#MeToo… My SILENT voice in a Foreign Land

When I talk about sexual harassment in Norway, people seem shocked when I share my African perspectives. It is as if sexual harassment does not happen in Norway. And for a while, I thought so too. Then I got proved wrong just hours after giving a presentation on #MeToo.

By Louise Makosa

I did not plan to write this article, but the experience I got in less than ten hours after giving a presentation on #MeToo – African perspectives, prompted me to put my thoughts in writing.

Every time I give presentations related to sexual harassment in Zimbabwe, I am talking about my lived realities. I get very emotional and passionate about it. This evidently shows that ndine basa – “I have work to do”. Furthermore, I noticed that the reception I get in Norway when I talk about sexual harassment is different from that I get in my home country. It is as if sexual harassment does not happen in Norway. People are shocked when I tell them about the African perspectives on sexual harassment. But the fact is that no country is an exception when it comes to sexual harassment of women and girls. I will therefore share part of my experience in Norway and raise awareness on sexual harassment in any context.

Christian feminism
Born and raised in Zimbabwe, one of the patriarchal nations in the world, I chose to be engaged in advocating for the rights of women and girls. Today, I move around the world sharing my experiences as a youth gender activist and as a young woman.

My moral base is anchored on Christianity and I love it. However, at some point in my teenage years, I got frustrated. I felt like I had an identity crisis as I started to realize the feminist voice in me, which seemed to contradict with some religious patriarchal teachings I was getting that time. Instead of allowing myself to feel stuck, I pushed myself to understand my religion, realizing that knowledge is power. I learnt that Christianity actually empowers the girl child and women. However, in most cases that component of women’s empowerment is neither immensely taught about nor prioritized. Women and girls are mainly taught to be submissive, to be seen and not be heard. Henceforth I immediately decided that I would use the same doctrine to demonstrate the practical expression of my faith as a Christian and amplify the voice of women and girls in the church. My motivation came from the book of Esther 4:14: “…You shall not remain silent at such a time as this…”. To date, I stand strong as one of the few young women in Zimbabwe that are involved in activism.

One of the things I enjoy and find fascinating about the Norwegian culture, is that people plan for everything. They will almost plan for when to drink water or when they will take their next breath. Norwegians love to plan. Another interesting thing about Norway is when my people and friends back home ask me how Norway is social wise? I confidently say “Aaah man, Norway is great, people mind their own business, no one cares what you are wearing, eating or looking like”. Remember, I come from a very conservative, patriarchal place, and getting to a place like Norway is like “wow, this is so good!” Guess what? I recently realized that I generalized some of these assumptions. Truth is, these people are not a homogeneous group some people do and some do not care.

The touch and the excuses
A couple of hours after giving a presentation on #MeToo – African perspectives and hanging out with some girlfriends, I decided to go home and rest. I had planned my itinerary well, since I am trying my best to assimilate into the Norwegian culture – my assumed “great place”. As I was walking, something happened. I remember that I was looking at some man in front of me and we were walking in each other’s opposite direction the rest I do not even know. Everything just happened so fast that I could not think straight. All I could do was to ask myself what I did wrong or seductive to get such a touch from a stranger. A stranger who just looked me into the eyes, and within seconds, he had decided “I am going to touch this lady”.

After failing to figure out what I had done wrong in this “great place” the only thing I could do was to come up with those excuses women and girls often use most of the time when we find ourselves as victims of any form of harassment: Did I expose my brown chocolate skin wearing those African Ankara shorts? Were my lips too glossy? Did they communicate something else than preventing them from being chapped? Did my body signal anything to this stranger for him to think I wanted his touch? Or was this stranger just blinded by the illusion of inclusion, wanting to be part of this pleasantry God’s art on me. Could it have been the idea of having the slightest chance of getting a physical connection with a lady that excited him? I had more questions than answers. By the time I decided to stop and boldly ask this stranger why he decided to just touch me like that, without my consent, the man had vanished in the summer crowd.

A global experience
This got me thinking, that when I gave presentations on the #MeToo campaign I was blinded to think that specific forms of sexual harassment only occur in Africa. My thoughts were glued on to my lived realities – for example one of the common scenarios relates to some of my African brothers who are always scattered by the bus terminuses. They identify themselves as mahwindi – “rank marshals”. In most cases these mahwindi just want to harass anyone, mainly women and girls passing in their face, regardless that they would have been wronged or not. Or if any women pass by them and they think is inappropriately dressed they would definitely find something to say to embarrass that person.

In my presentations I have cited some points that include culture, poverty, class, power relations among other factors contributing to sexual harassment and the reasons for why people don’t speak out in the Zimbabwean context, hence leading to the failure of the adoption of #MeToo in Africa. It was only after I experienced harassment in the center of Oslo that I realized that women across the globe are experiencing the same things when it comes to sexual harassment.  How we choose to deal with sexual harassment is what differs.

#MeToo and its limitations
The global #MeToo campaign has exposed a flood of revelations of sexual assault, sexual harassment and abuse, first in the U.S. entertainment industry, then in politics and beyond. This campaign has exposed the scale and institutionalized nature of sexism, sexual assault, sexual harassment and their crippling effect on women’s lives, while becoming one of the defining issues of our time. It has created a marked divide between those in denial about sexual harassment and abuse and those committed to doing something about it. I therefore choose to do something about it.

#MeToo is a very important campaign that has hit the global limelight in illustrating the magnitude of sexual harassment against women and girls across all sectors. However, it is easy to get carried away by the campaign and forget the work that has been done by the women and the women’s movement over the past decades in addressing sexual harassment. Safe spaces (WhatsApp groups, kurwizi dialogues among other successful platforms and projects) have been created for women and girls to freely discuss on the elimination of all forms of violence against them. We need to allow and give room for the formation of organic movements that speak to the broader context of sexual harassment and not limit ourselves to #MeToo.

I therefore would like to think that #MeToo should come in as a complement to the work that has been done, such that it is not identified as a western Hollywood campaign because it does speak to “all women and girls” who have faced any form of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is not about race or ethnicity. It is about the language of consent. We need our men and boys to learn to respect women and girls, talk to us, understand us and not just assume communication. It is this lived reality in my assumed “great place” that made me realize that the cry for women to be free is still loud even though it seems silent.

Louise Makosa is an employee of SCM Zimbabwe. This year she is working for SAIH in Norway, and is an active member of SCM Oslo.