Thursday, February 17, 2022

Cape To Kapp: Reflecting on Sexism on the Road and Her Own Socialized Views on Gender

Teresie Hommersand finished her multi-year trek from South Africa to Norway this month to spectacular joy and feelings she couldn't quite put into words. She wrote this piece for us before that focusing on some of the things that pretty much wiped the perma-smile off her face and made her feel small and alone. Initially you wouldn't think this could not happen to a woman who has already braved solo-biking in long stretches of deserts, among lions and other wild beasts and meeting scores of strangers in several African countries. But journeys like this are never always epic and soul-expanding. When you explore other countries enough, you will always find cultures have things to appreciate as well as things that are not so worth praising.

 Born and raised in Norway, I never gave much thought to me being a woman. I didn't feel like it defined me. Like how did it influenced my decisions, my options. It certainly was not part of my considerations when embarking on this low carbon journey, cycling mostly alone from the southernmost tip of Africa to the northernmost top of Europe. I've considered myself pretty aware of gender equality and inequality, but on this diverse journey I've also learned that I really was not.

The first time I really experienced and understood that your gender affects how people behave towards you was at a police station in Sudan. I was camping there and had a really nice time with the staff. I also had to repair a puncture. I withdrew to the back of the building to get some peace and quiet while doing it. I took the tube out of the tyre, pumped it up, found the hole, marked it, and wanted to get the air out of the tube again so I could patch it. An elderly man, a friend of the police, came out to watch or "help"me. When I pressed the tube against my body to squeeze the air out, as I always do, the man move to help squeeze the air out of the tube but he really ended up pressing against my upper body, touching my breast. And then his hand touch my groin next where my tube was kind of hanging down.

When you're reading this I'm sure it's pretty obvious what's going on here. But in that moment, when it actually happened, I did not. It was so sneaky. Disguised as a friendly or helpful gesture. I just had a very nice conversation with this person. The touch is brief and it's all so confusing with the tube everywhere. Was it an honest mistake? Did he really intend to do it? Did he do it? Are my senses wrong? My shocked brain has trouble processing the situation.  I've been brought up that one should not make false accusations or jump to conclusions. Certainly not when it comes to something as serious as sexual harassment. You better be 200% sure before pointing a finger. I am in a foreign country with a culture I don't have a strong grasp of, so I need to tread carefully.

At other times there's no doubt like when I was cycling on a road  in Egypt in the middle of the afternoon. A guy on a motorcycle came from behind, slowed down to my pace, came up to next to me, and without saying a word grabbed my breast. I was cycling! Like most people, I've read about sexual harassment and rape, empathizing with the people who experience it, but sadly you actually don't understand until you experience it yourself. The initial and complete shock. I'm sure my mouth was gaping out of disbelief. I knew what had just happened, but couldn't believe it. Then I felt violated, deeply and horribly violated. Something I've never felt before. I felt disgusted about myself, even though I'd done nothing wrong. I felt small. Sad. Terribly sad. Misunderstood. That what just happened was so unfair. And there was nothing I could do, nothing I could say. He just zoomed away on his motorcycle, leaving me there. And then it turned into rage. Pure rage. I was furious!!!!!!!! My adrenaline pumping. I'm sure I had smoke coming out of my ears! I'm not kidding. I've never felt like this before.

Not feeling that I could be my natural cheery self, not feeling free; yet at the same time needing that meaningful and genuine human connection to be happy.

When I crossed the border to Jordan on my bicycle, I observed I wasn't myself. It was a new country, normally I would be excited, looking forward to all the new things to explore, but instead I wary. After three months of cycling through Egypt with almost daily unwanted encounters where I would be objectified and sexualized in varying degrees, I had built up defensive walls to protect myself. And I expected some of the gender norms in Egypt to be the same in Jordan. I felt like I couldn't be myself. Because the behavior I was brought up to think of as "warm and friendly" seemed to many others an invitation for sexual advances. This was hard – cycling alone with these high walls. Not feeling that I could be natural cheery self, not feeling free, yet at the same time needing that meaningful and genuine human connection to be happy. The thought of men alone could almost make me vomit. I had it up to here with them. I didn't dare to look them in the eyes on the street. One of my first evenings in Jordan I was walking to the supermarket and happened to come by a mosque just after prayer. Men were flocking out of there and down the large stairs onto the street, and I felt awful, just wanting to get away. Feeling like they were all looking at me, objectifying me, sexualizing me. I felt disgusted by myself, because of their presumed thoughts and judgements of me.

