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No Longer Covered in Shame

Quick link: Today I have an essay Unclean but Called Clean, at (in)courage.

When I was radioactive and in isolation, I spent a lot of time meditating on shame, fear, healing, and the power of touch, the power of hope, the power of being restored. Here’s what I concluded.

It is a strange and unsettling thing being a danger to society.

I went for a walk and swooped to avoid a woman walking her dog. I crossed the street when a man came toward me, pushing his toddler on a tricycle. The little girl waved and said, “Hi!” and I stepped even further away. I walked down the center of streets, to keep my body as far from animals as possible.

I felt like I should have shouted, “Unclean! Unclean!”

I had every right to go outside. I’d specifically asked my doctor if it’d be okay and she said yes, then backed away from me in the hospital room to demonstrate how far I would have to be from people and pets — a good eight feet.


What if I slipped and hit my head and people came to help? What if a dog chased me? What if a school bus dropped off a student, and I didn’t get away quickly enough? What if I saw someone I knew and had to ignore or rebuff them?

At home, I lurked in the basement. My mom delivered food but couldn’t stop and chat. I didn’t want her to stay long in the basement air or near my physical space.

I was unclean…

Read the rest of the essay at (in)courage

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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

Honor and Shame

Why are Muslims upset about the anti-Islam movie? Why are some of them reacting violently?

To expand on another blogger’s example, if I am upset with Tom and he said, “You shouldn’t be upset!” that would only make things worse. If he said, “I wouldn’t be upset if I were in your situation,” that would make things even worse. If he said, “Less than 1% of wives in your situation are upset,” that would make things worse. And if he said, “You have no right to be upset,” I would storm out of the house and slam the door, half-hoping to catch his toe on my way out.

I am upset and that is a fact. One of Tom’s jobs, if he wants to resolve our conflict, is to understand why.

It isn’t helpful to say people shouldn’t be offended. It isn’t helpful to cite examples from America where the cross or a synagogue have been denigrated and to compare the reactions and to stay ‘stop it.’ It certainly can be interesting but as far as trying to gain an understanding and a way to move forward, it isn’t helpful.

I don’t know all of the whys and I won’t pretend to understand them. I’m not a historian or an academic. I’m just a lady from the west living in the Muslim world who has done some reading and thinking and talking and listening. But I think I know one why. It has to do with honor and with shame.


America was built primarily on a guilt/innocence paradigm. We have laws, judges, courts, lawyers, all designed to determine the guilt or innocence of an accused person. Did they commit the crime? Did they break the law? If so, they will be punished. After the punishment has been paid, the person will be ‘forgiven’ and released.

The only person responsible for breaking the law and the only person to receive punishment is the guilty party. And forgiveness is earned because a debt has been paid.

Guilt and innocence are experienced individually.

Many eastern cultures operate on an honor/shame paradigm. In the west, shame is associated with the lack of self-esteem but in the east it is much more than that. Shame is a controlling force that dictates behavior, relationships, and one’s standing within a community.

Shame comes when a person fails to conform, which leads to shame for the wider group. Often, westerners with a high value on individualism fail to understand how passionately Islam, and many eastern cultures (both Muslim and non-Muslim), stress conformity to the point of submission. Public prayer times, a universal month of fasting, the yearly pilgrimage, these are imperative to being a good Muslim and they are highly communal in nature.

Participating in these public events brings honor to an individual and the community. And honor is granted because of a person’s relation to the community.

Shame and honor are experienced corporately.

Shameful deeds are covered up and if that isn’t possible, they are avenged. One of the reasons violence in Somalia has perpetuated for so long is due to this corporate experience of shame and vengeance. If I kill your brother, you can attack someone from my family, not necessarily me. Then this person’s family can attack someone from your family…the cycle could continue forever. Because the shame has touched all, the revenge touches all.

So when a shameful video is shown all over the web and the world, when there is no way to cover up the shame, there is vengeance and it is enacted on those who are presumed to be bearing the corporate responsibility for the one causing that shame.

The way a person responds to shame can cement his place within society, can increase or decrease his honor.

My language tutor told me once that if I was angry with Tom and killed his sister in my passionate rage instead, that makes sense. I shouldn’t kill her but she understands why I did. My response would stem from the need to defend my honor, and this is a positive thing. So, while I am guilty of murder, I have successfully defended my honor and guarded my place in society. In effect, I go to prison but with my head held high.

I am in no way suggesting that violence and murder is a reasonable response or that people are helpless to control themselves against the rising emotions brought on by a crude film. I’m also not suggesting this as an excuse. Murder is murder, violence is violence, and both should be unacceptable. There are better ways to avenge one’s honor and many in the Muslim world, including in Djibouti, are doing just that.

Some mosques here on Friday preached nonviolence, they spoke out against the film but urged people to come to the mosque to pray and to seek God rather than throwing stones and burning flags. They declared that the maker of the film will stand before God one day and that they should let God be his judge. They spoke highly of their prophet and their faith.

They defended honor with honorable deeds, defended against defamatory words with respectful words.

Instead of violently attacking innocent people, no matter their associations, perhaps a more powerful defense would be to create a counter video. One promoting the life of the Prophet as Muslims see it. One focusing on how he stood up for the rights of women, how he defended orphans and saved the lives of baby girls, how he destroyed idols and idol-worship. A movie that promotes his love for Allah. A movie that shows how he respected Moses and Abraham and Jesus and Mary.

Practically, I encourage you to enter into this kind of dialogue. Ask Christian friends and Muslim friends and atheists and Jews and Hindus…why? Why this kind of reaction from some?

Why, in your opinion?

*image via Wikimedia

By |September 18th, 2012|Categories: Islam|Tags: , , , |14 Comments
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