It started out as a normal Saturday morning. It was actually a beautiful Saturday morning. Cloud free, with a reassuring cool breeze.
Skipping breakfast (a practice strongly frowned upon by my mother), I stayed in bed for the majority of the morning, choosing to drift in and out of sleep until the sun’s rays became too strong.
I then began to watch what was to be one of my favourite documentaries, “Where To Invade Next” curled in bed with my very late late breakfast, that was really lunch.
Feeling particular rejuvenated by the documentary, and learning the immense respect and equality that Iceland and Tunisia had for their women I started off my day on a rare high(er) note.
I got dressed, of course checking that nothing I wore could be dubbed as ‘promiscuous’, ‘too beautiful’ or ‘standing out’. Jeans and a sweater. I left my hair down, mostly to cover my face, no lipstick, no make up, no bright colours at all.
And I left my house.
My biggest mistake of the day.
I walked out onto the main road to catch a taxi, and while leaving my compound, a man who was walking past me, slowly whispered in my ear, ‘Mamacita.’
Slightly irritated, I did not bother to say anything to him or let it ruin my day and I just walked on.
Now the walk from my apartment to the main road is about 50 metres, it’s full of people, fruit stands, clothing shops, souks, clinics, and an elementary school.
It is not the deep underbelly of Addis ‘where crime doesn’t sleep.’ It’s a safe and friendly area, for example the vegetable and fruit vendor is always kind to me, offering me extra avocadoes (this man will go far in life), tossing a lemon for free, he exemplifies generosity and kindness to me always. And he never does it because I am a woman with breasts, he simply does this because I’m a person who loves eating avocadoes.
At the end of my street is a small bar that is usually packed with men who are never shy to throw a slur my way. But sometimes, to my luck, I pass by unnoticed.
And as always when I walk by the knot in my stomach tightens and I try to seem unfrazzled as possible.
Today, to my luck I passed by unnoticed.
At the main road I was trying to cross the road, but everyone knows that the Addis drivers speed up at the zebra lines.
And that’s when these three guys started to yell out at me from the other side of the road. The side of the road I was trying to get to.
“Beautiful, do you need me to help you across?”
“Beautiful, just run!”
“Don’t worry, I’ll protect you from the cars.”
I crossed the road and quickly passed by them while trying to ignore their comments and just kept walking.
“Just ignore them, Aklile.”
I then jumped into a taxi without my usual scan of the place, and was met with all three men.
“So glad you were able to cross the road beautiful.”
“Come sit next to me.”
Now usually, I can block out their voices. Usually I just pretend as though I can’t hear anything.
But this was an unusual day.
And I snapped.
In a taxi full of people I had reached my breaking point.
I didn’t realize I was screaming until a few seconds later, my words were pushing each other out of my mouth and I felt as though my entire being was ablaze.
I remember yelling at him to leave me alone. Just leave me alone. Why can’t you just leave me alone?
But of course he retaliated.
‘So this is what you learnt when you went abroad? I’m glad they taught you how to act this way.’
So to clarify, Ethiopian women who stand up for themselves must have learned it elsewhere, because it is entirely impossible that an Ethiopian woman could realize that being constantly harassed by men is unacceptable and needs to be addressed.
No, you’re just being too emotional and paranoid. All these men are complimenting you.
Yes, following you around for 30 minutes is a compliment.
Trying to grab your hand as you walk by is a compliment.
Asking you how much you’re getting paid, as you walk with your white male friend, is a compliment.
And to add insult to injury, the man in the taxi had the audacity to tell me to calm down because, ‘I’m your brother, aren’t I?”
No. No no no. You’re not my “brother” because a real brother wouldn’t feel the need to harrass me to attend to his ego. A real brother wouldn’t point out my body features to his friends to feel emasculated.
A real brother would treat me with respect.
All I could think of for the rest of the ride was that no one else had spoken out. I had been constantly harassed yet no one said a thing. There were other women in the taxi who I’m sure have gone through similar scenarios. Yet no one said a thing.
I felt very alone.
Stumbling out of the taxi I could feel myself losing all my adrenaline, I felt faint and lightheaded. Before I knew it tears had rushed down my face and I was gasping for air. I tried to brush away my tears but they were replaced by a steady flow. I was suddenly fearful that I was going to faint, and the very thought shocked me to normalcy.
If no one would stand up for me while I was being harassed what would happen to me if I passed out on the street? Could I trust that someone honest would come to my aide?
No, I couldn’t.
While pushing back my tears and steadying my breathing, I was, apparently still opened to comments.
“Konjo, don’t cry, he’ll call you back.”
You know that scene in the movies when the guy is already dead but they keep shooting anyway? That’s how I felt.
What’s the point? You have me at my lowest point and that’s not enough for you?
Do you still not feel emasculated enough?
And that’s when I got angry, I actually felt my blood boil and my face flush.
I felt angry for my precious little nieces who will have to go through this.
I felt angry for the women who tolerate this every single day.
I felt angry for my future daughters who I knew I’d prepare to be extra strong, because I couldn’t always protect them.
I was an angry black woman standing in the middle of a busy street and I had a choice, go home and crawl under the sheets or continue my day. Every part of me wanted to go back home and consent defeat. I was tired and couldn’t take anymore.
But a small part whispered defiantly. Fight back. Fight back for your nieces, your future daughters, for all the women. But most importantly, fight back for yourself.
Because as my father said to me as I cried into the phone, “there’s something bigger and stronger in you and they fear it.”
And so I’m fighting back the only way I know how, through writing.
I’m writing to the women, you’re stronger than you think. Braver than you will ever know. A fierce tide that splits through rocks.
You are all you need.
I’m writing to the men, because you need to stand up for the women. You want to be a brother? Stand up to the men who harrass women, be brave, because if you don’t do it now, then who will do it for your sisters?
I’m writing to society to speak out. To stand up and walk out. Women are not your token prize that you come to at the end of the day. They are the powerful heartbeat, the force in the wind, the heat of the Sun. And if you refuse to speak out, stand up, and walk out. Then we will speak out, stand up and walk out for ourselves.
It may take us longer and it may be harder, but change will come.