Resistance and survival: Tales of Street Harassment in The Gambia

For so many women, fear is a constant state of mind. The endless “what if” cycles are our way to clock in and out of our days. Our safety is always questioned. In our homes, with our fathers, brothers, cousins. In our neighborhoods, with boys and men we grew up with. And in the streets, with men we do not even know and have never had any interactions with. I use the word fear loosely because of its constancy in our lives. For merely existing, there is an endless dread rush every second we exhale and inhale.

Growing up, I listened to a lot of radio, especially talk shows where people shared their problems/dilemmas with listeners to get help and advice on possible solutions. The stories that have stuck with me are those that young women shared of their fathers raping them. These stories were shared on most days I tuned into my favorite shows. Even as a child, I was disgusted at the thought of this happening. I was always angry but also very confused about how human beings, especially those we trust with all of ourselves, hurt us the most. I was naive, and unable to fathom how people hurt other people.

Recently, I asked a question on Twitter on why people knowingly hurt the people they care about. You might wonder why I still think like this at my big age, and honestly, I can never give you a genuine answer. However, from my lived experiences, listening to stories of women and girls, and reading from other women, my line of questioning has shifted from how and why people harm other people to why and how men spend every day of their lives causing women discomfort. This includes women they know and others that merely just make their way past their “campehs”.  I say men without an iota of doubt in me, and this has been solidified over the years through my lived experiences and stories I hear and read about.

I think about the prevalence of street harassment and catcalling, and how every single woman may have experienced this violation. We can argue on the various degrees, and on whether these women see it as harassment or just enjoy the attention, because after all weren’t we raised as women to seek the attention of men? To fight for and over them? Weren’t we raised to condone being sexualized because that is the mere purpose of our existence?

I blame all of this and more on patriarchy and our current social conditioning of women and girls. Our mere existence has been reduced to being sexual objects. On a larger scale, men disgust me every single day of my life. I am sure they will come for me after this with the “not all men” excuse and honestly, I am ready. To the “not all men” warriors, I say: until you feel that fear rush down your spine from the thought of leaving your house, the countless reasons to use a longer route to your destination to avoid the men idling around, the anxiety every “psst chepeh” on a lonely road brings, the anger that grows in us after ever “chepp bu seww” we never asked for is spat in our faces, the fear of merely staying out late, and the round-the-clock apprehension all of these bring, bro hold your breath and your unsolicited opinion. At this point I will advise you get on twitter and read posts from women on #Gambiana and #SaveGambianWomen.

Sometime last year, I was in rural Gambia to film a mass sensitization on democracy, as part of my work. I went with total strangers and to my dismay all of them were men. I went through the daily experience of arguing about gender equality and equal representation with people who were tasked to go around and sensitize people on democracy. What irony! I always came back tired from filming and the debates we shouldn’t even be having in the 21st century. On one of those days, we were supposed to film in Farafenni. When we arrived at our lodge the previous evening, I sat and watched the men argue about who would be in what room, who is older and all that unnecessary stuff. Eventually, they let me have the room with a bathroom inside and a door lock, as they should. I settled in and was extremely bored, so I decided to take a walk and explore the town just as my adventurous self demanded.

I walked out and the place was extremely dark, but I had no alarms as I was just taking an innocent walk. I plugged in my earphones, pressed play on my favourite album and went on to enjoy my solo walk on that beautiful night. It was pure bliss… until I heard a man’s voice behind me seeking my attention. As always, I ignored. The voice grew closer, until the guy was 2 feet away from me and he grabbed my arm and said “hana du yow la wahal”. He rubbed his sweat from playing football on my arm. I fought my way out of his grasp and didn’t say a word. He grabbed me a second time and I yelled at him. We had a short exchange before he let me go when we got close to his mates, who did nothing but laugh and hail their “boy” for being utterly nauseating. I do not remember how far I walked and how I got back, but I vividly remember that I was scared. I went through the whole episodes of “what ifs”, and the constant worry of the probability of being another statistic weighed me down all night.

This is just one story of the many I have lived through. I spoke to other women and their stories remind me that the details of our experiences may be different, but our struggle is the same.


