The Story Women Need To Tell

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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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

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40 Comments

  1. Hayaat September 16, 2013 at 8:57 am - Reply

    What you have to go through is really really upsetting. I had no idea that this occured in Djibouti. Being from Somalia myself, I remember the misplaces remarks and the never ending disturbing stares during my visit to Somalia. However maybe the fact that I was one of them stopped them from going further than that?
    I am really hurt by what you and other are made to go through. Men who act like a bunch of thirsty animals (excuse the strong term) make it harder upon women everywhere.
    I encourage you and others to talk about it. That we may learn from you experiences.
    This article was enlightening at the same time I can’t help but feel extremely angry.
    Also, if the situation is unfortunately such, what is holding you back? If you don’t mind me asking..

    All the best & stay safe!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones September 16, 2013 at 9:07 am - Reply

      Hayaat, thanks for writing and for your empathy. Do you mean what is holding me back from doing something in response? Sometimes I do! The other day I screamed, “Waryaa, waa ceeb!” at a boy after he did something, the group he was with laughed. I’ve grabbed people too, or swatted at them but usually an angry response like that just gets a worse response back. So I try to stay calm. But if someone does something to my kids…! Yikes. If you mean, why do we stay? That’s because there are so many MORE people who don’t do these kinds of things, so many MORE healthy relationships that I can’t let the negative things destroy all that goodness. I really do appreciate hearing from you, walaashay.

  2. ilyas ilyas September 16, 2013 at 10:12 am - Reply

    Although I am not completely convinced here, I’m sorry if you feel that you might have been a victim of sexual harassment in my native country. The reason why there is skepticism in my response is that you fail to stated in your article whether or not you reported those allegations to the authority. Now, the simply fact that you are a white woman strolling thought the local market might draw you unwanted attention or gestures from bandits high on Khat. And that is unacceptable and is not tolerated by the government. But to tarnished the image of your host country to this extent is disappointing. Furthermore, you are insinuating that Djiboutian men are predominately perverts to the point that it is comparable to the recent barbaric rapes that occurred India! Also you mentioned beggars are constantly harassing you which is very common given that you are Africa. But, I frankly don’t see the connection between street beggars and sexual harassment. Now if you feel you have been humiliated and reduced to tears, why not just come back to the stateside. In conclusion, I am really a huge fan of your blog Mrs. Jones and through your writings I am able to travel to my native country but I think you are misleading your readers in this article and doing your host country reputation a great disservice.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones September 16, 2013 at 11:34 am - Reply

      Ilyas, thanks for your honest comment. In fact, I have complained to the authorities on a number of occasions but I don’t believe that not doing so would negate the reality of my experiences. I tried to make it clear in the post that it is most truly NOT all Djiboutian men and that I have experienced this from non-Djiboutians as well. And support from Djiboutian men too. Just because a person is a beggar doesn’t mean they can’t harass people, though the harassment has come from all sorts of people, least often from beggars in fact. Also, it is not simply attracting attention because I am foreign. As I wrote, it also happens to local women. And it is more than attention. It is literally pinching my body or making sexual hand gestures or inappropriate touching. Also, you are suggesting I return home as a way to solve this issue. It happens at home too, that is the point. It is an issue women face around the world and it must be addressed in every nation. The way to end it is not for women to step out of the public sphere but for men to stop engaging in harassment. And I disagree that this post compares what I have experienced to the gang rape violence in India, I’m sorry you feel I have given that impression. Thanks for commenting, I do appreciate hearing your perspective.

  3. Ilyas ilyas September 16, 2013 at 12:23 pm - Reply

    Thanks for your thorough response. I just felt your introduction led me to believe what follows would be a comparison to the sexual gang rape in India. But I do agree with you, sexual harassment needs to stop and women shouldn’t concede their place in the public sphere for it to happen. As for the sexual harassment you have experience in Djibouti, I would urge to consistently report them to the authority.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones September 16, 2013 at 12:36 pm - Reply

      I can see how the intro would lead to that idea, my apologies for that. Thanks for the encouragement to continue talking to people who can help – police, neighborhood leaders, school officials, etc.

