What Happens Every Time I Write about Sexual Harassment

Quick link: Let’s Talk about Sexual Harassment

I wrote about sexual harassment for A Life Overseas today but I still had more to say. So here is the follow-up piece.

I’ve written about sexual harassment in the past and inevitably, a friend will tell me that they’re surprised by my stories, that they have never been harassed. I immediately whip through a range of internal reactions. One, great! I’m so glad for them. Two, shame. Why me? Three, doubt. I don’t believe them. Four, anger. Why are they saying that to me? Do they not believe? Do they think I’ve “asked” for it in some way? Am I doing something wrong?

Like I said, I’m glad other women don’t experience harassment.

But.

I think there are reasons other than that I’m just asking for it.

  • I speak the local language. It is hard to know someone is insulting you when you don’t know the language. I’ve been called a whore more times than I can count but not one single time has been in English. I’ve been told that I will be the first one someone would choose to kill, but it wasn’t in English, or that my breasts are nice and my butt is jiggling but never in English.
  • I spend a lot of time outside. I run, outside. Most of the time I am encouraged and cheered on by men on the streets. But not always. Not always. I bike, I walk. Apparently, a woman on a bike is cause for boys or men to shout, “Sex! Sex!”
  • I spend time in certain sections of town. I don’t spend time only at the upscale hotels or grocery stores or neighborhoods.
  • I understand the culture. I know the hand and facial gestures, at least some of them. I know the lip and tongue noises. I know some slang, some history. Some words seem benign but they aren’t when you know the backstory.
  • I’ve been living internationally for sixteen years. I’ve been a woman for forty years. I’ve built up a lot of stories.
  • I used to live by several schools. Never again. Things got so bad on one particular street that even my daughter was being harassed: touched, pinched, stopped on her bike, chased, mocked. We spoke to the director of the school, we spoke to our landlord, for a while a police truck patrolled the street. Eventually, we moved.

I know I’m not the only one because I’ve spoken with other women and hugged them and cried with them. I’ve been with them when it has happened, both local and expatriate women. But sometimes it can still feel like I’m the only one, especially when I hear others express that they haven’t experienced these things.

Should I stop biking? Should I drive the car two blocks to pick up a baguette? Should I move into a neighborhood with rents higher than our salary? Should I stop running? Should I wear a cardboard box from head to foot? Should I never speak or laugh when outside? Should I not tell these stories?

Should I, as a few commenters have suggested, pack up my children and leave? But where would I go? Nowhere is safe from harassment, it has happened in every country where I’ve spent significant time. Should I concede, as one commentor suggested, that harassment can’t happen to me because it happens at the American military base? As if the harassment of women in one location cancels out the harassment of women in another?

Should I feel bad that I seem to be one of the few expatriate women to be on the receiving end of harassment?

Should I say, kids will be kids, with the feel of my breast in their palm and the reality that if they actually do trip me while I’m running, I might be seriously injured? Should I pretend like these boys won’t grow up to be men, stronger and faster, with wives and daughters?

Should I pretend I was terrified when a man punched me in the butt, his fast swinging with the force of the motorcycle he rode? Or that I wasn’t disgusted when someone dumped a bottle of liquid on me and for a moment I had to wonder whether or not it was urine or something even worse?

Should I pretend it doesn’t happen here? Didn’t happen in Italy? Didn’t happen in Turkey? Didn’t happen in the United States? Didn’t happen in the UK? Didn’t happen in Kenya?

No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

I hope I’m the only person who experiences sexual harassment but I don’t believe that’s true. So I’ll keep talking about and keep hoping it stops and keep hoping other women will be willing to talk about it, even through the shame or anger.

Pirates! Poverty! War! FGM! On Manipulating Headlines to Capture a Reader

How the heck do writers get people to care about other parts of the world?

Editors often tell me (in my many rejection letters) that North Americans don’t care about the Horn of Africa.

Unless I can come up with a salacious or titillating angle (both intriguing words), why would a reader in, say, Minnesota, care about Djiboutian girls making bead jewelry? Maybe they like working their hands to create beautiful things. Maybe they are serving their families by earning extra income, maybe they are developing math, business, negotiation, marketing, and general work ethic skills, maybe they are forming a beautiful community.

But.

Who cares?

Clearly, I do. And clearly, I hope you do. But writing about community, creativity, and beauty isn’t click-bait the way other things are.

