It was sudden. I was walking past a few morose sheep to my host family’s and then, I was burning. Shut in my room, I tore off my clothing: scarf, cardigan, maxi-skirt—clothing I’d worn religiously since arriving in Ethiopia a few months before. Only when it was in a crumpled pile could I breathe again.
I had entered my Peace Corps service ready to take on norms of behavior and clothing and I had…until suddenly I couldn’t. That moment in the street I felt choked—the world’s sexism was smothering me in flowy skirts and scarves. To breathe, I needed to uncover myself. My shoulders, knees, and curves were as necessary to respiration as my nose or mouth.
It was at the end of our first months in-country—Pre-Service Torture/Training—when my Amharic teacher, a soft-spoken man from Adama, pulled me aside. He was nervous. He said:
Your dressing style is too revealing. You will attract more harassment if you do not cover yourself.
Tight-lipped, I walked past him and out the door. Silently, I began my tirade: How dare you tell me how to dress my body? Does my bare shoulder permit harassment? Does my bare knee permit assault? You pretend to care for my well-being when you’re just excusing all sexist assholes. Don’t tell me to cover myself—tell them to leave me the fuck alone.
Soon after, I moved from our training site to my home for the remaining two years of my service. It struck me immediately that the women in my small town in Wolaita were less “liberated” than those I was used to. Here, I would walk through seas of people and the only ones who appeared to have two legs were men. Shoulders? What were those? I wanted to scream: “No one can tell you what to do, say, or wear! You decide!” Every day, I used my shoulders and knees to tell the girls in my town that they had choices here and in other parts of their lives, too.
The first time that a child grabbed my arm, I was shocked but recovered quickly; she was so young.
The first time a woman grabbed my arm, I was shocked and hurt; an adult.
The first time a man stroked my arm, I wasn’t shocked. Just lividly, irrepressibly, wildly angry.
My hair was caressed by strangers on buses. My ass was smacked by scores of children. My breast was groped by a man who came into my house without permission one night.
With each possessive touch, look, or comment, I was reminded that my body wasn’t mine. It was somebody else’s. Everybody else’s. Instead of exemplifying self-ownership, my body was stolen.
An Ethiopian friend gave it to me straight: Theresa, who are you to waltz in here and wear revealing clothing and expect it to liberate women from thousands of years of oppression? Your clothing says nothing except “hey boys, I’m an object.” Does that make it right? No. But that’s how it is.
I had thought that showing my taboo body was the way to assert my power over it, forgetting where and who I was. I had forgotten the country; its history, culture, and religions. I had forgotten that I’m one person temporarily living in southern Ethiopia. I forgot, Ethiopia reminded. In each grab, touch, and stroke, she asked: Is this the way to fight this battle? Is this even your battle to fight?
Simple answer: no and no. Ethiopian women’s liberation is not to be spearheaded by a white girl with bare shoulders and tight jeans.
But simple answers are rarely complete. I’m not here to do nothing. What good am I doing my students if I don’t share new perspectives or ideas? Why am I here if I can give them nothing?
Complicated answer: I’m here for something. I’m here to tell my female students repeatedly that they have worth and that they can have aspirations too big to fit this town. I’m here to tell my male students that their female peers are just as brilliant, capable, and amazing as they are, and that they must help them achieve equality in this unequal world. I’m here to do all this through words, encouragement, and affection. I’m here to do it through improving their English education and pushing them. I’m here to do it by example.
My example is not that of showing skin to say fuck you to historical sexual oppression and thus getting treated like a commercial sex worker.
This is my example: I’m a 23-year-old woman from a small town called Friendship with a degree in English Literature and I am the only owner of my strong, beautiful, and capable body, mind, and self.
And I sure as hell can assert that ownership from under the protective layers of a maxi-skirt and headscarf.
Theresa Pfister wrote this for Flux, an online forum for those of us encountering adulthood. She is currently a Peace Corps Volunteer in Areka, Wolaita, Ethiopia. She is quite proud of all the ways she knows how to tie a scarf. If you’d like to follow her journey in Ethiopia, check out her blog here.