the MSU policy on Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct (RVSM) applies during your education abroad program. We encourage you to review the policy and the information available online to understand how to file a report and how to access confidential resources.