On Harassment: Freedom from the Silence of Shame

by Marilyn on September 16, 2015

silence of shame

Long ago on a spring day in Cairo, I was walking across a small footbridge to the area of the city where I lived. I had crossed the footbridge hundreds of times, usually with one or three children hanging on to my skirt and in my arms. This time I was alone, lost in my thoughts and enjoying the walk.

I had single-parented four kids for ten days, and I was pregnant with our fifth child. I was tired, lonely, and hormone-infused.

There was minimal traffic on the foot bridge at this time of day, but as I began heading down toward the street, a man started walking up the other side. I thought nothing of it, until out of the corner of my eye I saw him walking directly toward me. Before I could react, he had reached out and grabbed my breasts. I began screaming like a mad-woman. I shouted in Arabic at the top of my lungs “Shame! For shame! You are a Muslim? You are not a good Muslim!”  He had picked a lonely, hormone-infused pregnant woman to harass, and my anger knew no bounds. Hearing the commotion, some men on the street began walking towards me. They were clearly concerned. “What happened?” “How can we help?”

While some people share stories of their language skills improving when they share the gospel message, mine always tended to improve when I was angry. My Arabic was perfect as I screamed and cried my distress. The men could not have been kinder. “We’ll find him! We’ll get him! This is not Islam, he is not a good Muslim!” they assured me. I remember their kindness and concern in vivid detail.

Shaking and crying, I continued on my way. The walk was ruined, the bright spring day dark with shame and anger. As I turned down the street to my house I saw my friend Jenny on a bicycle. Jenny knew something was wrong, and rode quickly over to me. I began to weep. “I try so hard!” I said. “I try to be respectful, to keep my body covered, to appear as a God-fearing woman. I try so hard, but it’s never enough. I still get touched. I still get harassed. I still bear the humiliation of being ogled.”

On that busy street corner in Cairo, Jenny held me in her arms, comforting me. She took me to her house and made me tea. And then we talked. We talked about shame and touch, we talked about loving a country so much, but hating that we accepted this harassment as a normal part of life. We cried together and talked about how tentacles of shame too easily crept in to our thoughts, distorting our vision and theology and convincing us that it was our fault that men ogled and touched. We talked about the code of silence that surrounded harassment for women in our world. Silence that spelled unhealthy views of our bodies and our self-worth; silence that spoke loudly of humiliation.

We were both raising daughters, beautiful, innocent daughters who loved Egypt as their home. We didn’t want them to get the message that their bodies were anything but good and healthy, created by a loving God to bear his stamp – his image.

It’s been a long time since that incident. But the intensity of it stays with me. It was a few years later that I discovered an article written by a friend of mine called “Raising Radiant Daughters in Dark Places.” I devoured the article like a starving person devours a feast. Here was truth. Here was a woman who grew up as I did, and had broken the code of silence and given me a context for expression and articulating what it was to be harassed; what it looked like to break the silence.

“This is the album that stays at the bottom of the drawer and is never shown to anyone. It’s the album of shame of what it can feel like to be white and Western and young and vulnerable and female in an Islamic context. It’s the album which stores the  photos that didn’t turn out quite right- a photo for every stare, every rude gesture or comment, the touches, the pinches, the jostles and jeers.                 Photos distorted and smudged with lies about what it means to be a woman.  A woman who, in truth, is so wonderfully God’s image­bearer…the delight of His eyes…the joy of His heart.”

I will not try to summarize the article here, because it is too important and I want it to be widely read in its entirety. But I will summarize some of what has helped me through the years as I work through shame.

As one made in the image of God, my body is good. The first thing I need to do is connect my head and my heart about what it is to be made in the image of God. It’s so easy to know the words, without really understanding them at a heart level. As his image-bearer, all of me is good. “God saw what he created and called it ‘good.’” Man can distort that, twist it, repackage it – but the truth will never die. God saw what he created and he called it good. The beauty of those words are a healing balm. Every wrinkle, every laughter line, every stretch mark, every mole – my body is made in his image to be used for His Glory.

The pain and shame around these stories should never be dismissed. I remember talking to a woman who was struggling almost daily with harassment. When she would try and talk to her husband, he kept on saying “It’s no big deal! Just don’t focus on it.” And then he came home one day livid, because someone had spit on him. She looked him in the eye and said “It’s no big deal! Just don’t focus on it.” BAM! He never dismissed the harassment again; instead he began to protect when he was present, and listen and comfort when he wasn’t.

There is a time for righteous anger. I was angry and I screamed. It wasn’t just fear that made me scream, it was deep anger that I had been violated. This anger was warranted. We should not be told to “shush” or to not make a scene. I’m glad I made a scene. Initially in making a scene, I was comforted by Muslim men who did not dismiss my anger, but echoed it.  I needed that. I needed to see that they too were angry, that they were not brushing me off and laughing at me. This was a huge part of the story. We have a right to be angry when violated. Anger can move us to action, to speaking out against lies and speaking up for truth.

