Tag Archives: abroad

The Obruni Diaries: A Few Last Thoughts

6 Dec

by Allyn Faenza

As my semester abroad in Accra, Ghana comes to an end, I have been thinking through the things I have experienced, the people I have met, and the things I wish I knew before coming. I only talked to one person about his semester abroad in Ghana before boarding the plane. As a male, he had not been fully exposed to the sexism present in Ghana, but he did tell me that men would approach me and call me “obruni,” which means “foreigner.” I was not ready for living in Ghana as a woman, so here are a few observations I have made over the past four months that might help you understand what it is like to be a visitor here if you should choose to visit this frustrating, hot, wonderful little country in the future.

Here in Ghana women tend to dress modestly, but the rules of socially-sanctioned clothing are very complex. College-age females often wear tight-fitting blouses or T-shirts and skin-hugging leggings despite the 90 degree heat. Even when it comes to church attire, women wear long dresses that are worn very tightly. Here it seems like modesty is all about the length of one’s trousers not their tightness. Personally, I cannot wear leggings in this heat. Even though I may get a couple extra stares, I wear my shorts and skirts that hit above the knee. If you do dress as you would during the summer months in the States, expect some men to approach you more, stare at you, and assume you are sexually easy.

I wish someone had told me to come up with a plan for rejecting romantic advances. I was so intimidated by all of the male attention when I first arrived in Ghana. I had men at the airport asking where I lived and if they could have my phone number! The easiest way to turn a guy down is to be direct. At first, I was not sure whether making my intentions clear would help or hurt me, but once you have had men approaching you each day who tell you they want to marry you, you learn that the direct approach is best for your sanity and time. If I spoke to every man who talked to me, I would never feel safe walking around alone, and it would take lots of time to get from place to place. Some girls on my program pretend to be engaged or married, while I typically take the honest route. If their conversation takes the direction of a romantic proposition, I say, “No, I don’t want to be your friend or give you my number, because I don’t like you. Have a nice day.” Say whatever makes you feel comfortable. Women are so often convinced that the most important thing is to appear nice and spare people’s feelings, however, your safety is more important than saving a stranger’s feelings.

One other thing I wish I knew before coming here is how much I appreciate my privacy. In America it is not difficult to locate public restrooms with toilets for males and females. In Ghana if you are traveling on the highway or in the city, it is not common to find a public restroom. Instead, it is often a little field where men and women free-range urinate. There are so many health reasons that make this practice problematic, but I found the experience of urinating outside, near a highway or in a gutter at an open market so emotionally distressing. I treasure moments of privacy, but now I realize they are a luxury that comes with infrastructure development and social norms. As I have mentioned in my other posts, men sometimes grab me or touch me without my permission. This is because Ghanaian culture accepts men as sexual aggressors who have the right to touch a woman without her consent. If I protest their touch, men respond angrily saying that I have no right to tell them no because I am a woman. Being a woman here means life can oftentimes be less comfortable and private.

My personal lens is inextricably linked with my feminist lens, which has made many situations difficult here. I have found myself in this male-dominated society completely of my own choice. Numerous times I took a look in the mirror and asked myself why I was here. Why would I choose to go abroad somewhere like Ghana? But my experiences here have not been in vain.  Now I know that Ghana has changed me, made me stronger and prouder than ever to be female.

This is the final addition to the author’s weekly column about living in Ghana.

The Obruni Diaries: Relationship Checklists

20 Nov

by Allyn Faenza

Earlier this semester I was tuning into the local radio station to hear two friends’ weekly radio show. Each week they present a controversial topic and ask Ghanaian and international students to express their opinions on air. Seeing as they are both males in their twenties and trying to appeal to their audience, more often than not the weekly topic is about romantic relationships. One week, the conversation centered around the “relationship check-list” and attraction. There were four Ghanaian women, two Ghanaian men, and two international students involved in the talk.

My DJ friends began the talk by asking the participants to name five qualities or attributes that would attract them to someone of the opposite sex. My international friend responded first by saying that she was looking for someone who shares the same religion and work ethic as her, is compassionate, physically attractive, and musical. As she was explaining her list, I could hear some of the Ghanaian women giggling. The DJs asked them to comment on why they found her list amusing, and all four of them responded that the list was valid, but she was forgetting one huge point.

As the show went on, each of the Ghanaian women listed the attributes that must be present for them to be attracted to a man. While their answered varied due to their different personalities and backgrounds, all of them said finances were the main factor that would make or break their opinions about a man. One girl stated, “If a man likes what he sees, he should have the money to maintain it! That means paying for my nail and hair appointments, taking me shopping… I am just playing the game.” The girls hummed in agreement. Some chimed in saying, “A man’s job is to work and provide for me.” “He should take me places, give me things.”

