Ever since I could listen, my mom has told me that I am independent and can be the rightful bread winner of my home. Though she grew up in a country with a prevalent gender gap, I was raised to believe that women and men are created equal and can both do anything. In college I studied Women & Gender Studies and helped lead an NGO aimed at girls’ empowerment, and I carry these ideals with me wherever I go.
It is frustrating to be in a country that lives by such defined gender roles. In Zambia, women are relegated to the private sphere and men the public sphere. Women are charged with cleaning, cooking, taking care of the children in addition to potentially having a job. Men are expected to provide the earnings and are seen as the head of household.
Even in today’s modern world there are instances where Zambian men are eager to impress during the dating period but as soon as they are married they expect traditional meals, a submissive wife, and to be treated with every ounce of respect. I have heard stories of successful women who cannot find significant others because they are too intimidating and cannot be tamed.
Though I am nowhere near marriage, I am still experiencing the effects of the gender gap. My stories are endless. A 35-year old man asked me if I was interested in a relationship and when I said no, boldly asked if I wanted to be friends with benefits instead – just 20 hours after meeting him. I get hit on in Shoprite, the local grocery store, though I am minding my own business. A co-worker continuously asks me about dating and relationships and if, “I would love to marry a Zambian,” though he has a fiancé. He now even calls me his shawarma.
It feels like any guy I meet is interested in much more than friendship. I have come to just not making eye contact with anyone in public for fear that they are staring right back at me. The most frustrating part is that it is only because I am foreign. (A main reason why Foreign by Trey Songz makes me feel uncomfortable)
I spent years studying how women of color are perceived as different, foreign, exotic. In the media, women of color are donned with their traditional wear and made to look beautifully exotic or like beastly animals. Now I, too, understand what it feels to be objectified, and I hate it.
I know that I could say I have a boyfriend, but I honestly hate lying. Some have even suggested wearing a fake engagement ring, but I despise the idea that I have to be attached to someone else, especially another man, to be respected.
In a world where 51% of the population is female, I refute the idea that I cannot be independent, successful, or equal because I am a woman. I am a believer of cultural assimilation, but this is one issue on which I can never adjust to.
Disclaimer: All opinions in this post are my own, and are only based on my perceptions and interactions in Zambia. This post is not meant to label all Zambian men (or all men) as sexist womanizers. Rather, I believe the world has deeply entrenched gender norms that manifest in harmful ways for both women and men. Acknowledging this is the first step on a long road to gender equity.