Incarnational living does not mean accepting everything about the cultures where we find ourselves. I was in a conversation one day when a man began talking about living in one of the poorest areas of Cairo. He proudly talked about the pink eye and lice his kids had; about the dirt and the filth they lived in, to a group of wide-eyed students. This was what it meant, he said, to live among the poor. I remember being incensed. I ranted all the way home, at one point dramatically stating, “There is nothing God hates more than pink eye!” A friend wisely, and gently, replied that there may be other things he also hates (a lying tongue, a deceitful heart, etc.) but that she appreciated my point. And my point is that everything in our adopted countries is not good, just as everything in our countries of origin is not good. There is beauty and worth in all cultures, but all cultures are broken and marred by sin. It is our job as believers to live wisely, recognizing the good and the beauty, while praying that the broken would be redeemed. It is also our job to know when to engage and when to protect. We must protect girls and women from sexual harassment.

There are many lies that permeate the world of women, and one of those lies is shame and perception that our bodies are at fault for inappropriate touch. In dismissing these events in our own lives and the lives of other women, we begin living by a lie instead of by the truth of God. Truth that tells us we are made in the image of God and our bodies are to be loved, protected, and cherished.

Long ago in the dusty streets of Palestine, Jesus met a woman whose life was shrouded with shame. She had been bleeding for many years and was cast off from community and society. But she had heard of this man, Jesus. She heard that he healed the sick, caused the lame to walk, and the blind to see. He was coming her way, and she thought maybe, just maybe there was a chance that she could be healed. On a busy street, she reached out and touched this man – Jesus. And immediately she knew she was healed. But Jesus knew she needed more. He knew that she needed to know that she was deeply loved, that she would no longer live under the shroud. So he relentlessly pursued her. “Who touched me?” He said. When she finally came forward, he spoke words of truth: “Daughter, your faith has healed you! Go in peace and be free from your suffering.” Do we hear those words? Do we understand their depth? Do we get that she could go forward and live in freedom from the shroud of shame? That is the real beauty of that story.*

The same story is true for us. As we reach for him, Jesus takes away our shame and restores our worth, reminding us of the God whose image we bear.

How have you broken free from the silent, shroud of shame? Please feel free to comment anonymously if you are not comfortable with sharing your name. Safety is paramount with this topic.

*Adapted from “Relentless Pursuit” Essay by Marilyn R. Gardner in What a Woman is Worth © March 2014 Civitas Press 

Raising Radiant Daughters (Part 1)

Raising Radiant Daughters (Part 2)

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.
  • “Incarnational living does not mean accepting everything about the cultures where we find ourselves.” Really important truth here. Thank you!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thank you Julie!

  • Carole Sparks

    Thank you so much for verbalizing (well, writing) my experience in a similar culture. While no one so blatantly accosted me, I knew well the ogling and the disrespect in attitude and body language. It didn’t matter how much I covered my body or how well I spoke the language. I remember walking across town to a friend’s home once. I marched victoriously into her kitchen, saying, “I have conquered the street!” When she asked my meaning, I explained that no one had harassed me all the way up a busy shopping street. She laughed, but even as a local woman, she knew exactly what I meant.
    These experiences color the way we see our bodies, as you said, but also the way we perceive the host culture. I found it easy to become bitter, to find excuses not to go out or to avoid certain streets, to lace my prayers with vengeance. The Father had to constantly show me His love even for those who stared at me. As I think about it now, after months back in my passport country, I still need to ask Him for that.
    (BTW, I too found my language skills improved when I was angry. Isn’t that funny?)

    • Anna Wegner

      I found myself stumbling over language when angry, but the first time I was able to yell at someone, I was pretty proud of myself. (And it was for pushing my daughter, so I didn’t feel the least bit guilty.)

      • Carole Sparks

        Yes! I told our language coach that “ability to retort” should be on the rubric.

        • Marilyn Gardner

          Yes! A necessary part of language acquisition.

      • Marilyn Gardner

        I totally hear you! Thanks for sharing — and believe me, your daughter will never forget it. I have a mom that did that for me!!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I loved this comment at so many levels. The victorious marching in the street– yes!! And about those language skills – in some ways I think that’s Hod-given for those vulnerable situations!

  • Powerful essay. I love especially the response to your anger manifested in the other men–and the balm that was to you. I have lived long in such regions, and even at 60…well, who would think? Yet American billboards, TV commercials, AND street interactions shock every bit as much. So grateful for those who shelter and commiserate, and even more for our Lord who treats us as glorious bride and so gifts us to see ourselves as He does.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Jeri, that had such a big impact on me. I had times in Pakistan when my anger was just laughed at, other times where I felt fully supported. Those times make so much difference in our ability to move forward. I also had a dad who was absolutely aware and concerned for my safety and wellbeing. That made a huge difference. Thank you for your words here and your wisdom in this community.

