As I take the first steps out of my house on my way to work, or to see my family or friends, I brace myself. I cannot afford to be off guard, as I must stay alert.
This is the constant apprehension felt by women going about their daily business in a society where boys are raised to conquer the world and girls are raised to please and obey.
I want to share an incident, one out of many, experienced by women on the streets of Addis Abeba.
On my way home with a friend in public transport, around 9:00pm, I got into an altercation with three boys who spewed obscenity at me when I defended a woman one of the boys was harassing. As the group of three took turns trying to humiliate and threaten me, no one in that taxi spoke up. No man or woman, not even the girl beside me scrolling through her virtual Facebook page commented on the incident taking place live.
I was frightened as it became clear that if these boys followed me out of the taxi I could not rely on anyone to stand up with me. Amidst all this, with my instinct nudging me to stand by what is right and my whim threatening to fail me, a voice addressing me pleaded, “thanks for speaking up for me but, please, just stop.”
I was outraged. No one cared to parley with those discourteous boys; instead, I was asked to stand down.
Why do we constantly make excuses for young men that apparently need a lesson to learn?
As the past Ethiopian Year ended, groups like Setaweet and the Yellow Movement launched a social media campaign to reclaim words like Ye set Lij, a woman’s child, which behind the veil means weak. On Twitter and Facebook, under the hashtag #everydaysexism, women and girls share stories of everyday abuse they endure on their way to work – on being objectified, harassed and humiliated. These stories make it clear that our public spaces are hostile towards women.
Many well-meaning men and very few women have commented to me that the words flung at women in public spaces are compliments. This begs the question why men hardly ever get any of these “compliments”.
My male friends might also like to know how good they are in bed? How tight their jeans should be, or how easily they can take their shirts off?
But the “compliments” women get are not even allowed to be on public television, yet they are regarded as forms of adoration.
In that taxi from hell, I was relieved when the three boys called out weraj and exited the taxi. But the redat, the taxi driver’s assistant, had realized that the boys had not paid their fare. The redat, a big guy, ran to round up the three boys demanding they pay for the ride they had taken. The driver got out of his seat too, to teach the boys a lesson. The redat and the driver slapped them around. In the end, street justice was served as the redat and the driver demanded the boys hand over a cell phone if they cannot pay their fare. In the end, it was the quarterback harasser who had his phone taken.
I do not believe in violence but it has always amused me how consistent Karma could be.
But I despaired nonetheless. The harassment of a woman in public, with at least 15 witnesses present, is little compared to the wrath that will befall us lest we ever try to cheat 10 Br from the taxi man. Our society steadily conforms to its narrow view as far as women are concerned. In that taxi full of men and women, no one stood up for me. But after the three boys had departed, the passengers discussed with disappointment about the “children of today”, who are so uncivil they do not pay their fare.
Gender-based violence is not a topic we should save for March on Women’s Day; it should be a daily topic until society completely rids itself from the problem. It should be a daily outrage. Many have not only fallen in darkness in their homes but also in broad daylight while many others stand by and look.
Our society does not seem interested to hear of the violence that lurks within our city. We continue to normalize harassment and abuse towards women.
Private and public spaces must be reclaimed for women to freely walk, work, speak or do whatever that is legal. The violence will grow as young boys who are constantly told they can conquer, grow up to meet the women who refuse to be conquered.
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