These relationship expectations seem problematic to me. I do not know if my expectations of romantic relationships come from my experiences with my own family, from a result of culture, or from a combination of the two. But with a culture that is so family-centered and anti-individualistic, I thought the radio show conversation would be about how men and women work as a team to create something together, something beyond just one person’s capabilities.

I have been to different parts of Ghana and spent time with a few families. Each of them has a complex familial structure that would take years to fully comprehend. Neighbors support one another and the people who occupy the physical space of the home is a fluid group. In the native language Twi, the word for cousins is the same word as sibling, and all female relatives are referred to as “maame.” I was confused to find the women their age interested in maintaining the gender roles that leave males and females confined to traditional jobs, responsibilities, and behaviors. I thought the women would want to be empowered by their education; I thought they would be searching for more, expecting more of themselves, striving to create new expectations for women in Ghana.

Enforcing the patriarchal structure is as simple as maintaining gender expectations. When women in Ghana question why the men in their lives don’t support women in the workplace, I challenge them to look no further than their relationship check-lists. I challenge women to look beyond their wants and see how their actions are playing into the larger system of gender normativity. Because, after all, there is a difference between playing the game and playing into an oppressive patriarchy.

The Obruni Diaries: Cab Driver

13 Nov

by Allyn Faenza

Sitting in this hot cab is torture. It’s bad enough that the sun never ducks behind the clouds here and the temperature is always nearing ninety, but why can’t this cab driver turn on the air conditioning? Poor Eden is lying down in the back about to vomit once again because of some illness the hospital we were just visiting cannot diagnose due to a combination of staff incompetency and apathy. Here I sit in the front seat on this short drive trying to direct our driver back to campus, so Eden can lie down and rest.

Then it happens.

It is not the first time it has happened here in Ghana, and I hate that it won’t be the last either. I was warned it would happen, because after all, I am exotic here. Uneducated men have seen movies and television shows of women who look like me, who come from America. These men have the expectation that I will act how those actresses, adult film stars, or singers do. They may have even heard stories about American women in Ghana who are give their sex freely and indiscriminately. But mostly, I think they see me as a foreigner, vulnerable with confusion and wide-eyed from the culture shock. I am easy to violate. These men see an opportunity, and they take it.

This cabbie, just like some other men have done, places his hand on my lap and tries to work it under my short skirt. I look in his eyes to see a smile stretch across his face. He is amused by violating me. Does he think he is getting away with something? Does he think this should be a natural position for me or maybe I deserve this? Does he think I want this too? I speak up. Finding the inner strength, I slap his hand away. I say, “Daabe! No! You don’t get to touch me like that!” when I see his smile is transforming into a laugh. “You should be ashamed. You have no right,” I shout. He mumbles something that sounds like a half-hearted apology.

Now I am grabbing the door handle and walking out of the cab with Eden, feeling ashamed by his cheapening touch. I feel alone and scared. I am tainted by this, feeling like a little piece of my self-worth and strength has been taken from me. I should have been smarter. I should have never gotten in that cab. I should have known. I know I am giving him power over me by reevaluating my own actions and cursing myself for sitting in the passenger’s seat instead of the back with Eden, but I feel somehow responsible for letting this happen to me.

I feel powerless. I feel so powerless.

This piece is part of a weekly column about the author’s experiences abroad in Ghana.

The Obruni Diaries: A Break from Expectation

6 Nov

by Allyn Faenza

This weekend, nine of us on my program traveled to an area known as Bonwire, which is a small town outside of Kumasi, Ghana. We were divided into small groups and placed with families that spoke little English; we stayed for three days and two nights. We did our best to integrate ourselves into their families by cooking meals, playing with the children, observing the parents in the markets, and attending church services if we felt comfortable. The trip was intended to be an experience for us to learn how Ghanaians in rural villages use their resources to make a living and to see how village life compares to the city life in Accra. And it was just that and much, much more…

A large topic of conversation in my sociology, theology, and history classes at the University of Ghana is the role of women in the Ghanaian family structure of the past and present. The message I keep getting is that wives are largely responsible for housework, cooking, and childrearing, while husbands are expected to leave the home each day to earn the family’s income. Women may work, but they are very rarely the breadwinners for the family; if they do earn the main source of income for their families, it would be emasculating for the man to admit it is so. I have heard students and professors reaffirm these gender roles, and often males and females make no dispute that these roles are the “natural” or “proper” roles for wives and husbands.

