This week marks one year out of Ethiopia, but the frustrations I experienced there are still living with me. I’m preparing to begin a master’s program in water resource management and policy. Thanks, Ethiopian weather and government for confirming this subject’s importance for me. I’ve started a feminist fitness blog after working in some New York City gyms for the past months and realizing that if this country is the role model for Ethiopia’s gender equality, we’re all screwed.
More than anything, my time in Ethiopia made me a more assertive feminist, which is why it was so fitting that yesterday, one year after leaving Finote Selam, I attended the first ever Hollaback Revolution. Hollaback is a movement to end street harassment and, if you’ve read anything else on this blog, you’ll know that street harassment defined my time in Ethiopia. On good days, I could write it off as a difference of culture: these men licking their lips and winking at me in the street, in a packed minivan, they didn’t know what message that carried where I was from. Maybe they had seen this behavior in a movie, and thought that these were appropriate gestures. Our media sure is packed with examples of harassment.
This limits the discussion to cross-cultural harassment, though, and on all days I witnessed the domestic variety. Ethiopian women are not leered at in the same ways that I was; although I missed out on the subtleties and the language, their experiences were worse. I’m not saying all men explicitly made all women feel unsafe and uncomfortable, and I recognize that the men to women direction does not include all harassment. My town bestowed me with much more agency than it did to the rest of its women. I could yell, complain, push. I knew I did not deserve to be harassed, and so I could share my disgust, at least with other Peace Corps Volunteers.
One of Hollaback’s tools brings this coping mechanism to the internet, allowing the harassed to publish their accounts. This changes how the person thinks of the experience. In silence, there is guilt that we didn’t do or say the right thing in the moment. That if we had pushed aside our shock and anger and embarrassment and horror, we could have turned the tables and defeated the harasser. Just sharing the incident, though, offers confirmation that it was the harasser, not us, who was 100% in the wrong. No one should experience harassment. No one should be made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe in public space. The exceptions to this rule are only those people who break it for others. Yet this is not the case, in Ethiopia or New York City. In both places, street harassment is normalized. However different the customs, both can be called rape cultures. We are all told to ignore it.
So thank you, horrible encounters in Ethiopia, for making me more sensitive to this issue. Without you, I probably would write off a lot of what I experience here in New York City, and without you, I definitely would not have found the network of awesome feminists that is Hollaback.
Finally, shout-out to current PCVs: I think Addis Ababa could use a chapter. I wonder what solutions Ethiopian women will create.