There’s nothing like a bit of harassment to make you realize that you’re not in Canada anymore. Today, while taking friends of my roommate on a tour of Merkato, Addis’ main market, I gave specific attention to keeping my purse close and out of the hands of thieves. Turns out, I should have also been taking care of more personal assets to keep them out of the hands of passers by. As we strolled happily, though slightly out of place, down the busy streets of the market, a boy in the oncoming traffic managed in a split second to grab my breast without breaking stride and continue down the quasi sidewalk with his giggling friends. Held back by my limited Amharic, I managed to get out a very stern “what is it?”, rather than a sentence containing significantly more expletives, and probably something about how it is unacceptable to fondle someone without an invite. In reality, the episode ended right there, but later I got to thinking about how my reaction exemplified my identity, gender issues, and the overall circumstances of security and rule of law here in Ethiopia.
In general, I tend to identify less with being a woman than a human being, but in this case I certainly felt it was a gendered incident. Also, the incident proved how, despite how at home I feel here, I will always be an outsider, limited by my language abilities and the stereotypes of foreigners. If I’d confronted the grabber, those around me would likely have thought, “oh, just another farenji getting angry.” I think we have this reputation from our overly aggressive approach to getting local prices, as well as our intolerance of lateness, less than perfect craftsmanship and being perpetually treated like we’ve just arrived in Ethiopia. Finally, if I’d approached the police about it, it’s possible that I would have been laughed at to my face (if the police hadn’t used it as an excuse to ‘round up all the youth in Merkato and take them away).
The identities made vivid by this encounter- being a woman and a foreigner- made me think of how the situation would have been different if it had happened in Canada. First, those around me would have been on my side. Second, I would have had the language ability to confront the grabber. And third, I would have the satisfaction of filing a police report (though likely nothing would come of it in the future.) Here, I felt there was absolutely nothing that I could do about the problem. Even discussing it later didn’t help, as those that I told completely denied the sexual aspect of it and focused instead on the incident as an unsuccessful attempt to steal my purse. This is the daily reality of most women here: a complete lack of options to act on sexual, psychological and physical gender based harassment that occurs.
Certainly, my up for grabs experience by no means represents my overall Ethiopian experience; except for this incident, I’ve found Habeshas nothing but respectful. And an isolated grab is nothing in the face of continued human rights violations in this country.