With this knowledge of Ghanaian culture in my rearview, I expected to see nothing different in my rural home stay, but my expectations shifted suddenly when I met a two-year old named Hattim Muhammed and his father. This weekend my friend Kaela and I shared a home with small family of three children plus their father and mother. Also at the home were the family’s son-in-law and his son Hattim, who were staying at the home for a long visit. However, during the entire weekend, Kaela and I never saw Hattim’s mother. Hattim’s father told me his wife was working in Accra as a nurse, and he was in charge of raising Hattim until they returned to Accra together as a family. I was so taken aback by this gender role swap that I forgot to ask more questions so I could better understand this family dynamic. Hattim and his father played with toys, ate meals, and practiced their English together. The two of them shared an intimate relationship that comes with comfort, respect, and love, which led me to believe that they have spent a good amount of time with one another. Perhaps this was a break in their normal parental roles, or perhaps it is exactly as it appears: the mother is the breadwinner for their family and the father raises Hattim and keeps house.

But what about those traditional gender roles fulfilled by mothers and fathers that my classmates and professors talk about being inherent in Ghanaian culture? Is Hattim’s family the norm or the exception? What would Ghanaians have to say about this family?

This situation was the first time I have seen a father alone with his child. I always see women carrying their babies or young children, and on the rare occasion I see a man carrying a child, his wife is never far behind. Hattim’s family was a dramatic break from my previous experience and education on familial relations in Ghana. I still have questions about this family, but what I am beginning to understand is that Ghanaian culture is very complex and ever-changing. While women in the workplace and men in the home may be the cultural norm of the past and present and future, their roles may be more flexible than I originally thought. I must keep in mind that Ghana is not in a vacuum, completely unaffected by the current trends of international integration of values, norms, expectations, and products. Ghanaians are changing to meet the demands of their country, and slowly but surely this also means Ghanaian families are stepping up to gender normativity to meet the demands of their jobs and children despite traditional roles.

This piece is part of a weekly column about the author’s experiences abroad in Ghana.

The Rituals of Gender Oppression

30 Oct

by Allyn Faenza

In two of my classes last week, the same conversation came up. Here in Ghana, males and females participate in class discussions pretty equally, but the males tend to be quite outspoken. Males command the room and propose interesting topics for discussion, even though I often disagree with their claims about gender and sexuality. While discussing common rituals between the ethnic groups of Ghana, the conversation that was on our minds was if females enforce gender roles through rituals: are women their own worst enemies?

It is an undeniable fact that gender oppression is a cultural norm present in a variety of cultures. The methods of oppression are different, but their strategic devaluing of one’s gender to establish a system of power that benefits the other gender economically, socially, or religiously is the same. The physical, emotional, and mental implications of the gender devaluing is devastating. “Women are their own enemies” is a phrase often discussed when considering how women could possibly be willing to subject other women to sexist oppression. With women enforcing gender expectations, they are often blamed for their own oppression. What this saying and my classmates here in Ghana fail to acknowledge, however, is how deeply gender roles have been rooted into a society’s culture and how those roles influence behavior despite its consequences for the women who enforce them. Females are often so oblivious to their own participation in gender roles forced upon them by society that they voluntarily force them upon other women, which can lead to psychological and physical trauma. Yet, this behavior by women is merely an action of habit and an attempt to avoid the label of “deviant.”

In my Gender Issues in Religion and Culture class, the class took an interesting turn when we discussed death rituals among the Ewe people who live in the Volta Region of Ghana. When a woman’s husband passes away in the Volta Region, the women of the towns are charged with performing the proper death rituals in order to honor the deceased husband and help the accused wife. I say accused because if a man dies before his wife, it is presumed that his wife murdered him even if there is no evidence of it. The other women begin a process of ritualization to ease his soul’s journey to heaven and restore peace in the community. First, the widow’s head is shaved. The people of the town then clean the husband’s body with water which the widow is expected to drink. The night before the funeral, the wife sometimes sleeps next to her deceased husband as an act of repentance for his death and reflection of their lives together. During the funeral, she is not allowed to shake hands, smile, or eat in public since these behaviors would lead the community to believe she is celebrating her husband’s death and this celebration is a result of killing him. For the next year, she should wear black every day, wear a padlock on her belt to prove herself sexually chaste, and marry her husband’s nephew. In Ghana’s matrilineal society, the husband’s sister’s male child is the rightful heir of property and wealth upon his uncle’s death. Considering that the deceased’s wife is part of his property, she is expected to marry his nephew.

