The Story Women Need To Tell
I wasn’t going to write about this, not here. I know all the potential repercussions – both of support and condemnation. But then I started following this iReport story on CNN: The Story You Never Wanted to Hear and felt compelled to add my voice. In Djibouti, expatriates and local women don’t talk a lot about sexual harassment. But we need to. We need to hear from each other, learn how to respond, learn how to live with courage, and learn how to help our daughters.
The iReport is the story of an American university student in India and the sexual harassment and molestation she endures during her time abroad.
Naturally, responses from around the world vary widely.
There are Indian men who are honorable and will stand up for women. Yes.
Sexual harassment happens in every city in every country. Yes.
Men need to learn, starting in their own homes, how to treat women. Yes.
It isn’t fair to judge a nation, or all a nation’s men, based on the behavior of a few. Yes.
It isn’t just India. Yes.
It is also Djibouti.
And I have put up with it, mostly in silence, for over a decade now.
I am not a person in the market, I am a woman in the market. I am not a person at the outdoor café, I am a woman at the outdoor cafe. I am not the person running, I am a woman running. And when a person is a female person, she is, often, a harassed person.
I don’t want to paint a picture of harassment of the white foreigner that negates or trumps the Djiboutian woman’s experience. Some friends tell me they are shocked at my stories, that they have never experienced similar things. Other friends tell me they are harassed on a regular basis and that the harassment sometimes crosses into abuse.
This is not a story of a white woman or an expatriate woman. This is a story of all women.
I also don’t want to give the narrow impression that all Djiboutian men engage in sexual harassment or that this hasn’t happened in Minnesota, but my current reality is Djibouti. And if you have read Djibouti Jones at all, you will know how deeply I care about this country and how I find beauty and friendship here. Many men stand up for the honor of women here.
But there are still times when I feel compelled to talk about the hard things. The infuriating things. The shaming, dehumanizing things. The things that make my stomach clench every time I step out our front door.
I said every time I step out our front door.
The reason it clenches is because after eleven years I have a really good idea of what is going to happen on the other side of that door and I have a visceral reaction to it, like my spirit is girding its loins.
Leering. Open-mouthed, wide-eyed stares. People stopping conversations, stopping in their tracks, turning and watching until I pass. Kissy-faces. Sexual hand gestures. Men cupping imaginary breasts. Men pulling down their pants. Pulling my hair and pinching my ass. Calling me a whore and a prostitute and an infidel. Throwing rocks and soda bottle caps. Trying to trip me. Jumping from behind and shouting, in at attempt to scare me. Spitting. Following. Mimicking my walk. Walking behind so closely they step on my heels. Drawing the finger across the throat. And then some of them ask for money.
(though my stomach clenches every time, these things don’t happen every time, just often enough to know what can happen)
So what do I do? No matter the clothing, I am harassed. No matter the language I use, I am harassed. No matter the activity I engage in, I am harassed. Grocery shopping. Running. Dropping Lucy off at school. Walking. Driving. Eating ice cream. Do I stay inside? Do I foster the humiliation until it consumes me? Do I walk around town angry and glaring? Sometimes I do all of that.
Do I let myself lump men together? On a bad, angry, humiliating day, I do. Its wrong and I know it. I’m sorry that my anger, that the hurtful things done to me cause me to sink to this level. I wish I were stronger than that.
Do I walk around with my middle finger in the air, muttering curses under my breath? Sometimes I want to.
There are some who say this is the woman’s fault. This seems so far beyond where we should be in the discussion of violence and harassment, but we are still there. The CNN iReporter received comments that she shouldn’t have been in the market, shouldn’t have danced during a festival, should have gone home after the first negative incident but since she stayed…well. Djiboutian women are told if they dressed more modestly, didn’t go certain places, didn’t look at men, didn’t walk down the street…well.
Really? A woman can’t buy food? Can’t celebrate at a party? Can’t travel? Can’t walk around the block?
I don’t want to sit in a place of anger and humiliation. These experiences need to be redeemed. What do I take from this that enables me to move forward, to step out the door, to risk meeting someone new, to engage in necessary market shopping, to enjoy local customs? How do I find strength here in the place of brokenness and tears and a burning butt cheek, to lean into that clenched stomach and not allow it to send me back in the house?
The first thing I did last fall after I posted Going Crazy was go out for coffee with a Djiboutian friend who shared her experiences with me. The first thing I did two weeks ago after a particularly upsetting incident was visit two friends, one Djiboutian and one expat, who live together. I told them what happened, they told me what they have experienced, how they have responded. I prayed for them. This is how we start to redeem sexual harassment. Together, we refuse to be silenced. We don’t let it be the victor.
I own my story. I listen to the stories of the women around me. And I say, me too. That happened to me too. I tell my story, I don’t hide it because it is embarrassing, because my reaction wasn’t what I wish it were. I hear the women around me say, me too. And say, I’m sorry. And say, I’m angry with you, for you. I believe we are the walking wounded. Yes, we are wounded, but yes, we are walking forward, out the front door. And knowing that Asha is walking out her front door, Mumina out hers, Sarah out hers, Carrie out hers, I gather all their strength and step out mine.
I recognize that there is nothing new under the sun and I read about the women of faith who have walked this path before. Dinah. Tamar. Esther. The Levite’s concubine. And I know that their tears are not forgotten. Not by women and more importantly, not by the Creator of male and female.
I learn, to the depths of my core, that I am human and that I am created in the image of God. If I wasn’t, it wouldn’t hurt so bad when people strip me of that basic dignity. I learn how to offer that same dignity to others, to lessen the incidents of my own dehumanizing of others, like beggars at my door or men I might lump into a clump of harassers. I honor the men who rise up to defend me, my husband chief among them. I practice being courageous.
I talk to my husband about it. Men need to know what this does to women, they need encouragement and exhortation to talk to other men about it. Women can shout “knock it off” as loud and often as we want but until the men start shouting and stop harassing, I don’t know how much will change.
Writing about sexual harassment won’t make it stop. But I’m not writing for the few men who perpetrate.
I’m writing for the women. For my sisters. You are not alone. We are not alone. My experience helps me embrace you when your tears are flowing from fresh shame. Your experience enables you to enter my latest humiliation. Good men can join us here. They can offer compassion and speak condemnation. I have been lifted up and healed and given hope by the gentle words and the righteous anger of the men in my life, expats and locals. And of course men experience harassment as well, I’m not trying to minimize that. But there is a constancy and a global aspect for women that is ours to bear.
So we put words to the raw space in our souls, we receive the pain of others and let it pierce us deeper than the shame does, and then we offer the safety, comfort, security, presence, and dignity so often stripped away. This will makes us strong, compassionate healers as we step out the door together.