Sexual Harassment. Here We Go Again.

I was going to just put this on Instagram. But it got long.

Real talk about life in Djibouti.

Last night, while walking with a friend, we were assaulted not once, but TWICE, by boys. Using the word “assault” feels extreme, but what else do you call being followed, surrounded, insulted, and ass-pinched by 8-10 people?

I have developed the ability, out of sad and infuriating necessity, to shout and shame like you might not believe. I can turn it on and off, because I have to, on a regular basis. It doesn’t make a difference. I, and other women both local and foreign, continue to be assaulted.

It does not matter where we are, who are with, or what we are wearing. It has happened to me in all manner of scenarios. It has happened to me while with my husband.

I feel angry enough when this happens to me. But when it happens to one of my kids or to one of the people we have brought here to work, I rage.

Here is what I mean. If you’ve followed me long, you’ve heard it before:

Rock thrown and hit me in the head.
Rocks thrown and hit me in the back, legs, ankles, arms, scatter at my feet.
Cars and motorcycles and bikers swerve at me, intentionally.
Breast squeezed through an open car window.
Blocked on my bicycle.
Butt punched by two man on a motorcycle. Hard.
Breast grazed by man on bicycle reaching out sideways.
Hair pulled by girls in market.
My daughter’s butt pinched.
My butt pinched. How many times? I’ve lost count.
Insulted with hand gestures, facial gestures, and words.
Words like: whore, slut, prostitute, sex, talk about my underwear and what movements various body parts are doing. I understand it. I wish I didn’t.
Bottle of liquid dumped on me at a stoplight.
Chased by men and boys.
Attempted tripping.
Heard people tell other people to chase me.
Told my uterus would fall out.
Told I belonged in the kitchen.
Birthday presents snatched out of my daughter’s hands while walking literally around the corner from our house.
My daughter’s bike being pushed and chased and surrounded.

This is a partial list.

Many of these things have happened multiple times.

These are things that happen on regular days, while I do regular things. I refuse to cower in my house, that’s not a life. So I refuse to be kept down by this. But also? It sucks.

Assault and harassment feel like shame to women. It makes us feel ashamed and gross and vulnerable. But you know what? No.

Shame on the assaulters, the harassers. Shame on the people who see it or hear it and do nothing. Shame on the educators and parents and elders and friends who don’t model or teach better behavior.

I mostly enjoy living in Djibouti. When people hear how long we’ve been here, they say, “Oh! You must really love it.” And I do, most of the time. But this is a long list and it wears on a person. We actually moved out of our last house because I had developed so much anxiety about simply going outside the front door.

At that time, we involved our landlord, the police, the school director of the school across the street. Nothing changed.

Look, I know worse things happen. Bad shit does not make this stuff less bad. One bad thing does not erase another bad thing. I know it isn’t everyone. I know it happens in other countries too. Great. Fine. Still. Whatever. All of it needs to stop. I know rape and violent assault happen. I don’t hear people talk about it here, but we live in the world. And the world is violent toward women.

So maybe raising a stink about the bad stuff that happens to me will someday encourage someone to raise a stink about the worse stuff happening to them.

If someone says, “This list is nothing compared to the rapes that occur,” then I will respond with, “Oh really? Let’s talk about the rapes, then.” And the conversation will start.

Enough. I’m not asking for anything radical. I’m asking to be treated like a human. I’m asking to be freaking left alone.


Writing about it feels satisfying and dissatisfying. My little angry posts aren’t going to make someone say, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t reach for that breast.” I don’t expect this to change a thing. I even get told to shut up when I talk about this, so the opposite of what I would hope.

I’m taking it up a notch. Next time? I’ll snap a photo and go to the nearest police officer. I am going to report. Report. Report. Maybe no one else does. Maybe no one else talks about it. Well, I will. Probably, the reports will lead to nothing. Fine. I’ll still report it and maybe, after years, there will be some action.

Yeah, I’m angry. I should be.


Here are my other public posts about this. I also wrote one exclusive essay in a past newsletter about the most violent incident that happened to me. Maybe I will make that one public later this week.

The Story Women Need to Tell

What Happens Every Time I Write about Sexual Harassment

This is My Body. Thou Shalt Not Break It.

Talking to Third Culture Kids about Sexual Harassment

Going Crazy

Going Crazy and Jesus

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.


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.

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.

women's bodies

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.

Please don’t.

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:

The Story Women Need to Tell

Talking to Third Culture Kids about Sexual Harassment (published on Babble)

Maybe We All Need to Be Heckled

Talking to Third Culture Kids about Sexual Harassment

Quick link: Sexual Harassment and Third Culture Kids

sexual harassment

When I tried to find statistics, information, or simply personal stories about sexual harassment and Third Culture Kids or expatriates, my own blog post about it came up in the top five of most searches I entered and few of the other sites directly addressed expatriate kids and sexual harassment. A few addressed the issue in the context of boarding schools and that was the end of my search.

In other words, the sexual harassment experienced while living as an expatriate isn’t being talked about often. At least not online.

While I do have children in boarding school and so must be aware of sexual harassment and bullying in that environment, what about in the day to day life of Third Culture Kids in their host countries?

Click here to read more about Sexual Harassment and Third Culture Kids.

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