It is difficult to explain to men that traveling for women is just different. For women, navigating the fine line of maintaining cultural sensitivity in combination with the importance of being safe and comfortable can be challenging and exhausting. In Swaziland, that’s particularly been in the forefront of my mind. We went to KaShoba this past weekend, which was an absolutely amazing and moving experience; however, I couldn’t help but wish I could experience it like a man – fully. Apart from the obvious differences between men and women in the culture, such as what the men and women wear in the traditional dress or the expectation that men sit in chairs while women sit on a mat on the ground, there were other differences as well, ones that made it harder to fully immerse oneself and enjoy the experience.
While we were there, we joined somewhat of a block party – there were dancers, and most people were dressed in traditional attire (including us!), which was amazing. The flirting started out seeming like a light-hearted joke, such as men dancing up to the women in the class with wooden sticks, which we found out meant that they were proposing. We could laugh about it and keep dancing. Throughout the day, however, it became less and less funny and started making us feel extremely uncomfortable. Men were constantly trying to talk to the women in the class flirtatiously while the women were obviously showing body language that indicated that they were uncomfortable. These interactions grew to a man saying he’d trade 34 cows in order to marry Helen, and as the night progressed, we, as women, were continually on the lookout for each other and “saving” each other from men. When I’d see a man talking to someone I knew, I’d run over, grab her hands, and start dancing her away from him. Some men would send over adorable, small children to tell us that a particular man loved us and wanted to marry us, and the children didn’t understand how we could not seem interested in their declarations of love. It was challenging to know how to firmly, yet appropriately and kindly, respond.
I don’t want to say that the guys in the class didn’t experience this at all because they did – once. There was a woman who said she was looking for a husband and joked about marrying one of them, but there were two main differences with this: the first is that they didn’t experience it over and over throughout the day, and the second is that none of their interactions with women in the community made them feel genuinely nervous due to the very real possibility of the situation escalating into something threatening. For the women, however, it became thoroughly exhausting, and by the end of the night, all of us retreated into the safety and sanctuary of our room. Meanwhile, the boys of the class were able to stay outside and continue talking to members of the community, without feeling more worried or fearful due to the addition of alcohol among the townspeople and darkness.
It’s difficult to explain feeling unsafe because men don’t typically have to put any guards up when a woman is hitting on them. It can probably seem overdramatic when a woman starts feeling unsafe in that situation, and maybe it is in the context of the KaShoba community. But the issue is that we, as women, never know. In the U.S., we learn to feel unsafe when men are flirting with us because it can so often turn violent if we reject them. We learn from many personal interactions, instructions from our parents and authority figures, and from the media that we must vigilantly protect ourselves and remain on guard to avoid horrible consequences. We must make sure we don’t leave our drinks unattended at parties. We set up rules with our female friends to text each other when we get home, just so they know that we got there safely. Maybe keeping these guards up around men in KaShoba is unnecessary. But maybe it’s not. But either way, these guards and the necessity for them are programmed into our very core and for good reason.
So, how do you politely turn down 34 cows in exchange for your marriage? Or if a man asks you for your number three times? Or asks you to go speak to him alone, in the dark? At what point does it cross the line of just being their culture to chase women persistently and fervently and become inappropriate? It’s a constant battle for women to feel accepted in the community and be culturally sensitive and friendly, while also trying to keep themselves safe and comfortable. I also don’t want to seem like I didn’t enjoy KaShoba, because I appreciated it immensely. I learned so much about the culture and felt like I got to experience it in a very authentic way, but it also left me with questions about how to experience the Swazi culture safely and fully. I don’t have answers for these problems. I wish I could find a clear path through the cognitive dissonance and balance of appropriate, kind, and sensitive responses versus fear maintaining safety. I also wish I could explain it more fully to men, but I don’t know if its possible given the depth and breadth of the difference in perception of safety and the very real need to react in completely different ways.