  4. Hannah September 16, 2013 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    Thanks for putting this into words. I won’t say I have enjoyed reading it, as, well, i haven’t. It makes me sad, but also happy that you, one strong lady are prepared to write this, and be a truth teller. Nice one. I enjoy reading your writing. Keep at it 🙂

  5. Corrie September 16, 2013 at 1:30 pm - Reply

    Rachel
    Thank you for this post. I have known about these types of things for a long time and reading through the woman’s story from India, my heart broke for her. My heart breaks for you as well as you have chosen to continue to live in a place where this happens regularly.However now it is even more personal as I help my daughter who will be living overseas for an extended period of time to prepare herself for these types of incidents. It will be hard for her, but your article helps me to know how to pray for expat women in general and my daughter specifically. Thank you for being honest and writing from your experience. I pray your words will have an impact and will foster good discussion that will result in change!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones September 16, 2013 at 5:07 pm - Reply

      I’ve been thinking too about how to talk about this stuff with my kids. I have, asked hard questions and shared what I feel like is appropriate about my own experiences. And we’ve talked about what are natural responses, good/bad. But that IS a big reason I feel like this is an important area that we start talking about together.

  6. Heather Pound September 16, 2013 at 8:05 pm - Reply

    Thanks for talking about this! I didn’t realize what a constant stress this was for me living in India until I left! I hated it but like you said it’s changed me for the better since I know what it’s like to be dehumanized now too.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones September 17, 2013 at 4:57 am - Reply

      So true, sometimes it is hard to be aware of until getting some space.

  7. TCKMusing September 16, 2013 at 9:22 pm - Reply

    Thanks for writing about this Rachel. I was an expat as a child in another country, and I well remember the sexual harassment then. And it was not just me, it was my non-expat female class-mates who endured it too. The funny thing is, it never occurred to me that it could happen to me as a grown woman too – I need to be aware of this as my family and I prepare for a possibly extended stay overseas.
    Praying for continued healing in this area.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones September 17, 2013 at 4:58 am - Reply

      Yes, it happens to locals too, even as the commenter below suggests. So sad to think about young girls though, yourself and your classmates, or my daughters. But that’s why we need to talk about it, so we can give each other tools for healthy responses and encouragement.

  8. Djib24 September 16, 2013 at 11:29 pm - Reply

    We expect from the American author Rachel Jones to apologize and withdraw this article insulting and humiliating to the Djiboutians men that she describes as sexual harassers. If Ms Jones is attempted to write about women sexual harassment she can found a lot of case inside the Lemonnier Camp on how Djiboutians women workers are abused during their shift.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones September 17, 2013 at 5:01 am - Reply

      It is clear in the post that I know this happens to local women as well, thank you for bringing up a specific issue. I hope the situation changes for women working at the Camp and I’m sorry that they endure harassment there. I wish no woman, anywhere in the world, had to experience it.

  9. Anna September 17, 2013 at 12:08 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing this. I know that you’ve opened yourself to criticism by bringing up such a difficult subject. I’ve lived in the Congo for over 3 years, and while my experience has not been extreme, I can relate. I’ve also been told by a fellow expat that it was my fault for wearing pants on occasion. But like you said, it doesn’t matter what you wear. Unless you are with a large man to protect you, you are fair game. The worse part is when things are said to my daughter, who is now 10. I know it will only get worse as she gets older. 🙁

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones September 17, 2013 at 4:56 am - Reply

      Thanks Anna. I don’t think I’d call my experiences extreme either, not like the CNN iReporter I linked to, but I just think it needs to be a topic we discuss, with our daughters too. So important.