While most of these examples are egregious to Ghanaians from larger cities like Accra, some of the death rituals from Volta are present among the Akan and Gaa peoples. After a woman’s husband dies, the widow is expected to wear black for a year, she may not remarry for a year, and if she does not cry at the funeral, she may be called a witch. Are these women their own enemies? What cannot be underestimated is the power of the label of deviance. No, women are not their enemies, but they are terrified of breaking social norms, being labeled “deviants” and therefore being ostracized by their culture. They are not just following societal norms to keep peace, women are trapped in a cycle of control created by men, and the only way they know to validate their roles is to separate genders and enforce roles upon their families and communities.

Patterns of oppression and fear of deviance are the enemies of women. In the case of the Ewe people, the women are not to blame. They have been conditioned to follow cultural norms in order to keep peace and follow the cycle of male control in their homes and greater community despite the trauma these rituals cause. The death rituals are dehumanizing, but they are in no way uncommon among many cultures around the world. Learning about these rituals has made me keen to observe common rituals in American culture. And even though we have gendered rituals that are preserved despite their psychological and physical repercussions for males and females, I was so quick to condemn the death rituals of the Ewe.

What this discussion about death rituals in the Ewe ethnic group has taught me is to be observant of how rituals can either lead to a society’s progress or decline depending on whether the rituals honor events like birth, education, puberty, marriage, or death or create a stigma around life events to perpetuate gender inequality and shame. Believing our rituals have power on our personal and cultural growth is the only way rituals can be addressed with respect and changed to end the perpetuation of gender inequality.

This post is part of a regular series that will be posted every Wednesday.

‘Mail Order Brides’ Are Not Always Victims

28 Oct

by Kat Kelley

This post originally appeared on Kat’s blog, and the soundtrack to the post can be found here. 

Sitting in a booth at TGI Fridays is a young Filipina, sipping a mango smoothie through a red straw, hands in her lap. Across from her is an American man, with a receding hair line, thinning and turning dull, in the way that only light brown hair does. She is startlingly thin, in deep blue skinny jeans, a tight black top, and flip flops. He wears an oversized white tee shirt, just hinting at a belly, and olive green shorts, as he leans in towards her. She looks sixteen, but could pass for up to nineteen; he looks sixty, but could pass for as young as fifty.

I clench and unclench my jaw, making eye contact with my friend Lydia. We shake our heads and return to the menu, debating Filipino vs. American portions, shrimp quesadillas vs. mac and cheese.

We return to the menu, because despite our discomfort, our borderline disgust, we are not phased. This is nothing new. We learned that this is just the way it is when visiting a sports bar geared towards expats, which apparently means middle aged Western, and primarily white, men. The bar was full of these pairings. No age gap between the Western men and their respective Filipinas was less than a decade, and most were more than two. We are reminded that this is just the way it isevery time we step out of our apartments. The vast majority of Westerners we see are middle aged men, and the vast majority of them walk arm in arm with much younger Filipinas.

Initially, in my attempts to learn more, I broached the subject with colleagues, and even the occasional taxi driver, and while my assessments were reinforced, I felt uncomfortable discussing the ‘plight’ of Filipina women with Canadians, Romanians, and other Americans.

The conversations followed scripts with which I am quite comfortable. We discussed ‘power dynamics,’ free and coerced choices, and the patriarchy (well, my conversations with taxi drivers were bereft of such academic feminist jargon). Consistently, these Filipina women were positioned as victims, subject to the whims of fathers and foreign men, in need of a savior in the form of first world feminism.

These conversations- with intellectuals, many of whom self-identify as feminists, who have traveled extensively, who are immersed in the field of public health- took the agency away from these Filipina brides.

Because of course these beautiful young Filipinas don’t want to marry old white men! They are clearly being coerced by their fathers, maybe even their brothers, really just the general patriarchy. Even if they choose to enter these marriages, it isn’t really a choice; they’ve been indoctrinated to want this.

Which is all valid. However, these women aren’t just brainwashed by the patriarchy, and they aren’t just indoctrinated to want to marry old white men. These women want more for themselves and for their families.

These conversations with colleagues have come from places of privilege. As WHO personnel, if we did not come from backgrounds of privilege, we have since attained the privilege of excellent educations and promising job prospects. We have the privilege of security and comfort, which allows us to seek love above all us in marriage.

For these women, security and comfort are exactly what they have to gain in marriage. These women want financial security and stability for themselves and for their families, and they want men who were raised in cultures where women are seen and treated as equals (relatively).