  • young and single in Africa

    Oh I needed this. Thank you. Thank you for giving me permission to be upset. To say that, yes, the men who stare and catcall and make lewd remarks are wrong and it’s okay to feel violated. That the random man touching my breasts was, in fact, a big deal. I’ve just opened up to a few of my teammates and they have been so supportive, but I still sometimes worry that I’m making too much of it. But the truth is it is a big deal and it’s okay to be upset. Thank you for acknowledging that, and for helping me to do the same.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      It takes so much to open up and you have a lot of courage for doing so. Grace in your journey. I’m so glad you shared in this space.

  • Hurt but Healing

    Wow, THANK YOU for this post. I have been following your blog for a while now and how refreshing it was to read this and to see the many ways that the Lord is healing and working out these things in my own heart. Growing up overseas, the aggression of men really impacted me to the point that I have had a very unhealthy view of my own self and have not really wanted to face it until lately. Most of all, thank you for reminding those of us that have been through these cultural differences, especially those of us who have spent significant time during our developmental years in these types of cultures where this is more common, realize that we are not alone in the struggle. Of course we know we are never alone as His children, by His deep grace and unfailing love!
    Thank you for being vulnerable and for sharing this in the context of Gospel!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I so wish we could sit down together and talk. Somehow a comment feels far too inadequate. Thank you for sharing – and yes, his deep grace and unfailing love are the ingredients for walking in freedom.

  • Anna Wegner

    My experience is slightly different, living i a non-Muslim country (Congo), with only a small Muslim population, mostly merchants and their families. I found that the Muslim men there were the ones who were polite and respectful.

    In my first year or so, I tried wearing different things, as an experiment to see if I would be treated any differently. My conclusion- if I left my compound without a man, I could expect harassment. I’m glad I figured that out, because then I was never tempted to blame myself. And I told a few Africans about things that happened, and they condemned the men, but never me. I even had men and women in the market who would stop people from bothering me. It’s a culture with little privacy, which pays off in situations like that. And it’s a loud culture, so I was loud and bold when bothered, even if I didn’t feel that on the inside! I did notice that girls/women who shrunk away would continue to receive more and more harassment- easy targets.

    When the subject did come up on our mission team, there were some American/ Canadian women who blamed “inappropriate dress” for any sexual harassment. I tried to respectfully disagree, and point out my experience, but that didn’t go so well. (That’s a subject that gets really tense, really fast.) I was doing OK, since I had enough self confidence and wasn’t intimidated, but it was really hard for some of the young women on our team who were asking for help. They would get verbal harassment, but also sometimes be grabbed riding their bikes to and from work or a man would step in front of their bike and harass them. Fortunately, over time, we were able to have enough people on our team to help those dealing with the problems. We were able to help them avoid some things, and deal with the rest.

    But I think it is really something that needs to be talked about, and women and girls need to hear that it’s not their fault. It is the result of someone else’s sin. When we first moved to Congo, my daughter was 6, and so many inappropriate things would be said about her in our hearing. It got to the point that my husband couldn’t go out with her, because he thought he was going to loose his temper and hit somebody. She never left our compound without an adult. (We lived at a hospital, and had a large compound which was safe for her.)

    I want to teach my daughter (and any other girl and woman in my circle) to see herself first as a dearly loved daughter of God. I hope that she can learn to take steps to protect herself without feeling like any negatives that happen are her responsibility because she didn’t do something right to protect herself enough.

    I had some anger as a result of all of this, whether the harassment directed at me or at others. I have had to try to see the men who do this through God’s eyes. I am still angry about their behavior, but this keeps me from becoming bitter and resentful.

    This is a long comment, and I think I could go on and on. 🙂

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. I agree that those of us with louder voices often fare better. I think it’s important to advocate for each other. I too have experienced the outrage of my Muslim friends when harassment has happened in frontbof them. It’s a gift.

  • Marty Cosgrove

    Thanks for writing this, Marilyn. Having experienced this sort of thing myself as a teenager — both from unknown men in the country where we both grew up and from known men within the expat community of which we were a part, I appreciate what you have to say — and wish so fervently that things had been handled differently when I was the target. This is such an important topic and you speak so eloquently to it. Thank you!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thank you thank you for your vulnerability and for being who you are! I wish so much that we could sit down together, right now, and talk. But know that I am so honored to know you and to have just a glimpse of your story right here.

  • J Boone

    Thank you, Marilyn, for writing on this very important topic. I can’t say that I’ve been harassed since I’ve been in missions. (And oddly enough, I also work in Congo, like Anna. But maybe the context is different? And I’m middle-aged, so that may earn me some respect or put me out of the sexual category…?) But when I lived in France in my 20s, especially in Paris, it would happen a lot. Groped or propositioned on the metro or in the street. And I would be so embarrassed that I’d just shrink away and move on, never yelled, never made a scene. And later I’d think of how I *should* have yelled, should have brought attention to the person doing it instead of swallowing the insult and shame myself. You may be aware that there are now websites where people can tell their stories of everyday harrassment, largely in the U.S. and other Western countries. So it definitely isn’t confined to any particular context. Anyway… thank you for providing another forum to talk openly about this!

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