Keeping your head down

flowery-van

One of the main premises of my organisation’s – and many others’ – attitude to security is keeping a ‘low profile’. Basically, this is a bit like a kid trying to hide from the monsters under her bed by putting her hands over her eyes and saying ‘if I can’t see them then they can’t see me.’

So while driving along on my merry way, I wrap a rag around my head and try to avoid eye-contact with any monsters that might be lurking outside the window.

This does actually make sense, and I’d far rather this than travelling in a highly visible armoured vehicle or with armed guards, which is at the other end of the spectrum. In areas where we don’t have any expatriate staff, and where our national staff have very good relations with local populations as they do, one of the simplest ways of avoiding trouble when expatriates do visit is for them to remain invisible, at least along certain roads or in certain areas. If no one knows you’re there, then so much the better. Word spreads quickly out in the countryside and it sometimes seems a vain hope, but still worth trying.

While planning trips, I tell my plans to as few of my colleagues as possible. Not because I don’t trust them, but because these things have a way of getting out without anybody intending them to. This can all be a right pain in the arse but that’s another matter. Once in the field, I wear local clothes and wrap the aforementioned rag around my head in the vain hope of passing myself of – at least from a distance or while wizzing past in a cloud of dust – as no one out of the ordinary. I sit in the back of the van instead of taking my rightful position in the front seat and, when I’m a bit more nervous, turn my head away as we pass anybody else on the road.

To my mind these are all sensible precautions, but suddenly realising I was actively avoiding eye-contact with people got me thinking. Obviously, it isn’t a good sign in general. There’s more to it than that though; something akin to the way I sometimes find myself looking at women. In that I don’t look at them. That’s a whole other story, but out of some (probably mis-guided) sense of cultural respect/modesty/not giving the wrong impression/pretty fucked up gender relations in this country in general kinda thing, eye contact with women can seem like some kind of provocation that’s simplest to avoid. Yet all this gets to the point at times where women don’t exist: I can’t see them, ergo, they are not there. This isn’t quite right and not at all what I’m trying to get at, but I’ve written it now and too lazy to rewrite it.

Let’s try again.

Keeping my head down is a sensible enough precaution to take at certain times, if a little paranoid. Hmmm. But it doesn’t feel right. OK, let me sleep on this and I’ll try and get back to you with what I’m sure will turn out to be a deeply profound insight about something or other. If I ever emerge from under the covers.

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2 Responses to “Keeping your head down”

  1. ash Says:

    well i can imagine that keeping your head down effectively keeps you out of the spotlight, which it sounds like you need to often w/ some of the work you’re trying to accomplish, but you’re feeling like it is sometimes inhumane- b/c people need eye contact, yet in a culture where there may be strict cultural or religious practices, as backwards as they may be, your simple eye contact or acknowledgment could lead to trouble for that woman or even you…so essentially i imagine it’s a frustrating catch 22

  2. Alanna Says:

    On keeping one’s head down and gender relations: the one time I went to Iraq, my country director instructed me in advance to be as inconspicuous as possible. Wear drab clothes (he specifically said “nothing pretty!”) and don’t make eye contact once I was in the car. I did as requested, and at the end of the harrowing drive from airport to office, he told me I’d been absolutely perfect, practically invisible, and who did my security training? And I’d never had security training. But a woman who travels alone learns to be invisible.

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