Being female in public

Last week, I met a man I didn’t know in a rural village on the side of the road and walked with him away from the road for 20 minutes through thick brush to get to a more remote village. After attending the farmer’s organization meeting we were going to, he walked me back to the road and waited with me until I got in a shared taxi back to the city. I felt completely safe throughout this experience, which didn’t seem very remarkable until I reflected on the fact that I probably wouldn’t feel safe in a very similar situation in the US.
Ghanaian men are definitely forward. Walking down the street, I get far more catcalls than I would in the US, plus the odd marriage proposal. A lot of this is not gender specific; it’s just because I’m white and visibly foreign. But even the gender-based attention doesn’t feel threatening here the way the same actions might in the US. In one walk, three men might chase after me, professing their love and asking if they can come to the US and marry me. All I have to do is reply with my well-worn lines—“I already have eight Ghanaian husbands, but when I go through them all, I’ll let you know”; “Your farm/taxi/business would need to be much bigger for me to marry you” and “I would love for you to visit me in the US, as long as you can buy the plane ticket”—and I get left alone. Some men are certainly persistent, but no one’s pushy. With the exception of people trying to sell me things in Accra, I’ve never had someone continue to pursue me after I’ve made it clear that I wasn’t interested.
In the US, this isn’t always the case. I’ve been lucky enough to have a life relatively free from sexual harassment. I’ve never been raped, molested or even groped in public. But I’ve had my share of unpleasant experiences with men who were a little too forward. There was the guy on the bus who slid into the seat next to me, asked me for my number and was offended when I said no (I was 14; he was at least 20).There was the construction worker on the house next door to ours who started chatting with me in a friendly way, then quickly began asking if I was home alone (I was, and I was also 15 at the time), telling me how good I looked and staring at me when I came outside to get my laundry off the clothesline. There was the guy in my aikido class who said he wanted to hang out sometime and give me a chance to practice my Spanish, but then insisted I get in his car with him, tried to take me to a hotel room, kissed me before letting me leave and then called me at least five times in the next week, leaving long, rambling messages about how much he loved me. I never talked to him again, and I never went back to aikido class.
On my last trip to Ghana, I was wandering around Osu (a neighborhood in Accra) with my friend when a rather intoxicated man came out of his house and attempted to hug/drape himself over my friend. She ducked, so he landed on me instead. I wasn’t sure what he was trying to do, but I figured it couldn’t be good. I tried to get him off me, which was difficult, until a woman emerged from another house and started yelling at the man, “What do you think you are doing? Are you trying to rape these girls?” The man detached himself and wandered off.
I know my experiences in Ghana are biased, and influenced by my whiteness and foreignness as much as my gender. That said, it’s simultaneously awesome and sad how safe I feel here and how comparatively unsafe I’ve felt at times in the US. I have no doubt that in Ghana, if anyone did try to attack me and I started screaming, people would come and help me. I wish I could say the same for the US, but often people aren’t willing to intervene in something they perceive to be a private problem, even if they’re clearly witnessing abusive behavior.
In contrast to my experience in Osu, I felt completely isolated in each of the American experiences I’ve described above, even though all of them occurred in public places. Even though I read feminist blogs, understand what rape culture is and could deconstruct victim blaming in my sleep, I didn’t want to tell my parents or friends about the guy in my aikido class, for fear that I would be criticized for acting stupidly or leading him on. It took a very good friend listening to me cry for an hour on the phone for me to realize that I had absolutely no obligation to have any further contact with this man.
By the time I have a daughter, I want her to be able to walk down a street—in the US, in Ghana—without being afraid. I want her to feel no obligation to indulge anyone who disrespects her right to be left alone. I want her to understand that being female in public is not a crime. And if someone does try to hurt her, I want everyone who’s there, who can see what’s taking place to form a wall around her, protect her, call the police, scream “NO” and defend her right to be and feel safe.
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