Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Dealing with Sexual Harassment in Madagascar

Ile Sainte Marie

Even though we had agreed neither of us felt like drinking beer that day when we left the house in the morning, by the time my friend and I – both of us girls – sat down for lunch we didn’t even have to ask the other to know that we wanted the waitress to bring us two Skols with our lunch. Somehow, the sexual harassment that day had been worse than usual. A policeman at one of the road checkpoints asked for our passports as an excuse to flirt with my friend. Another man grabbed me at the brousse station. Then, even though we were both covered in dust and dressed our dingiest, walked to the Peace Corps house to the whistles, tisks, and other various catcalls of men

“F—this shit,” I said while we waited for our food, “I’m buying water guns tomorrow.”

It started as a joke, but even though the catcalls and inappropriate gestures directed toward foreign women in Madagascar are a common annoyance we as PCVs and expats here have to tolerate, some days I reach a breaking point of intolerance. That day, I want nothing more than to successfully retaliate. It had angered the part of me that wants to scream ‘FREEDOM’ to wearing what I want, not feeling uncomfortable in everyday situations because of my gender, and to reclaim the power and independence of being a woman that I lost when I left the States. But more than anything, I felt this innate need to tell these men that what they’re doing is not OK. I want to tell them that me getting upset at them for yelling “I love you” to me from across the street, draining the phrase of its intended meaning, doesn’t make me mean or stuck-up but rather makes the man saying it rude, mean, or arrogant.

So the next morning at market, I bought two water guns.

In the afternoon, I loaded them up and faced the street again.

Far beyond what I could have predicted, walking around Fianaratsoa with two loaded water guns proved a fun social experiment. From the market stalls and darkened shop corners I could hear people mutter “Kai! That white girl has a water gun,” in Malagasy. Deftly, I swiveled towards them, aimed, and said “watch out!” Most of the shop owners, women especially, would gasp and jump back in surprise before breaking down in laughter when they realized I wouldn’t actually shoot. I tested it on a beggar who was pestering me – he laughed. I shot a few street children and quickly learned it was a terrible idea. They all began to demand I give them the guns or shoot them again. They were riotous.

As for the men I originally intended to use the guns on, most never saw it coming. Walking in the throngs of people along the crowded sidewalks, they pulled the usual lines, sticking their face in my face or trying to block my path, when out of no-where I drew my weapon and shot water in their face. They jumped back in shock, looked offended, and even though they almost definitely learned nothing of the message I was trying to convey, it made me feel gratified and empowered.

Photo: Walking across the jetty in Ile Sainte Marie