You know in much of the Western world, Sexual Harassment is such a household phrase that few people are ignorant about it. Most people know what it means, as well as the consequences of violating any portion of the law. In much of the Western world, people can compliment you, but as a colleague put it so succinctly yesterday, “they wouldn’t dream of staring at you for a minute longer than is polite.” What constitutes polite? In Ghana, this law would cause close to half of the population to be jailed. In much of the Western world, it is considered rude to inquire into people’s personal life or quiz someone about their age or marital status, nor would anyone dare to make a public statement about finding you a partner or praying to God to send you the right partner. In Ghana, the latter is seen as normal behavior. In fact, why wouldn’t you pray for someone to get married if you cared deeply for them?
Over the six weeks, I have come face to face with overt and unabashed discussion about women’s various body parts. I’ve been privy to many conversations, but my own first came when I was summoned (Oh yes! Here women are often summoned by men. They are the ones who have something to tell you, but you’re the one who has to go to them to hear what it is they have to tell you) by a group of men standing in the middle of the courtyard. Even though everything in me goes against rewarding such impudence, I go. I regret my decision a few minutes into the conversation.
“Oh Kuukua we were just talking about your calves; we wanted to share our thoughts with you.”
“Oh these old things?” I try to throw them off their scent. “They are my mother’s really,” hoping the image of a 60-plus old woman will dissuade them from continuing down this treacherous path.
“Well God bless her!” one exclaims while the others mumble various incantations of praise.
They are so proud of themselves; they have stopped in their busy day to acknowledge not my creator-given talent but my body. I guess it’s ok since both were given by the same creator. As they go on and on, all I can think about is how I will walk away after they have finished.
There are all manner of excuses made for African men. They are a men of their times and culture. Can they truly be blamed? We the women make these excuses for them. I wonder if Sexual Harassment laws came into being in an attempt to “re-train” men, and stop making excuses for such behavior. Are they truly helpless? Can I blame my Muslim sisters for donning the cover-alls? Or the leaders of faith traditions for prescribing long skirts that “conceal all” for women.
A few weeks apart comes my second personal encounter, this one actually more upsetting than the first. I feel helpless because he is a man my father’s age. How do I challenge this behavior? The assertive woman I have spent sixteen years building is nowhere to be found. This time, I am asked to dress up in some shorts and make the department’s needs known to the management. Simply put, they will listen to a pretty face in a pair of shorts. Does this man really believe this? If so, that speaks to a worse situation than I imagined. If not, then is it really necessary to say this? How can I take this as a compliment? Is it even possible?
Then my third encounter. In an attempt to dissuade a fellow colleague who is intent on match-making, I slip and utter the unthinkable. “I don’t plan on getting married or having children!” Outraged, this co-worker begins a heated discussion with me basically inquiring who my therapist is implying I need to be checked out. A few other men in the room say, “Oh she’s young; she’ll change her mind.” This infuriates me even more. You can’t think independently in this country! He tells me I must make an appointment to see him daily until we have corrected this faulty thinking of mine, after all, am I not a woman? The implications of this last question sends me packing my stuff from the room, and all the men agreeing I will change my mind soon enough.
After almost two months of enduring sexism in its many colors, I can’t help but wonder if the introduction of laws would make a difference here. I sigh as I think of the relatively safe workplaces I have had. You know you are lucky when there are all manner of discrimination policies put in place for every imaginable thing. We don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone.
I see I’m either not going to last very long, or I’m going to have to buy a new sense of humor. In the meantime, I choose wisely now, when I approach my closet in the mornings.