In Senegal, it is not uncommon to talk to strangers on the street: the lovely woman who sold you beignets once and now greets you every morning as you pass her; kids who run up to you to shake your hand and practice their French, even the pleasant man who sees you every day as you walk down the market road, wants to know if you find Senegal nex (nice), and hopes you are learning a lot. Then, there are the less pleasant characters, specifically the men who stop you on the street to ask you to marry them.
During orientation, we have sessions to teach us how to handle these situations in a culturally appropriate manner. We were taught that is uncommon to reply with an angry deedeet (no) outright, and that we should instead respond jocularly, with bennan yoon (another time), rather than with fury. These interactions are really never more than mild annoyances, and it can sometimes even be fun to joke around with these men: “Oh no, you don’t love me. I can’t cook ceebujen!”; “Oh yes, I’ll marry you. I’m looking for my third husband, anyway;” “I’m much too expensive for you. My dowry is 500 million CFA.” Or, if I’m just not in the mood to engage, my responses will be more along the lines of “I have a husband. I love him very much;” “Okay, give me your number, and I’ll call you, god willing;” or “oh, haha, bennan yoon.”
But I didn’t need to be taught to say bennan yoon. I needed to be taught to say deedeet. We talk a lot about sexual harassment on bridge year and how to handle it, as if it would be soooo different back home. As if, if faced with these situation in the states, I would obviously say “no,” “leave me alone,” or simply walk away. But in our society, from a young age, girls are taught that saying no to men comes with consequences. From my tormentors in elementary and middle school, I learned that if I said no, boys would be mean to me. From someone I thought was my best friend, I learned that if I said no, I would lose “friends.” From boys in high school who saw me as “the ugly friend,” I learned that if I said no, I would lose any chance for romance. So, instead, I learned to say “you’re too good for me. I don’t deserve you;” “I don’t want to ruin this friendship;” “I can’t go out that late; I have curfew.” Any excuse but never “no.” For all my feminism, my social justice youth movement, my wonderful parents, and the logical part of my brain that all tell me “women can say no whenever they want,” I never truly learned “no.” Our society prevented that.
Senegalese cultural is one thing; I know that men will never stop asking me to marry them, that they will constantly be looking for a tubaab (foreigner) wife, and I can find ways to handle them that do not leave me feeling unsafe and are culturally appropriate. But we need to change our society. Boys and girls, both, need to be taught, truly taught and not merely told, that women can say no. That women do not need to provide a reason for rejecting a man. That women do not need to polite when men make them feel unsafe.
Women already know bennan yoon. We need to be taught deedeet.