One woman, who wishes to remain anonymous told me…

“I started being catcalled around the age of 14/15 years. My hip area was maturely developed at a very early age. I was uncomfortable wearing tight clothing, especially around my hips due to the fear. I would even get catcalled in my school uniform, so I got used to wearing loose clothing. I got catcalled so much I would fear walking past a group of men. In my last year of high school, I had a guy follow me for days with his vehicle every single day on my way home from school. I was so paranoid, but I found the courage to tell my parents and they involved the police, which put a stop to that. I’m 22 now and the catcalling has become worse. Honestly, all of this affected my self-esteem. I always thought the problem was me. I tried everything to avoid being catcalled but nothing seemed to work. To this date, I experience this”.

Anonymous

Amie Fye is a young Gambian feminist. When I spoke to her, she talked about the pervasive culture of harassment and catcalls, and how she has tried to not be bothered with the comments men throw at her…

“Cheepeh yangi nice” “Sister dor ma yobu waleh” “Janha yangi sweet deh” “Yangi tight”

These phrases have been said to me since I was thirteen. Now they do not bother me, even though being called these derogatory terms can be quite irritating. Now I know I don’t have to acknowledge them. This is like a silent revolution to me. I know I am not the pickup lines or derogatory terms used to describe me. Every time I ignore a guy in the streets, they call me ugly, or a whore. Every time they say this, I smile, because I know my silence to them is like a baseball bat shattering through their egos. I know it must hurt, because society told them they are entitled. I am happy to show them society lied to them. These men do these things because they know nothing would come out of it, not even a “leave her alone”. We are unprotected in the streets, in our workplaces and even in our own homes and men know it.”

Amie Fye

Speaking of the constant state of apprehension and fear women go through in the presence of men, Fatou Touray shares her “lucky escape” from one out of her many horrible experiences…

“A random man stood right in front of me while I was waiting for my colleague to pick me up. Instinctively, paranoia and fear kicked in. This paranoia has developed as a result of dealing with men harassing me on the streets for many years long before I even knew what it meant. I have horror stories of my hands being forcefully grabbed, my way being obstructed, almost being attacked with a bottle, among other things. This particular incident was even scarier because this man appeared to be intoxicated and was with another man who was also in the same state. I finally responded to what he was saying, mainly out of fear of how he would have reacted if I completely ignored him. I had to act nice because I knew I could not protect myself. When I finally waved down a taxi to get away from them, one of them followed me and attempted to get into the taxi because I did not tell him where I work. The driver had to stop him. I managed to escape unharmed, but the experience was horrible and I may not be so lucky next time.”

Fatou Touray

To further emphasize the lack of safety for women and girls in our society, a friend of mine who wishes to remain anonymous shared her experience in public transportation. Where exactly are women and girls safe and protected?

“I was in a taxi heading home from visiting a friend who moved to Brikama. Nothing was alarming when I entered the vehicle but the passenger sitting beside me placed his hand on my thigh. I knew it was wrong but I thought it was caused by the limited space in the vehicle. I moved his hand and that was it, but when the two passengers alighted around Busumbala, the man did not move. Instead, he placed his hand back and started caressing my thigh. I moved his hand again, but he repeated his act, so I screamed at him and told the driver, who just laughed it off like it was normal. The man continued grinning and repeated the act. I realized that I really couldn’t do anything, and the driver was not going to help me.  I alighted at the Banjulingding checkpoint, got into another van and made my way home.”

Anonymous

When I spoke to both Fatou Suno and Jaria Jallow, they shared their experience on resisting and fighting for dignity and survival – a tale women and girls have mastered very well.

“This incident happened on my way home from class. I walked past a group of men brewing green tea and one of them said “sister danga portable”. I ignored his comment. He added “Da nga fok danga nice, sa nyawaii b”. I responded this time and said “sa yai mor nyaw.”  He tried to beat me up, but luckily some people were around the vicinity and I was saved.”

Fatou Suno

“This incident happened when I was in grade 8, on my way to an event I was invited to, a boy called out “Son tahawal”. I ignored him. He ran close to me and said “son du yow lai wahal”. We had a brief exchange that escalated into a physical fight which ruined my dress and caused me to miss the event.”

Jaria Jallow

Mam Degen Fye is a feminist blogger. When I asked about experiences of harassment, she shared how she has learnt to stay grounded in her will and growth over the years.

“My experience with catcalling began when I was about 9 years old. As I grew older the catcalling got worse. It was not just on my way to school anymore, it was everywhere. One of my biggest fears at age 13 was walking past a group of men or boys. I dreaded the fact that they shouted “Janha bu nice” “chepeh” “eh sexy”. And often, when I did not reply, it was followed with a smug comment along the lines of  “don’t think that I love you I’m just calling you” or “the only reason I was calling you is because my mum is looking for a maid and you look like you are looking for a job”. As a teenager, I often took the longer way to the market because a group of boys were always seated along the way to the market. At age 25, I have learnt to react how I feel in the moment. I do not try to avoid catcalling because it is not up to me whether or not it happens.”

