The sexual harassment I experienced during my summer internship in Tunisia
As first-year students around me at the Harvard Kennedy School lock down summer internships, I reflect on my own internship experience from last summer with mixed feelings.
On my way to Tunisia from Boston last June, I had a one-day layover in Istanbul. I decided to explore the city after leaving my luggage at the hostel.
As I wandered around, the aroma of spice shops and clamor of locals conversing evoked a whirlwind of emotions in me, ranging from excitement to nervousness. I was looking forward to the internship since it was my first time in this region of the world. I couldn’t wait to see new things, try new food, and meet new people.
In front of the famous Hagia Sophia mosque, a man approached me:
“Hi, where are you from?”
“Oh, hi. I’m from Thailand.”
“Welcome to Istanbul! Are you traveling alone?”
“Thank you. Yes.”
“If you are alone, I can show you Istanbul. I’m free today.”
“Uh, no thanks. I’m fine alone.”
“Do you want to have sex with me then?”
I was not ready for this question.
I gaped at him, dumbfounded at how the conversation had escalated so quickly. A million thoughts raced through my head: “Was it because I said I’m alone? Or because I said I’m from Thailand? Maybe he knows of our notorious sex industry back home? Is that why he thinks I’d be ‘easy’? Will he follow me back to my hotel? Oh my god.”
When my senses finally came back to me, I rushed back to my hostel where I holed myself up in my room until my flight the following day. It was the first time I’d ever been asked such a blatant question, by a stranger nonetheless. I had felt too startled to go out again.
This was, however, only the beginning of a summer where I would have to endure constant sexual harassment and grapple with the complexities that came with it.
During my first week in Tunis, I went to the city center with two fellow interns—the only other Asian woman at the FinTech startup I was working for. We stood out among the crowds of Arab men that congregated to the sidewalks every night during Ramadan. That evening, two men walking behind us called out to us repeatedly in Arabic. One of my fellow interns, who was semi-fluent in Arabic, turned around and told them, “Enough.”
“What did they say?” I asked, curious to know why she looked so upset.
“They called us ‘yellow bitches’.”
And so, it continued.
Everywhere I went in Tunisia, I got catcalled. In Arabic, in English, in whistles.
Whenever I walked passed men, I found myself closing my eyes and praying, “Let it be in Arabic.” The times I heard English and understood what they were saying sickened me.
“Hello, Chinese! Japanese? If you want, I can fuck you.”
Tunisia is one of the most liberal Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)—girls wear tank-tops on the streets, bikinis at the beaches, drink alcohol, and even smoke. But I had taken precaution not to go anywhere on my own and to dress modestly. It wasn’t my clothes that attracted this unwanted attention.
A male coworker reckoned it was just me. “Asian girls are so rare to see around here,” he said. As if I was some rare commodity or endangered species.
Upon returning to HKS last Fall, I confided my experiences with my friends. I received mostly sympathetic reactions. The most common response was: “Sorry you had to go through that. You must’ve felt so unsafe.”
But I never felt physically unsafe in Tunisia. No one ever tried to touch or harm me.
Yet every day I was there, I felt like a piece of meat. A walking piece of yellow meat.
I had never had to endure such vile catcalling in any country I lived in or traveled to. My intelligence, my self-esteem, and my being were diminished to no more than a piece of flesh at which men could gawk. I felt stripped of all the things that made me human. I felt degraded and defenseless, afraid to speak up or talk back, knowing that my responses would only provoke the men further.
Feeling powerless was enough to affect me even if I wasn’t in physical danger.
Do I regret going to Tunisia last summer? No, I don’t. My internship experience was invaluable. My Tunisian coworkers were some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, welcoming me into their homes and families. I was a part of Tunisia’s financial revolution, helping the startup develop a mobile payment app that would bring financial inclusion to the nation, and soon, to the rest of MENA. I was useful. I wasn’t the piece of meat that the local men on the streets had dehumanized. My self-worth is much more than that—something I still tell myself every day.
Will I ever go back to Tunisia? Not anytime soon. But I will not let this one experience wound me permanently either.