If there’s one thing I really like about myself, it’s being a woman. I get to have emotional depth, I get to have and refuse sex freely, I have the ability to create human life and the right to choose not to, I get to listen to Taylor Swift songs and feel 22 again, and I get to have opinions and ideas that are respected – or at least heard*. That was all before I moved to Cameroon.
*These aren’t things that men can’t experience, they’re merely things that I personally attribute to being a woman for myself only.
I have a terribly hard time being a woman here – except for biologically, that’s hard to avoid. Expressing an opinion or an idea often prompts a man to tell me how emotional I’m being or how “difficult” I can be or how “not easy” I am. Dressing like a woman – anything low-cut or fancy – prompts any men I know to gently make fun of me. Talking about sex – even in a class designed to get Cameroonians to openly talk about the dangers and risks of sex – either causes men to be uncomfortable to causes boys to giggle. I am doing everything in my power to remain genderless while Cameroonians only see me as not only a woman but a foreign woman. My opinions are not valued, my ideas are barely heard, and my place in my community is questioned. Whenever I plan a project I have to first find a man to facilitate it with me, and then I have to factor in the time it will take to earn the respect – no, not even respect, acknowledgement – of any men involved. It’s difficult. No “I am woman, hear me roar” more like, “I am woman, seriously, fucking look at me and don’t ask to have sex with me.” The little bit of roaring I have done here has hindered my work and caused suspicious looks from terrified men.
I thought I would get used to this and I thought these men would get used to me, but they still continue to call me emotional. I have never emoted at work, but expressing an opinion and having a vagina can only mean one thing: emotional.
“Ok, it’s because I’m American and they’re not understanding my French” I tell myself to try to excuse these primitive men and their primitive brains. But tonight one of my all-time favorite women – Cameroonian or otherwise – came over for coffee and I started venting about these things. She told me that she’s been living in Cameroon for her entire life and is still waiting for people to get used to her. “It’s not us who are the problem,” she assured me, “it’s the men.” And I couldn’t agree more. But in a country ruled by men, how do you alert them to the fact that they are the problem!? You can’t. But this woman at least reassured me that it’s not my whiteness that’s the problem, it’s my vagina. And I’m really fond of my vagina, I don’t want to give it a complex!
If nothing else, having a female ally here in Bangangte who can come over to my house and bitch about men with me feels great. I know what you’re thinking and NO, us bitching about men does not make us emotional women, it makes me a typical Americaine and it makes her a progressive Cameroonaise whose friendship I value more than just about anything I have in this country.
I should take a moment to say that yes, there are some forward-thinking men in this country, and meeting one is like finding gold. The problem is that all the other men make it hard to trust the ones who are going to turn out to be great. I am lucky enough to have one male Cameroonian ally who I trust completely, but he still makes sly comments about how I’m emotional when I say I miss my family, or about how I’m stubborn when I refuse to go to some man’s house alone without another man because I find it dangerous, or about how I am always surprising him because I know how to use a paintbrush or dig a hole.
Sometimes you just have to laugh about your own marginalization! And sometimes you have to bitch about it to your female friends. I decided the only way I’m going to deal with this is to continue being opinionated and to give ideas – no matter how often they’re ignored because this is the only way to show an accurate representation of the American woman: bitchy, opinionated, emotional, powerful, fucking amazing. Even if it gets me nowhere in this country, even if only one person notices, even if I find myself a social outcast, at least I can return to American knowing that I was a powerful woman even in Africa, if only in my own mind. And I get to spend the rest of my life having known one Cameroonian woman who made me feel better about my womanness than I ever did even in America.
Also, I told this Cameroonian woman all about the amazing things that took place in America last night - the pot legalization, the marriage amendments, reelecting Obama - and she didn't agree with all of it, but she didn't disagree with any of it. Finding someone at all who I can talk to about gay marriage who doesn't look at me like I'm a crazy/evil/stupid person is amazing. I was so proud to be am American, I am so proud to be an American!