In reflecting on International Women’s Day, I’d like to recount three experiences. Two are my own, and the third is a story told by a fellow PCV. I do not intend to make any comparison in juxtaposing my experiences with his story – I only intend to tell the stories I have permission to tell in a place that makes sense for me.
My anxiety has been steadily rising for the past hour and a half. It’s 6pm and I’m still in Quelimane (the nearest city to my hometown, Namacurra, about an hour away by car) and the man helping me print what I need printed is taking his time. I explain I must leave NOW. Dark is falling. I need to get home. “Daqui um pouco,” he replies. Just a little longer. “No. Now,” I respond forcefully as I gather my things to leave. My anxiety is at about around 60% – higher than it’s been in over a year. He laughs at me a little, lets me pay for the bit of work that’s been done, and I run out. The chapas have all left so my only option is to stay in Quelimane or hitch a ride back home. With a 6:45 am class to teach, I opt for the latter. 6:30pm, edging past dusk, anxiety quickly rising. I am frantic and it shows despite the effort I spare into trying to keep my cool. I get catcalled. I get invitations from groups of men to come drink a beer because I don’t need to suffer in the road. Kisses are blown. The harassment only encourages the panicky bile rising from the bottom of my esophagus. A car finally stops. I assess it quickly – the man aggressively demands that I pay for my ride but he shares the car with a woman and her baby so I judge it safe. I get in, still on edge until I discover they’re the neighbors of a few of my PCV friends in a town a few hours away. Finally, I let go of the breath I’ve been hoarding in my chest and belly and I release, letting my body collapse into a less than comfortable back seat.
Frustrated, I realize I had let my anxiety get out of control – hadn’t I been getting good at keeping it in check? Then, in a flash of clarity, I understand that my feelings were valid. I was scared. Why? Partially because it’s never safe to travel alone at night. Mostly because I was a woman, and a woman alone.
I climb into a small car, hitching a ride from Quelimane to Nicuadala which is the town right before Namacurra. From there, I’ll have to catch a second ride but no biggie. The male driver and his friend introduce themselves as secondary school teachers in a nearby community – a good sign. Happily, we have a nice and easy conversation about school life, teaching strategies, and the exchange of ideas across cultures. The conversation dies down down a little bit, leaving space for the inevitable questions:
Estás casada? Are you married?
Não mas tenho um namorado. No but I have a boyfriend.
Ele está aonde? Na sua terra? Where is he? In your land / in the US?
Si mas falamos cada dia. Yes, but we speak every day.
Immediately I recognize I’ve made a mistake – I’d started saying that my boyfriend lives here in Zambézia.
Ohhhh, so your boyfriend is in America, huh? You know, you should have a Mozambican boyfriend too. You need a boyfriend here – two years is too long and an African man will take good care of you. I patiently explain that I only want one boyfriend and I care about him, plus my roommate and I take care of each other. They press on. I less patiently explain that in my culture, it is normal to only have one boyfriend and therefore I only want one boyfriend. They press on.
The car lurches to a halt at a tiny village on our way and the men abandon me in their locked car, leaving the windows open so I can breathe a little in the 100 weather. Two male beggars immediately spot and beeline for me, hands outstretched asking for money. I apologize and politely decline. Outstretched upward facing hands turn over and they reach in, touching my shoulder and arm, telling me I’m beautiful with such light blue eyes, asking the “mazungo” for money and food. People – men and women – watched. Uncomfortable and out of my element, I try to roll up the window as quickly as possible. My two companions stroll back chuckling – they had caught the end of what was going on. They saunter over, each with a beer in hand and clamber inside the car as my entire body stiffens.
“Why did you close the window?”
“Those men were touching and provoking me.”
Laughter. They notice me eyeing their beers.
“You don’t like beer?”
“I don’t like it when a driver drinks beers.”
“We decided we’ll take you all the way to Namacurra.”
I stiffened further. “Why’s that?”
“Now you can buy us more beer. Then, you’ll show us where you live. We can drink together.”
“I’m sorry, I need to get off in Nicodala. I am meeting my colleagues there for dinner.”
They press the issue further but I vehemently insist. I would not stay in that car a second longer than I had to. It was quiet for a few seconds and the driver calls over to his friend:
Ah, ela tem medo agora. Ah, she’s scared now.
My skin starts to crawl and I feel like an animal. They can smell the fear on me.
The day after, I buy a thin plain ring to wear. Traveling has been so much easier since I’ve begun wearing the wedding band.
Men, it seems to me, respect another man’s property more than they respect a woman’s choice and freedoms.
One of my fellow (male) PCVs recently posted this on Facebook:
“I just watched a man repeatedly punch and head butt a woman with a newborn baby tied to her back. The worst part is I felt like jumping out of the chapa to stop him from pummeling her, but as I turned to look at the fellow onlookers, many women included, no one even flinched a muscle or seemed even the slightest bit startled as the beating continued. No one uttered a single word of concern. There was nothing I could do as the chapa pulled off and I felt a lump begin to form in the back of my throat watching in thereat view mirror as this full grown man continued to beat this woman in the middle of the street. I know domestic violence is a serious issue here in Mozambique, but witnessing it first hand like that pains.
There is a special place in hell reserved for men who hit women.”
These experiences, alongside the innumerable cases of harassment that all of my female colleagues here and I have experienced and continue to experience, force me to keep my guard up. Staying guarded has its drawbacks, and I beat myself up for struggling to let new friends in, for struggling to trust. Isn’t that what this experience is supposed to be all about? It’s hard to get to know men when you can never be sure of their intentions. It’s hard to get to know women when there is no comfortable place to get lunch or a cup of coffee together and getting a drink is out of the question. I can’t be sure, but I believe it’s safe to assume that integrating as a woman is a more challenging process. The only time I feel relaxed traveling and meeting new people is when I am with my male friends.
Women worldwide, developed world included, know what it feels like to lie about having a boyfriend or giving a wrong number in fear of an angry retaliation to rejection, to cover their drinks at a bar in fear of being drugged, to walk to their car firmly gripping keys or mace in fear of being attacked, going everywhere in twos whenever possible after dark. Just last spring I wrote about being followed home in suburban Long Island by a man calling me a “stuck up b*tch,” and a “slut” for not answering his, “Yo! You single?!” shout in the dark across train tracks. I recently read in the news that marines have taken and posted nude photos of their female colleagues online without their consent. Being a woman is hard.
There is more conversation today than there has ever been before about the plight and struggles of women and for that I am grateful. I am fortunate enough to be a citizen of a country that protects my rights as a woman, where I can persecute someone who harasses or attacks me and for that I am grateful. I have so many strong, independent, badass, truly incredible women in my life who inspire by existing for that I am grateful. Just as importantly, I have so many strong, protective, intelligent, kind men in my life who respect, care for, and empathize with the women in theirs and for them I am grateful. As a teacher and a REDES group leader, I get to do what I can to be a role model for younger girls and for that huge responsibility, I am grateful. Even so, reflecting on International Women’s Day for me, in recognition of all I have to be grateful for, is a reflection on just how far we still have to go.