Mam Degen Fye

What can you do in the face of harassment? Do you seek help, deal with it or just ignore it for your safety? Aji Sainey Kah, a feminist shares her story, which establishes the enormity these experiences come from and the state of hopelessness women who experience these violations often find themselves in.

“This happens a lot but, this is one I can’t forget because of how angry I was at that moment. I had just closed work and was walking to the supermarket to get some stuff before heading home and I walked past this guy. He catcalled and, of course, I ignored and continued walking. He kept at it and when he realized that I wouldn’t answer, he insulted me. He threw the vilest of insults at me. I walked into the supermarket and when I walked out with the stuff I bought, he was right there. As I was walking to get a taxi, he followed me and kept insulting me. He said that he’d rape me and tear up my vagina. My blood was boiling because all I wanted to do was hit this guy, but I couldn’t. I wanted to set him on fire.”

Aji Sainey Kah

On men’s engagement and holistic approach to detox one mind at a time, Isatou Bokum, an activist shared an incident with her brother which carves deep into the intersectionality of power, entitlement and male privilege.

“This incident happened with my brother, I took him to the hospital because he wasn’t feeling well. After leaving the hospital that day, we both walked down the road to get a car and head home. A group of boys, likely his age, starting catcalling me. I didn’t respond so my younger brother turned and told me to answer. I was shocked so I asked him why he would allow boys his age to say words like that to his sister. He then laughed and said “I do the same to their sisters, so I can’t say anything”. I was dumbfounded! It took me almost the whole day to convince my brother that it wasn’t okay to derogate women or girls. I made him understand it was wrong, disrespectful and a form of harassment.”

Isatou Bokum

For women who made it this far, I believe we all can picture various scenarios we have lived through. I know we all long for days when we can walk out of our homes without the thought or fear of any of these attacks happening to us, because then we will be free, liberated and protected. Hopefully, men would have snapped out of this norm and regard us as equals, and more than just sex objects they are entitled to. I do not know when this will happen, but I am hopeful.

To men reading this, I am sure I have lost quite a handful from the first few paragraphs. I hope you live and learn to be and do better. If you have never done this to a single woman in your life, I am not applauding you. This is bare minimum decency expected from you. In the same light, I hope you live and learn to check the men in your circle and even the men you do not know, when they say or do these things. Check them and drag them for being scums and wretched beings. We count on you to hold your fellow men accountable for their words and actions.

Sips & Spills

13 Comments Leave a comment

  1. This is absolutely everything we needed!
    It hurts to know that society sees street harassment as a normal guide to inheriting a property meant for men (women).
    Thank you for this beautiful write up.

    Like

  2. I am so ashamed right now and I cannot say I feel the pain of my sisters because this evil called PATRIARCHY gives us an unfair privilege.

    What I can say/pledge is hold myself accountable and other men at all times. There is no innocent bystander. This is so sad but the foundation is teaching our boy children to be righteous and respect women and girls. Keep speaking up and speaking out. Some day (and I hope soon) we will suffocate patriarchy. 😭😭😭

    Like

  3. Very apt observation and analysis. As a man I see it everyday how boys and men catcall girls and women in the streets and had to address a lot of these boys and men sometimes. To tell them to respect women since they will not like their mother or sister to be treated as such. Hence we should not subject other women to such harassment.

    Like

  4. Reading this piece shows how vulnerable and disturbed young girls and women are in our communities. Keep writing and inspiring sister. This is a true reflection of our society.

    Like

  5. Anonymous.
    I am ashamed that I knew all along that degrading the opposite gender was/is wrong. I’ve been a perpetuator of these acts of evil knowingly or otherwise. I pray and hope to change from this.

    Like

  6. Thanks for this awakening and true reflection of the everyday experience of girls and women on the streets. Let’s continue speaking up and hopefully sooner we will see the change we want.

    Like

  7. the writer did good in highlighting the post traumatic situations women are in after encountering such experiences to the point they paranoid to walk down the streets. To men reading we got so much on our plates as black men already and we can’t trust or count on nobody or no one else but the black woman so we must do better we all may have done one two crazy stuff towards women but the bad thing will be if u continue repeating it. This ain’t no gender shit we in this all together. Love✌🏽

    Like

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