(By the way, you can see the handiwork of these young women on Facebook and Instagram and you can even purchase it as of April 2 here)

Stories of hope and joy out of a far away region and culture, struggle to capture the attention of a general reader.

This is why Syrians are crying out for people to care but few respond. It is why many have not even heard of the war in Yemen, what has recently been called the worst humanitarian crisis in 50 years, even with Syria in the picture.

How do writers up the readership on stories from this part of the world which I find inherently fascinating and which I love, but about which few outsiders care?

Here’s what I came up with (while on a run with a friend who also cares about this part of the world):

It has to be about FGM. Female Genital Mutilation. Or pirates, poverty, war.

So here are some possible headlines, to get clicks, readers, and attention. Whether or not they actually represent reality is highly debatable.

For a story about Dreamer and Co, the bead business:

Girls Saved from Pirate Marriages Turn Trash to Treasure

(granted, they were never at risk of getting married to pirates, but I suppose its possible, in the sense of all things are possible)

For a story about the most amazing place I visited in Hargeisa, Somaliland during Marathon week, a place that almost made me cry:

They Don’t Have Clitorises but They Have a Library!

(because who wants to read about a library in Somalia, even if it is the most inspiring place in the entire city)

For a story about the incredible strides Somali women are making in medicine:

Raped in the Middle of the Day, Now a Medical Student

(as if sexual assault has anything to do with her capability as a student or doctor)

For a story about the running club in Djibouti, Girls Run 2:

With No Bras, Underwear, Socks, or Shoes, Girls Still Run

(as if the most important thing about them is what they lack, rather than what they have to offer)

Of course FGM, piracy, poverty, rape, war…all these things are significant issues for the region, for the world. I’m not saying they don’t matter or shouldn’t be written about. I write about them, I talk about them with friends. And there very well could be a place in an article about the first class of medical students to graduate to write about assault and trauma. But using those kinds of troubling details as the main point or a kind of requirement for getting through the editorial doors, skews stories and perpetuates the ‘exotic’ otherness of people, rather than our shared humanity.

We are all broken, broken in unique ways. We can also all celebrate unique stories of healing and beauty, while lamenting the brokenness, without dehumanizing each other.

Maybe it is wishful thinking, to imagine people care about those far away and outside our own borders. There is both too much brokenness and too much beauty to expect anyone to hold it all. I can’t summon the emotional energy to care about all the joys and problems of the world. But at the same time, there are billions of us. Surely there is room for all the stories, surely we can diversify a little bit more, stretch our minds past presidents, past preconceived ideas, past our comfort zones.

Surely we can tell all the stories, in all their dark and beautiful complexity, without insisting on twisting them.

(and no, I will not be using any of those headlines. Preempting the fail of sarcasm online here)

 

Should We Send Used Clothes to the Developing World?

Quick link: To Donate or Not to Donate?

At A Life Overseas today, I posted an updated essay for a few years ago, it includes new ideas, studies, articles, and experiences. I’m not an expert in development work. I’ve made my share of mistakes and have had many good intentions turn sour. I’ve learned some things and I think I’ve done some not-so-terrible things. This post is an attempt at stirring up the pot, at challenging us all to rethink how we can be both generous and wise.

I’m glad Amy Medina was brave recently and talked about similar things. And I’ve suggested many times that people read When Helping Hurts. I also suggest you read a book called The Crisis Caravan.

This book has more of a focus on how humanitarian aid impacts war and violence (as in, how it is implicated in the never-ending cycles) but I think many minds will be rocked (mine was and I’m used to stories like these) and ideas challenged.

We want to do good. We want to be generous. We have so much stuff. How can we also be wise and effective? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do have some ideas.

*This was originally published as Don’t Send Your Used Shoes to Africa on Djibouti Jones in 2014. I bring it up again because on a recent flight to Kenya, my husband sat beside a Kenyan small business owner. Her clothing shop sells locally made dresses using Kenyan materials and Kenyan employees. She said these used clothes imports make it incredibly difficult to sustain her business. She gave my husband her business card and the next day he and I visited her shop and I bought a gorgeous dress. And then I read The Crisis Caravan: what’s wrong with humanitarian aid. Mind-blowing.

There is a debate in the development world about whether or not people in developed, wealthy nations should send their used shoes and clothing to less prosperous nations.

