I get it. I am never going to be a full fledged Malian. No matter how much I try to integrate, experience the local way of life, put myself in someone else’s shoes – I can only really do so much.
The one thing I consistently struggle with – is having strangers touch me. Specifically having strange men come and touch me in some ‘harmless’ way. Malians do not have the same three feet personal bubble that you would find in North America and I have gotten used to that part. But I have an adverse reaction every time some man takes my elbow to try and lead me somewhere, leans on me to talk to me, or generally touches me. I don’t think that these actions are done with mal intent for the most part. However it is still uninvited contact that I and many of my foreign and local female counterparts don’t want. This uninvited contact often leads to boob grazes, or semi-intimate touching (hand on the small of your back, leaning in towards the crook of your neck) that I stopped tolerating back in the 7th grade from my Canadian male students.
Mind you, not every man is trying to do make me feel uncomfortable but my Canadian self and my own understanding of equality makes me untrusting of when people break that touch barrier in an uninvited way. I tend to react in a visible way, I ask them not to touch me (often in a way that is filled with more disdain than I intend) and I have to walk away and take a moment to feel icky before I can move on. On one hand I wish that I could react in a calmer and more refined way. On the other hand I wish that women were valued enough that people wouldn’t touch you in recognition of possible triggers, harassment, and past experiences that a lot of women have had. I want to tell these men that they can shake my hand, that they can give me a hive five, they can greet me in other ways but they have to respect that this body I have is my vessel for the world and I have the right to say who touches me intimately and who doesn’t. I have a right to limit the situations where your hand can graze my neck, back, boob, or ass.
It’s a simple thing – and in some ways a matter of perspective and interpretation. But these are the lessons and the struggles that I have, and I know I am not alone in these feelings. So to all my foreigners and local ladies who get uncomfortable in situations where strangers are touching you – you aren’t alone. Those feelings are normal. I hope that’s at least some consolation.