This is not unique to Filipinas, and this is an internal struggle I myself have had. Regardless of how a man treats me as a partner, I know that I would struggle to marry a man from a culture where women are not regarded as (once again, relatively) equal as they are in the United States. As is, I already struggle to find men within the Georgetown community who don’t see my raging feminism as problematic. I’ve consistently been involved with men who feel uncomfortable with how vocal I am. They find themselves infatuated with who they think I am, seeing my feminism as a “pet project” in order tohandle it.*

However, I am privileged enough to not need a man, and I am privileged enough to hold out for someone who is right for me. I am privileged enough to prioritize love.

When these women look for partners, they have much bigger concerns.

In a perfect, post-patriarchy society, these women will be able to prioritize love and they won’t have to endure encouragement or even coercion from relatives to marry for money. In the meantime, who are we to take the agency away from the narratives of resilient women wanting more for themselves and their families than merely love?


*The personal reflection piece here is primarily based on a conglomeration of experiences I’ve had. For those who know me personally, please do not make any assumptions regarding which men these experiences are or are not based on. No one with whom I am currently involved is guilty of this.

Sexism Abroad

23 Oct

by Allyn Faenza

“Ghana is a male-dominated society, and we like it that way.” This speech was given to every visiting student on the first day of orientation here in Legon, Ghana by a professor of political science. The female students were warned to watch their behavior and never leave their intentions unspoken. We were told that Ghanaian men often interpret “no” as a woman’s challenge for them to try harder. In the past, a visiting international student invited a Ghanaian man into her dorm room and after a few minutes changed her mind about going any further physically. The man didn’t listen. When she tried to alert the university’s police that she was raped, she said they practically laughed in her face. It seems the police could not wrap their heads around the notion that a woman can exercise control over her own body or direct a man’s actions. The professor told us this as a cautionary tale with no hint of irony, no hint of an apology. What the speech came down to was this: men here are in charge and women have to learn to play by the rules to get what they want.

Rarely has a day has gone by here in Ghana that I haven’t been grabbed, catcalled, or proposed marriage. The best way for me to advert attention from myself is to tell the men I’m married. It is as if they could only understand my disinterest by rationalizing that I belong to someone else. On more than one occasion I have heard women and men alike come to the consensus that the female body is a tool for male pleasure. As I walk through crowds of men, I can feel their eyes on me, and more often than not, their hands. They grope and grab me, and if I protest, I am often challenged. They say “Who are you to tell me not to touch you?! You are a woman, you are a woman!”

Today during my Sociology of the Family class, the topic of domestic violence came up. I have seen some of the television programs Ghanaians watch and oftentimes they center around a male/female romantic relationship that ends with the female screaming at the top of her voice only to be punched and slapped by her male companion. But seeing as I am attending class at a premiere university in West Africa, I assumed their opinions of domestic violence would be that it is something to be taken seriously, something that needs to end, and something that is shameful. I hoped they would find it as deplorable as I do, but I was wrong.

The professor began her lecture about Radical Feminist Theory on the family by proposing the question : “Does a husband have the right to physically discipline his wife?”

The male student behind me scoffs, “Of course!” with all of his friends giggling in agreement. Considering my experiences with some Ghanaian men thus far, the male response hardly surprised me. I have come to expect men to believe themselves biologically superior, and, therefore, somehow responsible for the disciplining of females. They get their validation from religion, media, and societal gender roles. What I was most astounded by was the female response to the question. While no one directly answered “yes,” the women laughed and acted like the conversation was unnecessary. I was angry and so very disappointed. I wanted to scream from the frustration, but then I considered the conversation from a new angle. How could these female students think of the lecture as nothing more than a challenge to the norms of this society? And with many women here in search of a husband, they don’t want to look like the dissenting women, bitter with experience. Ghanaian women don’t want to be a woman no man would want to marry. They do not have the tools to stifle sexism or the support they need to demand respect.

The only comfort I can find in this experience is telling and showing males here that I am a person. I am a living someone who cannot be objectified. I am not a tool for your pleasure. I have a mind and thoughts and feelings that tell me their behavior is demeaning. And even though it might get annoying to Ghanaian men and women, I talk about the inequality every chance I get. I am learning how to explain my culture and my expectations as eloquently as possible. While we might have a long way to go in Ghana, I am learning to live with the satisfaction it gives me to stand up to these gender roles and the hope it gives me for a Ghana that takes pride in the minds of Ghanaian women and not their bodies, for an equal Ghana.

This post is part of a regular series that will be posted every Wednesday.