You have a pile of used clothes and old running shoes or sandals and purses and hats from last season. What do you do with it? Donate seems like the best answer, right? Is it? Is it the best practice for wealthy, developed nations to send their used items to Africa? (I’m using Africa because that is where I live. The issue is globally relevant.)

Click here to read the rest To Donate or Not to Donate?

What Am I Going to Wear in the Marathon?

I wrote another post, years ago, about what the heck am I going to wear? I was heading to New York City for a movie premiere. Now doesn’t that sound exciting? It certainly was exciting, it was the premiere of the Finding Strong documentary which featured Girls Run 2. That week in NYC I also ran a 5k, peed in a port-a-potty next to Shalane Flannagan, met my (no longer) literary agent, watched Captain Philips in an actual movie theater (still don’t have one here), hung out with my amazing siblings (who made me cry) and shopped for clothes because I had nothing to wear.

Yet again, I face the conundrum of what to wear and this time I’m heading east, not west. Heading more conservative, not less. Heading to cooler weather. The perennial question for women here is: What should I wear?

I promised you months ago that I’d show you what I’ve decided to wear for this marathon.

It took some practice and some experimenting, but I think I have a good plan, knowing full well that it might change last minute.

I’ve counted up the total items of clothing I wore in my previous marathons (socks count as 1 and shoes count as 1): Five. Five items of clothing.

For this marathon? Nine. Nine items of clothing. Yowsers.

Everything needs to be considered carefully when training for a marathon. Shoes, socks, underwear (or none), sports bra, shirt(s), pants, and this time, a scarf.

Shoes

I used to wear Asics but recently the toe box seems to have gotten narrower. Or, my feet have gotten fatter. They aren’t working for anymore. I tried Brooks Ghost. I fell in love. I find that rotating my shoes helps protect against injury, so I currently have three pairs I rotate through. One pair of trail shoes: Brooks Cascadia, which are also too narrow and I had to cut slits around the toes. One pair of Asics, because I had brought them with from Minnesota and can’t buy shoes here, so need to wear them even if they aren’t quite perfect. And the Brooks Ghost. I’ve saved up the Ghosts, only wearing them on my long runs. The different shoes challenge me to run slightly differently – lower heel drop, or the trail shoes, and keep my legs fresh.

Socks

I’m still with Asics on my socks, mainly because that’s what I brought with me. They are seamless, don’t chafe, and don’t give me too much trouble with blisters.

Sports Bra

I have trouble with sports bras. It is so hot here, I sweat so much, I need something completely seamless and they just don’t seem to exist. I have one Champion bra, pretty seamless but also pretty unsupportive. As one of the only women running here, I want something that locks me down. I wear that one for volleyball or for walking. The Nike bras I have used to work great, but lately, even my new ones, leave me bloody at the center of my chest and along my collarbone. I turn them inside out, which helps a bit, but not enough. I found some new Nike bras last summer, which have a kind of fuzzy elastic band. Those are a bit better, though they still chafe, so I turn them inside out as well. In other words, this is what I plan to wear, but it is the weakest link in my clothing lineup and I’m open to suggestions (just know I won’t be able to shop until July).

Shirt

This is the shirt I’ve chosen. But, it will be under a long-sleeved shirt, or maybe over the top, since I’m writing people’s names on it. But two shirts? During a warm-ish race? Aiyayai. What have I gotten myself into?

It is also Nike. I don’t love the color (why does every women’s running shirt here have to be pink?). But, the shirt doesn’t chafe, is nice and light, and is the longest and loosest shirt I have and doesn’t have a v-neck or low cut scoop neck. So it is the most conservative running shirt in my closet. It is a size Large, which is why it hangs past my butt, and was a hand-me down from a runner who left Djibouti. This is the shirt, that will bear the names of everyone who donated to the Go Fund Me campaign.

I tried a shirt from a Muslim-friendly athletic apparel store, a shirt-dress. I hated it. Way too much material for a marathon in a warm climate. Too much flapping. I know from experience that flapping and sweat leads to chafing and bleeding, which is why I wear spandex here. Plus, it would get so dang heavy. It was really comfortable and I could wear it for anything less than an hour, or for someplace cooler than the Horn of Africa, the material was great, but nope. Too much of that great material.