  10. med amin September 17, 2013 at 6:16 am - Reply

    hi,
    a stand beside any woman who’s victim of man’s misbehavior. but mrs jones, in Djibouti there is a lot of expatriate women because djibouti was since Independence june 1977 the biggest military base of France. and over 3000 men with wives stayed here. expatriate women are always use to live in the city, going to school with their children, shopping and having a good time. and all that before you americans herd the Name of Djibouti for the first time.
    there is a bad people in every country, and a lot of bad things happens in Djibouti, but woman’s condition is more comfortable than many other countries in the world. and the society is more open-minded (western view) than many muslim countries, for exemple we can not talk about “men sexual frustration” like some media describe egyptians, because young men & girls do what they want, the society cares less those cconsideration like virginity before mariage or other considerations.
    what you describe here is much more like a jungle of gorilla, and seems more like a sarah palin views.
    maybe you should go back or stay in your “wonderful” america.
    wish you the best in the life inshAllah.
    Nabad Galyo

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones September 17, 2013 at 7:49 am - Reply

      I’m curious where you get the idea that I said America was “wonderful?” In the United States, 83 per cent of girls aged 12 to 16 experienced some form of sexual harassment in public schools, according to this website: http://saynotoviolence.org/issue/facts-and-figures Yes, Djibouti is a good place to be, but no place is perfect.

  11. Mark F. September 17, 2013 at 10:27 am - Reply

    Just starting to read, Rachel. Bravo for tackling this. Typo in this line: It isn’t fair to judge a nation, or all a nation’s men, based on the behavior of a view. Yes.
    Few, not view, right?

  12. richelle @ "our wright"-ing pad September 17, 2013 at 12:57 pm - Reply

    my experience with this sort of thing has been very minimal – although it was much, much worse when living in SE Asia as a young, somewhat foolhardy and naive single gal versus my experience in W Africa as an older, much less of a risk taker and more willing to conform to what my “elders” were saying wife and mama of many. and i don’t say that to say that women should expect such treatment based on certain behaviors/stage of life (because the idea that they “should” is abhorrent) – but reality is that they do. Like one commenter said – she makes plans to protect herself when she is in certain situations. this sort of treatment is always wrong, but it does not occur in a vacuum – and there are things we can do (thinking particularly of our daughters) to help avoid, minimize or still remain “safe” from hopefully the bulk of it, some of the time and i know i need to accept that and in my insisting that it shouldn’t be that way. Sadly, that is part of what it means to live in a sin stained world.

    i had an interesting experience while working with the ladies in our church. we were studying tamar and the horrific events in her life and it was fascinating to see how much culture played into our reading of that account where i was totally clueless that it might. i’d always thought it weird that she agreed to be alone with her half brother – and there’s a slew of church and cultural teachings all wrapped up in that perception – I know. the ladies i was studying with thought it weird that i’d consider any other possibility as normal. in their world, it was totally expected that one of the older daughters would care for an ailing half brother – and specifically not his mother. i think as our world grows smaller, thanks to technology, we also have to be very aware of those cultural understandings in our interactions and understandings of these sorts of events. Again, not to excuse wrong and sinful behavior that clearly translates perfectly across cultures – but perhaps that is part of what that exhortation means – to be wise as serpents.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones September 17, 2013 at 1:35 pm - Reply

      Good words Richelle about how culture comes into our reading and understanding. And I get what you are saying about needing to be careful, it is just the truth and the reality, I don’t feel like you’re saying it is a woman’s fault. But, the unfortunate fact is, we have to exercise caution. There was a great, great piece in Salon recently about being a woman and a travel writer. I loved how she brought the issue around in the end to a place of strength. Here’s the link:http://www.salon.com/2013/08/27/dangers_of_traveling_while_female/

      • richelle @ "our wright"-ing pad September 17, 2013 at 4:17 pm - Reply

        thanks for the link ~ i loved this: “But deep down, I’ll know that such freedom is born of a privilege I do not have and perhaps should not want. It is a privilege that blinds those who have it to the fact that the world is not raw material, shifting, uncertain geography for us to shape and create anew in our words. It is not a moveable stage set upon which we can create visions of ourselves, invent ourselves as the adventurers we would like to be. As a woman, this is something I have always known. As a writer, it is something that I am constantly called upon to relearn. My limitations, as a female travel writer, are also my strengths.” …it might be the end of the road i was trying to meander a bit with my words above. 🙂

