On Harassment: Freedom from the Silence of Shame

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)

25 Kilo Turkeys and Cultural Humility


We bought a turkey on Saturday – an almost 23 pounder, with no additives and gluten free (really — they had to tell us it was gluten free? Aren’t all turkeys gluten free?)  As this time of the year comes around, I think of Thanksgivings we have spent all over the world and all across the country. Pakistan, Chicago, Essex, Haiti, Egypt, Phoenix, Cambridge – all the memories make me smile.

But one stands out in my mind and to this day makes me laugh. 

To give context I did not cook a turkey until I was 34 years old and had four children.

Attending an international boarding school while growing up in Pakistan meant that we were never at home for Thanksgiving, that quintessential American holiday. Instead, the boarding school I attended graciously took the holiday and created their own version of a special meal (skinny chickens and mashed potatoes) followed by a musical concert. We called it thanksgiving and it was, for we were grateful for those scrawny but tasty drumsticks.

Furthermore turkey as known in the United States at that time was not available anywhere in the country outside of the American commissary, so Christmas dinner was generally chickens filled with homemade stuffing or the rich meat of wild duck.

It meant that I never helped my mom cook a turkey. I didn’t know how to do it. I knew nothing about making a turkey or a roast, or any of those things that are considered good solid American fare.

But how hard could it be?

At 34 we found ourselves in Cairo on the Island of Zamalek responsible for 18 American college students in a semester-abroad program. I decided now was the time. So armed with my best Arabic I headed to a grocery store I knew well in Maadi.

The conversation went like this:

“Hosni, I would like to buy two 25 kilo turkeys for our feast”.

“Madame – I don’t know if I can find turkeys that big!”

“Hosni! I am having a lot of people. A lot of people…I need TWO 25 kilo turkeys.” He shook his head, muttering, but he had dealt with the likes of me before and knew there was no arguing.

When he called to tell me the turkeys had arrived, he apologized—he couldn’t find two 25 kilo turkeys. Instead he had one that was 13 kilo and one that was 10. “I told you I needed BIG turkeys,” I wailed. Hosni laughed, “Oh, they are big!”

And then I went to pick them up.

They were massive. They filled two large boxes, and packed beside them were their severed heads. In an instant I realized I was forgetting the weight difference between the metric system, used worldwide, and the American system, used only in America.

I had ordered over 110 pounds of turkey.

I was duly rebuked and humbled; no wonder Hosni muttered. We both laughed—he with glee and me with chagrin. I often wondered if he enjoyed telling the story of this insistent white woman and her huge turkeys. Each year after we would laugh together about the 25 kilo turkeys.

It’s a good story to remember. The arrogance of my white-skinned insistence makes me cringe. This was only one of many times of having to admit that I was wrong; I didn’t have a clue. One of many “25 kilo turkey” moments of cross-cultural learning.

When we cross over into other cultures, we function most effectively when we can take 25 kilo turkey moments and recognize our need to listen and learn. When we cross over that bridge, it is important to have cultural humility. And cultural humility put into practice means a few things. 

It means being a student of the person, or the community — not an expert, sitting at the feet of those who can teach us.

It means admitting what you don’t know, and seeking to learn what you need to.

It means seeking out those who can function as cultural brokers, as cultural informants, and asking them questions, learning from them.

It means knowing the importance of culture for all whom we encounter.

It means being capable of complexity. 

Thanksgiving dinner that year was amazing, the turkeys cooked to perfection. And the 25 kilo turkey moment remains a reminder, not only of an amazing Thanksgiving, but of the need for cultural humility, ceasing to be an expert and being willing to be a student of the culture where I was making my home.

This year we will share turkey with people from across the globe, who are making the Boston area their home for a short time. And our turkey will taste the better for the joy of sharing it with friends from across oceans, languages, and cultures. And we will probably tell the story of the 25 kilo turkeys and Hosni’s patience.

How about you? Do you have cross-cultural holiday stories to share? Do you have stories that highlight the importance of cultural humility? Share your story in the comment section! 

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/turkey-wild-turkey-49673/

Sacrifice, Sheep, and Raising Children in a Cross-cultural Context


Beginning Monday evening through all day Tuesday, Muslims around the world will celebrate Eid al Adha – the feast of sacrifice. 

Eid al Adha is the second of two feasts that occur after Ramadan. This feast is the biggest and most important holiday of the Muslim year and concludes the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and one of the five pillars of Islam. It is considered the ‘Greater Eid’.

Significant to Eid al Adha is the sacrifice of an animal. A goat, sheep, camel and sometimes even a cow, is sacrificed and cooked to perfection, a feast for family and friends.

Thinking about Eid al Adha takes me back to both my childhood in Pakistan and to raising children in the Middle East. My mind returns to a walk-up apartment, a dark stair-well, and a bleating sheep.

Every year as Eid al Adha came around our neighbors purchased a sheep and, in the absence of green space, the sheep made its home in our stairwell. At the time we had no household pet and our children bonded with the sheep, delighted with the plaintive brown eyes and the friendly “baa” that greeted us every time we came and went from our apartment.  This was ‘their’ pet. All the while my husband and I knew that this sheep had a preordained purpose – to be fattened in anticipation of the Feast of Sacrifice. The leftover vegetables on our stairwell were indicative that this would be one fat sheep to slaughter.

And so the day would inevitably arrive. The stairwell was silent as our children trooped downstairs. “Where’s the sheep? What happened to the sheep?” 

As parents we were in a predicament. Not only did we know that the “pet” sheep had been sacrificed, we knew that we would be offered tasty meat from our neighbor’s kitchen later in the day. What do you tell your kids?

You tell them the truth.

You tell them it was never their pet and that our family would be invited to share a feast with people who graciously invited us to witness and celebrate something that meant a great deal to them, and that included eating meat from the sheep. We needn’t have worried about communicating the truth; children make things far less complicated than adults – they accept, they learn early that the world is bigger than them, that people are more important than pets and dogma.

When you are raising children in a country where you are graciously received as guests, you learn valuable lessons of what is important. My own parents had modeled well respect and love for their adopted country of Pakistan so it was not difficult to remember what the bottom line was — and that is relationships and loving your neighbor as yourself. Growing up in Pakistan I don’t remember big religious debates, but I do remember a lot of tea being served, a lot of laughter, many holiday celebrations with neighbors and friends, and in all that some wonderful talks. It was this that was important as we celebrated Eid al Adha with our neighbors and friends.

As guests in the country of Egypt, we were treated kindly despite our frequent mistakes and gaffes in both language and culture. While we didn’t hold to the same truth claims, bridges were built and relationships strengthened as we shared in the celebrations of our Muslim friends and neighbors. And in doing so we prayed that some of the nails in the coffin of misunderstanding between east and west, between Muslim and Christian would be removed.

Sheep were going to come and go but our neighbors and friends? They would be staying. And so our children learned early and reminded us later (when we, their parents were prone to forget) that people and our relationships with people were key to living out a life of authentic faith in a cross-cultural context. 

What have you learned from your children about understanding and acceptance in the context of living an authentic life of faith overseas?

Marilyn blogs about communicating across the boundaries of faith and culture at Communicating Across Boundaries and can be found on Twitter@marilyngard

Image credit: ostill / 123RF Stock Photo

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