Pants

After my shoes, I’m most excited about my pants. I love these pants. Brooks Chaser. I had to take a big risk and ordered them online, unable to try them or or return them once they got to Africa. But they fit perfect, they are incredibly lightweight and breathable, they aren’t tight but aren’t so loose that they flap. They have four pockets.

But still, they are pants. And my shirt is long-ish but not super long.

So I’m adding a little bonus, which might be removed once I see how things are on the ground.

I used to have a pair of leggings with a skirt attached. I wore them out, the seams got all hard and crusty from sweat and use, so I was almost going to throw them away. Instead, I cut off the legs and saved the skirt part. Now, I can pull that on over the Brooks pants and, if I feel like my shirt isn’t modest enough, I’ll wear the skirt, too. But because it is less material than the t-shirt dress and is more designed for running, it isn’t as flappy.

Underwear

No photos, but I have a good plan.

Scarf

I got this from the same store, Veil Garments, as the shirt dress. I love it. The color, the material, the fit. It doesn’t feel like I’m wearing anything and doesn’t make me feel much hotter or sweatier.

 

I’ll also be wearing my TomTom Spark watch, sans headphones so I won’t miss any of the fun of the race. And, I’ll have my phone in an armband, so I can snap photos if the chance comes up.

Voila!

My marathon outfit. At least in my plan.

Everything could change…

 

Running Afraid

Y’all did it. You helped me raise the funds for the marathon and education fundraiser in Somaliland. Thank you.

And now that means I have to do this.

Uh, I mean get to do this.

But kind of? I mean I have to do this.

I’m kind of a chicken type of person.

You might not believe me. People call me brave. I rarely feel brave. I rarely feel competent. I often doubt my decisions, question my ability, cower before negative self-talk.

I am also stubborn. That’s one thing I have going for me. Stubborn works well for long-distance running. It works well for long-term cross-cultural living. It works well for the years of research and rejection and revising that go into book writing.

But stubborn is not the same as brave.

So I confess that I’m feeling nervous.

I have my plane ticket. I have my visa. I paid my fees and made our donation. I won’t back down (thank you Tom Petty), but I’m doing it afraid.

Anything can happen.

Anything can happen at any time and in any place. I know this full well. I’ve written about it several times.

There’s the marathon nerves that any runner feels before the start of a big race. We’ve spent months training our legs and lungs and brains. We’ve read for inspiration, woken up way too early, pooped in places we wish we hadn’t, downed GU by the bucketfull, kept pasta-makers in business. We’ve tweaked training plans and figured out the best shoes and running gear. We’ve given up on ever having ten toenails all at the same time. So we’re ready, but also not ready.

Its a frickin’ marathon.

That’s a long way.

26.2 miles. 42 kilometers.

It hurts.

The nerves are excited-nerves. I love this stuff. Running, education, the region, the people I’m meeting and spending time with. I love it.

But it is also outside my comfort zone.

So I’m nervous.

I’m nervous about being one of only a few women, only a few international runners, about the location, about what I’ll wear (I’m bringing several options). I’m nervous about the meetings I have arranged for before and after. I’m nervous that not everyone will be thrilled about this event.

My husband tells me to stop being so self-conscious. To not worry about what to wear or what to say or who to talk to, to not doubt myself, to be strong and assertive. He says, “Its all strange.” Meaning: female, running, white, foreign, Somali-speaker. He says to stop thinking so hard and to enjoy it.

He’s right.

I think that’s what it takes to do something while afraid. To jump in with both feet. Forget about dipping one toe in at a time. Forget about self and focus on what I know is true. This is such a unique opportunity. I should not waste time being timid or afraid.

I should be all me. Meaning: curious, interested, hopeful, excited.

Instead of bringing all my baggage of:

I’m too slow

Women don’t run here

I stick out

Its unsafe

I look ridiculous

What was I thinking? (this will come in mile 22, if not before)

I should bring:

My love for Somali culture and the ways it has molded into my American-ness

My dreams of competitive female athletes from this region

My thrill at being part of this unique experience

All the Somalis who have loved me, welcomed me, helped me laugh my way through these years abroad, all the people who have fed me and clothed me (quite literally) and embraced my kids, and forgiven my faux pas, and shown me how to create a home here, and given me their courage when I lacked my own.

So yeah, I get to do this.

Here we go!

(Here are a couple of videos I made of my last two long runs, if you want a peek at running in Djibouti)

 

 

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