It’s taken me months to write this blog. I’ve tried to form the words, taking into account how talking about this issue will affect the Zambians I know and the people back home. But this might be the biggest issue I’m dealing with here in Zambia. And I can’t hide that from people.
The female YAVs have to put up with a lot of street harassment. We hear a lot of “hey, you,” “baby,” “honey,” “sweetheart,” and so on. We are constantly flirted with when we’re in public. We are seen, more so than Zambian women, as sex objects because there is a cultural stereotype of white women being more promiscuous. Some Zambian men see me as “easy” even though I dress conservatively and always wear a skirt while I’m in public. I am something to be chased, to be flirted with, to be obtained in some way. This is shown by men not leaving me alone even when I say “no, I don’t want to talk to you,” “I have a boyfriend,” or even when I lie and say “I’m married.” My refusal is not respected but simply an invitation to try harder. But I’m used to the verbal harassment. It doesn’t startle me anymore, and I have come to expect it as just a normal part of my daily life here.
But this blog needs to be written not only because of the verbal harassment but also because of the physical harassment. Twice last week, I was grabbed by my wrist and pulled. Different men, on different days of the week, seized my wrist. When I tried to yank it away, they squeezed it harder and tried to pull me closer. Both times, bystanders yelled at them and the men let go.
It’s difficult to describe the sudden fight or flight instinct that takes over when you’re grabbed by a stranger. The moment comes with a rush of adrenaline, heart pounding, hands shaking, and chest heaving. The moment later gives you constant flashbacks of the scene and ridiculous self-blaming, self-victimizing questions like “what could I have done to avoid that?” It startles you awake so that, for the remainder of the day, you are paranoid and wary about the looks men give you on the bus. You keep your head down more than usual. The fight or flight instinct is only exacerbated by the fact that I am in a foreign country, in a crowded city, in a place where I am not fluent in any of the local languages. When I told my host family about these incidents, my host father immediately came to my defense and explicitly labeled what happened to me “harassment.” He affirmed that what happened to me was not ok and that felt amazing. My boss was also extremely supportive and has given me an open space to talk when I’ve needed it most.
But the harassment (both physical and verbal), coupled with the double standards and unequal treatment I have received in Zambia, has left me shaken. I now live in a society, a culture, and a community that does not respect a women’s right to say no. My voice is being silenced in a way that I have never experienced before. The independence I was so proud of when I entered this country feels impossible to maintain. My time, body, and attention are seen as things that other people can control rather than things I have a right to control.
But what is worse, what is worse than the harassment I receive on a daily basis and the sudden, abrasive moments where I feel unsafe, is the fact that I will leave this place. At the end of the year, I will return to a society and a culture that respects me more than where I am now living. But the women here, the women I admire, cherish, and respect with all my heart, will remain. Women like my host mother, who works full-time while taking college courses in order to make more money for her family. Women like my host sister, Tiza, who is training to be a teacher while at the same time taking care of an 8-month-old infant.
These women (and many others) will continuously have their voices stripped from them by people who think they have more to say. Women will have decisions made for them without being consulted. Women will be shamed, silenced, and ostracized. And I can do nothing but be an angry bystander in the crowd who knows that her voice cannot be the voice that challenges the culture. This culture is not mine to challenge. The most painful thing about being in Zambia is not that I am seen as inferior to men but that the women, girls, and growing infants I have come to love in my life might continue to be seen as inferior to men.
This is where God comes into the picture. My faith has always been centered on the idea of equality. The teachings I heard growing up focused on how the poor will inherit the earth, those who have made mistakes will be forgiven, and we are all loved. Every inch of us is accepted, and we are not seen as less than because of our income, occupation, nationality, ethnicity, race, or gender. This is what I hope to remind myself of when I leave the women I know in Zambia. I need to remind myself that they are loved, cherished, and embraced by not only me but also something much bigger. This might become a useless sentiment that will not comfort me at the end of 7 months. But, for now, I’m trying to let it sit inside me, reassuring me that things will change.
Someday, things will change.