15.03.2024 Heidi Suotsalo

A World Where Women Can Say No

Reading time: 6 min

“I want to see a future where women can openly say ‘no’,” Amal Mohamed Muse says when I  ask her what kind of future she would like to see for the women in Ethiopia’s Somali region. Muse works as the GBV specialist of International Solidarity Foundation (ISF) in Ethiopia.

I couldn’t have said it better. That small word holds a lot: Refusal is primarily about women’s comprehensive right to self-determination.

In Western countries, the discussion surrounding refusal focuses especially on consent. A woman should have the right to refuse touch, unwanted attention, giving out her number, offered drinks, sex, and so forth. On the other hand, we are now fighting for our right to refuse to continue a pregnancy, abortion rights. Saying “no” is about making a choice – the right to choose what I want to do and how I should be treated.

Saying no breaks the myth of the good girl

Traditionally, refusal is not something allowed for women anywhere in the world. Women are expected to be kind and obedient – perhaps someone might say submissive. That’s what “good” really means: compliant, flexible, yielding to the will of others. It’s not very “good” to say “no”.

In Kenya, Grace Morungi, the project specialist of Manga Heart, also talks about the requirement for girls to be good. She explains that in the Kisii area, quiet and obedient girls are valued.

“Girls are raised to respect adults to such an extent that it’s really difficult for them to defend themselves even when they understand they’re being mistreated,” Morungi states.

In Finland, we also talk about the “good girl syndrome”, the expectation for women and girls to bee good, adaptable, and never “difficult”. It’s society’s expectation of how women and girls should behave. Saying “no” breaks this expectation. Therefore, a woman who refuses is easily judged as difficult, uncooperative, lacking humor, and even cold. This creates social pressure that makes refusal difficult.

Amal Mohamed Muse, etiopialainen asiantuntija, katsoo kameraan hymyillen. Hänellä on yllään musta hijab ja silmälasit.

Amal Mohamed Muse, Coordinator for ISF’s Gender-Based Violence Work. Image: Nafkot Gebeyehu

Not everyone can say “no”

However, the problem is not just about the social pressure; it’s about actually being able to refuse – not everyone has that option. At its worst, refusal has concrete, serious consequences. It may increase the threat of violence.

So what happens to a woman who has no choice? To her whose livelihood depends on a man? For her, who dishonors the family by refusing? Muse also refers to these matters. Not all women can decide for themselves what they can refuse.

Refusal is only possible when the basics are in place. When women have more options, they also have a real opportunity to refuse – to choose for themselves. That’s why ISF’s specialists one after another talk about saying “no”. It’s not just a small word.

For a woman to be able to choose, she must be freed from economic dependence and, on the other hand, from narrow gender roles that force women into silence. ISF works towards these issues in East Africa.

Kuvassa kenialaisia oppilaita ja Grace juttelemassa.

ISF’s project specialist Grace Morungi discusses with students participating in school clubs. Image: Browline Omondi

Saying no must be practiced

“We teach girls to say, ‘you must not do this to me’,” Morungi says. In club activities for children in Kisii in Kenya, traditional gender roles that restrict women’s rights are challenged. Girls are taught that they can say no. It all starts with building self-esteem: a person cannot defend themselves if they don’t believe they are worth defending.

It’s important for girls and women to find their own voices. Muse also wants to see women stand up for themselves. For example, female genital mutilation (FGM) should not be a requirement for marriage, and a woman should be able to say that she has not been cut.

“So women should be able to say that if you want to marry me, deal with it. You don’t want to? Then I have other options. We [women] don’t need to be so desperate that if we’re not cut, we can’t get married,” Muse explains.

In areas where FGM is practiced, circumcision is often seen as a guarantee of a woman’s eligibility for marriage. An uncircumcised woman might not find a husband. Since marriage is still the only future security for many women, cutting is seen as the only way to guarantee a girl’s future.

Ultimately, all women around the world want the same thing: to be able to decide for themselves about their lives and bodies. That’s why saying “no” is not a small matter.

There is now a joint struggle for a world where anyone can strongly say “no”. That’s the world ISF is working for.

Article image: ISF Muungano gender forum in Kenya. Image: Browline Omondi

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