“Do you have a husband?” It’s a question I get asked every day, sometimes two or three times.
It’s usually as I ride on the back of a motorbike on my way into town from my house, which is out in the country. Clutching tight to the small handle on the back of the bike, doing my best not to fall off, I’ll lean forward to try and hear the driver as he talks to me from inside his bulky helmet.
“Are you married?” he’ll ask, again.
In the beginning, I was mostly honest. I’d say I wasn’t married, but I’d fib a little and say I had a serious boyfriend back in Canada.
As more and more men asked for my phone number, asked to see me every day and asked to be my Sierra Leonean boyfriend, I upgraded the serious boyfriend to a fiancé. But I soon discovered this didn’t dissuade the constant winks and offers for love, marriage or sex.
The men in Sierra Leone are aggressive. They whistle and hiss at women as they walk the streets and I’m told I get the brunt of the public attention because I’m a foreigner.
Some days it’s easy to ignore the calls, but other days a knot will form in my stomach, my cheeks will burn and I’ll long to turn around and release stream of expletives in their direction. But I’ve never done that. Instead I’ll keep my eyes forward and keep walking.
And it isn’t just men who see me on the street. Boys as young as ten lick their lips and call me “baby” as they try to sell me fruit. Men I meet while out working with local journalists will lean very close to me as we talk – too close – and let their hand fall from my shoulder and trail down my back.
Others won’t look me in the eye as we talk, instead letting their eyes roam up and down my body.
Speaking to veteran journalists before I came to Sierra Leone, they warned about the male behaviour, and how it might shock a Canadian like me so accustomed to political correctness. But they counseled me to use the attention to my advantage, and seek out interviews male foreigners would never be able to attain.
Fight or Flight?
Speaking to a local female journalist for advice on how to avoid so much attention, she recommended I placate the men who sought me out, and tell them that although I’d love to spend time with them, I’m committed to my fiancé and to my work.
I was encouraged to laugh about it and throw some humour on the whole situation. I didn’t want to burn any bridges with these men, she told me.
I didn’t like this advice. I didn’t like the idea that I had to appease men in order to stop them from harassing me and touching me without my permission.
Some men take disturbing liberties with the bodies and freedoms of women in Sierra Leone. The West African country has extremely high rates of rape, forced and underage marriage, teenage pregnancy and female genital mutilation.
Widows regularly lose their property when their husbands die, after his brothers or children from previous marriages claim it as their own. Sexual violence was used widely as a weapon of war during Sierra Leone’s brutal 11-year civil conflict.
But speaking up against abuse hasn’t been a part of the female culture in Sierra Leone. Three laws enacted by parliament in 2007 made domestic abuse and child marriage illegal, but many rural women are still unaware of what their rights are.
Speaking up about abuse can mean women are ostracized by their husbands and exiled from their communities.
None of this is to say many women haven’t successfully entered aspects of public and political life in Sierra Leone. But the liberties men continue to take with women’s bodies are unacceptable to me.
Living abroad requires finding that tricky balance between holding on to your own ideals and adapting to the ideals of your host country.
For me, it’s eight months of uncomfortable but generally harmless advances by men. Whether I stand up or not only matters to me and whether I feel offended or unsafe in a certain situation. But there’s much more at stake for a woman in Sierra Leone.
I’m left wondering if it’s better to try and take a stand, to set an example, or to let their fight for equal rights and respect run its own course.
As a foreigner, what’s the best way to deal with sexual harrassment in other countries? Share your thoughts in the comments!