Him Too

A year ago, I was a panellist on a discussion concerning sexual harassment against women in Ethiopia. I discussed the many cases of abuse women face, at home and office, in almost every step they take in the city. When the discussion became open to audiences, some were offended. In my opinion, there is no need to feel that way.

One man stood up and announced, “You women are pushing it. How could a simple hello be harassment.” My answer was and will remain, “what you would not say to a male stranger on the street, do not say it to a woman.”

Some went on about the culture of Ethiopians and how saying hello is merely part of that. But the suggestive manner most men say it does not justify a reply, not to mention that there is nothing cultural about it.

It is as if most of the men in that room felt women were asking to exercise power at the expense of their gestures; as if their deeds were being scrutinised. But it is men who continuously use their power in this patriarchal world of ours. It is less of a greeting when a man shouts at women across the street, but a show of dominance to demonstrate to whom the streets belong.

Some wrongly point out that the clothes worn by women trigger the constant barrages of harassment women face; which is untrue for there are a few too many men with tighter jeans than the women they are harassing.

The other day, as I was walking down a quiet Kazanchis street before noon, a man shouted, “why are you touching your hair? “ as I shifted my hair behind my ears. This voice with no face, made me think that as women, we are constantly watched. There is no moment when we are in public that we are not being observed. It feels very unsettling knowing that I must always have my guard up as I make my way through the streets which are mine just as they are to the men that deem them solely theirs.

Many seem to have the narrative that harassment is a passive phenomenon. But, that is not the truth. I was out of town this month, and it was a town I often visited since childhood. It was known that the town’s people would never say anything to a woman while she is walking along the streets. I would often go there to escape the city. My last two trips were very much alike in that the men had started acting like those in Addis Abeba. The streets were lined with men ready to give unwanted and unwelcome “compliments”.

Many have argued that when a man “compliments” your appearance as a woman, you should be flattered. But, the “compliments” are not really compliments because if a woman fails to respond, she is then insulted, attacked verbally, followed or worse. This is why the “compliments” are attacks in disguise. The safety of women should be more important than arguing that “harmless compliments” should be entertained by them.

I have come across men who also think that the line between innocent interactions and harassment is blurred. The secret here is listening. One must listen to the women around them and believe in the reality they are living and testifying against it. When many say that they are uncomfortable, we should be concerned enough to cease acts that make them feel that way.

Of course, sexual harassment is a global phenomenon, and what better way to encapsulate this than the hashtag campaign #MeToo, which went viral across social media to condemn sexual assault and harassment. The campaign – started by the activist Tarana Burke and popularised last month after allegations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood mogul – took social media by storm. It has gotten many people looking far and beyond to the women who shared their stories of harassment and abuse.

Even Ethiopian Facebook pages were lined with the words of the campaign. Women shared their intimate stories to create awareness in a society that has allowed this to happen. The experience, though, while eye-opening, focused once again on women and not their attackers.

It is hard to call out attackers as women are often asked to be responsible for them. Questions about what we were wearing or why we were there at that time add dimensions to the issue and divert the attention back to victims for all the wrong reasons.

As a society, we must hold the boys and men accountable for their actions. Setaweet, the Ethiopian feminist movement, and Yellow Movement, an activist group at the Addis Abeba University (AAU), have launched another hashtag, #HimToo, which made me proud.

It will not garner as much attention as #MeToo for it is harder to name names. It is easier to talk about the stranger or a colleague, but it is harder to tell the world the truth about those who are closer. It is harder to name supposed friends, cousins, uncles, and friends of the family. It is harder to name names while it is the most relevant task of all.


By Hanna Haile
Hanna Haile (hannahaile212@gmail.com) is an Ethiopian writer, researcher and social worker who uses her writing to promote social and gender equality, identity and women’s rights. She is one of the organisers of Poetic Saturday at Fendika Cultural Center where she performs spoken word poetry every first Saturday of the month.

Published on Dec 09,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 919]



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