This Is My Body. Thou Shalt Not Break It.
Last week I wrote about making assumptions based on physical appearances and first impressions and cultural prejudice.
On Thursday last week I was called a whore and prostitute approximately twenty-five times. In one day, two separate situations. This week, another sexual comment from a 55-year old (or older) man. Also this week, groups of construction workers telling me to quit running, pretending to chase me (and then shouting that they are winning as they sprint, even though they tire in about fifteen seconds and I zip right on past), and shouting and/or stomping right next to me when I walk by (they do this hoping to get a startled response they can laugh at).
I’m also reading Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant Men Explain Things To Me and finished a chapter about violence against women. So it all came together for me this week.
This is one thing that I continue to struggle with in Djibouti. I know the people who call me names and in other ways harass me think I don’t understand it. I know specifically that several of the boys who called me a whore have been abandoned by their parents or have been orphaned and raised on the streets. I know this because I was at the homeless service center where kids can get medical care and other helps.
As I walked up to the front door, which was crowded with young boys, a few of them thrust their hands out to me, big ‘friendly’ smiles on their faces, and said, “Dilo! Bonjour! Bonjour, dilo.” Over and over. Dilo: Somali for prostitute. Bonjour: French for hello. They wanted me to respond by shaking their hands and saying bonjour, essentially accepting their prostitute label.
Instead, I said in Somali, without greeting or shaking anyone’s hand but without raising my voice or losing my temper (which has been known to happen in these cases), “Shame on you. Open the door, I’m here to see the doctor.”
Later in the day my daughter and I were riding our bikes around the corner to a birthday party and we biked past a group of, again, young boys. These boys shouted, in Somali, “Give us your bike, whore!” I ignored them.
Honestly? Sometimes I wish I didn’t speak Somali. Then I wouldn’t understand when people are talking about my ass or my breasts or my skin color or my religion or my underwear or my relationship with men…
I haven’t had any physical altercations this year, not like a few years ago. Though I have had girls threaten to punch me while I walk down the street with my daughter to tennis. I’ve had to almost physically remove kids who were sitting on the hood of our car and refused to get down until I threatened to go get the police. Still, I (and my kids) haven’t been pinched, stoned, threatened, or shoved this year. So, there’s that.
I suspect that the people who do these things just don’t know any better. I’m trying to have an attitude like Brené Brown advocates in Rising Strong, that they are ‘doing the best that they can.’
Still, I get angry. I wonder where the parents or teachers or mentors are. I worry that others have it worse than I do, that others are treated worse and more aggressively.
I know there are excellent parents and teachers and mentors here because often a bystander or even a member of the group shaming me, stands up for me and tells the others to knock it off. There are also so many people who shout encouragements when I run or tell me that they wish they were runners too. I am so thankful for the people who speak dignifying and grace-filled words over me. So there’s that, too.
I’m not exactly sure why I’m writing about this. Maybe I just want to share a piece of the darker side of being an
expatriate woman. Maybe I need to get it off my chest, as though airing the humiliation and anger publicly will somehow make it easier to bear. Maybe I hope that people who shame others will read it and realize how hurtful it is to call people names, how wrong their assumptions are, and stop. Maybe I hope that others, especially other women, who have been sexually shamed and insulted, will feel less alone. Maybe I hope to feel that myself. Maybe I want the chance to write, out loud in public, to my own body.
You are my body. This is all I’ve got. This color, this shape, this height. These are my muscles, they are strong and they enable to walk down the street or run or bike. Underneath these clothes, these are my stretch marks and scars and cellulite patterns. This is my voice and the way I laugh. When I walk, this is the way my butt swings, this is the rhythm of my hips and the sway of my shoulders.
Sometimes when people call me a whore because of the color of my skin, I’m tempted to round my shoulders over, to curve my back, to turn in on myself. I become so conscious of the way my hips move that I trip over the stones in the dirt road. I’m so aware of the teensiest bit of bouncing in my breasts (even though I buy the tightest sports bras possible, so tight I can barely get them on, just to plaster everything down so I don’t get comments) that I feel my face burn red, as though there were something to be ashamed of in the jiggle.
There isn’t something to be ashamed of here.
This is my body. It’s all I have to walk around this world in. It is hard enough to escape the shame and guilt of all the ways I am weak and fail my friends, my family, my work. I can not let people add to that shame by allowing them to put it on my physical body, too.
This body is a temple. It is a holy place where the essence of ‘me’ dwells. Don’t desecrate it. I know the people who insult me aren’t reading this. So what I’m really saying is to myself. Don’t let them desecrate it. They won’t stop saying these things, there will always be the jerk who needs to elevate him or herself by shaming others. Don’t walk in that shame.
Walk in the glory that is this body, this temple. Own it. Care for it. Use it. Wear it with confidence even in public. There is no shame here.
Here are some other posts I’ve written about sexual harassment:
Talking to Third Culture Kids about Sexual Harassment (published on Babble)