Throughout the semester, I have been on edge, anticipating the one huge moment that would define my experience with sexual harassment in this country. It would need to be something more than the common catcalls that are slowly teaching me Russian or the stares that are so unforgivably obvious. Perhaps it would be a groping, as many of my friends, one by one, have experienced, or a group of men waiting for me as I walk home at night.
In that sense, I have been lucky: My turn has not yet come. But I still have failed to avoid the daily microagressions: the catcalls, the whistles, the followers and the spittle. At first you let them bounce off; you try to convince yourself that this is a compromise between two cultures. A strange cultural currency that still allows you to go for a run or to stay out late. But eventually they become the behaviors that can wear you down, shaping your daily routines.
I cannot bring myself anymore to go for a solo run after six in the morning. Roughly a month ago, after a week where scheduling forced me to go running in the afternoon, I snapped. I told off a group of men who spat at me, calling them rude, flipping them off, and sprinting away as fast as possible afterwards when one made a move towards me. Speeding away as fast as I could, I was furious with myself for finally breaking, terrified that they would follow me and pissed at them for making me feel this way in the first place. It was the first run I have ever felt more stressed after and the last daytime run I have done alone in the city.
Looking back, there was not really any particular reason I finally snapped that day, just a slow build up of events: being followed before, both on a run and at night, sprinting home at night to the sound of footsteps, catcalls, whistles, laughter. The little things you brush off, calling it a cultural discrepancy.
Except that is a lie. Even in the little pockets of the Western world, surrounded by other expats, you can still find harassment. And it cuts deeper, maybe because you actually understand every explicit comment or maybe it is simply a sense of betrayal, as the compatriots you thought you could trust can be just as bad as the locals you were warned to expect harassment from in your security briefing.
Of course, this does not apply to everyone or everything. There is good here too.
Through being discouraged to run, I slowly ended up deciding to go to the gym, something I have always despised, finding it to be a box of monotonous exercise routines. Yet this gym has changed my mind, specifically through the boxing classes it offers. Although by no means perfect, it is one of the few gyms in Tajikistan that offers boxing class that allows women to take part. Additionally, it not only offers women’s fitness, with a screen from the locker room to the main room (so women will not have to worry about men seeing them immodestly) but also allows women the choice to wear tank tops and leggings and to exercise with the men. In its own way, the gym has created a sense of equality within its walls.
Even though I am still waiting, I realize I am always waiting. The next round of harassment might come from here or there, from a local or a foreigner; it may also come from back home.
But I am also waiting for the good: another gym, a kind person, an encouragement. All might be found within the next box I find or new place I visit.