  13. Diana Trautwein September 18, 2013 at 12:26 am - Reply

    Rachel, I came here from SheLoves after seeing your comment there. And I read this fine, fine essay as a declaration of unjust and potentially dangerous behavior coming from a PERCENTAGE of the men in Dijibouti, not all. I am so sorry that some have read it as more inclusive than either you intended or as I, and others, have read it. I applaud your bravery, your skill as a writer and your heart for this country and its people. Please be encouraged that you have done a good thing here. You have told the truth, in all its painful reality. Thank you.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones September 18, 2013 at 4:05 am - Reply

      Thank you Diana. Really. Thank you. I waffled on whether or not to post it, knowing what some reactions would be, that it is necessary to talk about, and also knowing how wonderfully kind the majority of people are here.

  14. […] All likes. All good reads. For some not-likes, check out the comment section on The Story Women Need to Tell. […]

  15. hassan September 22, 2013 at 5:04 pm - Reply

    On behalf of Djiboutiens men I want sincerely I apologize to you & other women.

  16. Whispers in the Dark | Djibouti Jones September 23, 2013 at 5:11 am - Reply

    […] planned for today. A humorous, sarcastic post. Something light after last week’s heaviness of sexual harassment and race and poverty […]

  17. […] 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 […]

  18. […] lived in country where value and gender are intimately intertwined. Until I became conscious of my gender every single time I step out our front door because kids shout at […]

  19. […] lived in country where value and gender are intimately intertwined. Until I became conscious of my gender every single time I step out our front door because kids shout at […]

  20. karishma kadam June 8, 2014 at 9:56 pm - Reply

    Rachel, I read your article and at times feel connected to the situation you went through. Basically no place is safe be it india (I am an indian) or somaliland (where my husband and I have recently moved to).
    Men should respect woman. Treat them well and let them live peacefully.
    Many times when someone comments I put my head down and ignore it..thank god I don’t understand somali language so I do not know if the comments made are lewd or not… I ignore.. but at times men touch and hold hand which is the time I shout at them… though they may not understand english properly but a loud tone sets them aback.
    I just request the men be they from any country – Don’t touch any known or unknown woman without her consent… its offensive and gives wrong impact on many levels.

  21. […] herself has experienced sexual harassment herself as an expat.  In her September 2013 Djibouti Jones blog article, Jones states,  I listen to the stories of the women around me. And I say, me too. That happened […]

  22. Kate Pitchford July 23, 2015 at 1:30 pm - Reply

    This post is so important for so many reasons, and I wish I had read it so much earlier. I’m glad I found it through a link in another post. I knew I wasn’t alone on this, that much was clear. One of my favorite things about your writing in general is that you’re not afraid to tackle real, raw questions of expat life, which takes chutzpah all by itself, but you do so in a way that is honest, even tempered, and (most importantly) constructive! It could be so easy to vent about frustrating incidents and leave it at that, but that’s not what this is at all. It takes so much courage to walk away from a situation that rattles you and makes you angry and ask, as you have, “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?”

    My experiences with being–shall we say–less than respected as a woman where I am (Benin) have been a lot milder than what you described. But the staring, the following, the comments on appearances…. It can be discouraging to hear, “Better get used to it. It’s the way things are.” or “It was only a joke!” (which I was told by the man who made unwanted comments to me in my own office, and then by my female supervisor when I told her that the incident made me uncomfortable). But on the other hand, it was so helpful and encouraging to hear how you have used these experiences to start conversations. Thank you again 🙂

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones July 23, 2015 at 2:28 pm - Reply

      Thanks so much for this comment Katie. I’m sorry you have to deal with this, too. It is so important to talk about and people seem to prefer avoiding it or blowing it off, like you experienced. Good for you to raise it with your female coworker, maybe even just that step will help somehow.

  23. […] by hand. We are strong, don’t complain about cold showers or our hair falling out or about the boys who shout ‘sex’ at us when we walk past (or even if we do complain about these things, we don’t leave, so we have […]

  24. The Least of These | Djibouti Jones November 23, 2015 at 5:32 am - Reply

    […] kids in my neighborhood prompted to write about sexual harassment and […]

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