With that said, I'm sure not all of these men had these thoughts and judgements. Same for men in Egypt. It's very important for me to say that I also had an absolutely incredible time in Egypt. Something I would never wanna change for the world, and both fantastic men and women are a big part of making me feel this way. In every country there's a minority that sexually harass, but I do believe that in some countries this minority is larger than in others. 

Copyright Teresie Hommersand

I also had an interesting experience when joining Egyptian friends for a holiday area called the North Coast. It's almost like a free haven with almost completely different social and gender norms than elsewhere in the country. After seeing covered up women for the last six months and being covered up myself, here I was surprised to see women hanging out with guys on the streets, wearing close to nothing. I genuinely was! Even though I've grown up with western norms, now I was the one silently judging these women. It was a very interesting experience and in a way I feel like I got an insight into how one can judge, objectify and sexualize women to the point where we think of them as less than equals and that there's an opportunity or open invitation for sex. I'm not excusing them, far from it, but I think I can understand, if this is what you're socialized into believing.

Copyright Teresie Hommersand

Crossing the border to Israel and again being in a country with largely similar gender roles to what I'm used to, I could relax and be myself again. What a relief! But I noticed I've changed. Standing at the counter at a cafĂ©, ordering pizza for friends, a guy next to me started talking to me. After all the sexual attention and advances I've encountered in Egypt, I now can recognize if someone was coming on to me. This guy was definitely 'too friendly'. At one point he put his hand on my shoulder in a concealed friendly gesture. I instantly reacted to it! I felt super uncomfortable, thinking this is not ok. Before, I would not have reacted like this. I would most likely not have given it any thought. And if anyone's advancement did make me feel uncomfortable I would never say stop, but rather try to get away without being confrontational. Maybe smile and laugh and say I'd have to go to the toilet, but not come back. That is what I have been socialized to accept and to do as a girl. 

At one point, the female character allows the male character to drive her sports car. Seeing him behind the wheel, I caught myself thinking he looks so much better behind the steering wheel than her. 

While in Israel I also ended up staying with two absolutely amazing guys. One evening we watched an absolutely brilliant and super important French movie on Netflix called 'I Am Not an Easy Man'. It's all about gender roles, and in the movie stereotypical gender roles are cleverly reversed. It left me and my new friends questioning our identify. So much can be said about it, but one of my main take- aways is how it broadened my understanding of the degree to what we are all heavily socialized to think and act according to our socially constructed gender. A tiny example: At one point, the female character allows the male character to drive her sports car. Seeing him behind the wheel, I caught myself thinking he looks so much better behind the steering wheel than her. What?!!! Even I, a woman, am thinking this about fellow women.

Lastly and before this becomes too long, all the objectifying and sexual advancements in Egypt have also made me realize that this issue is a lot more common in 'Western' countries or Norway than I previously was aware of. It's just not so obvious at a first glance. This winter for instance I ended up dancing on a table with a small group of people, and suddenly one of the guys slapped my bum in front of everyone standing there. Obviously he thought it was ok, otherwise he wouldn't have done it so everyone could see. And it was definitely a sexual move that was covered up as supposed to be funny. Would he have done it to a guy? And not long ago I stopped at a house asking for water and ended up being invited to stay there for the night by the guy living there. We had such a nice evening and conversation. But then as we were going to sleep he kept on inviting me to sleep in the same room as him instead of on the couch, saying it in a jokingly way. He also took initiative for a hug and held me way longer than I wanted to and felt comfortable with, saying how nice it is to hug again in these Covid-19 days. But actually he was overstepping what's ok to do towards another person. I'd say it's a type of violation. What I'm left with, is that if we are interested in someone, treat them with equal respect and don't make advances and touch them unless they've made it 200% sure that it's something they'd like. If you are not sure, please ask.