Battling Endless Questions and No Answers

I must be honest with you. I’ve been struggling to figure out what to write. My mind is foggy with too many stories of too much violence. Some subtle, some overt – some verbal, some physical, most emotional. Too many unanswered questions swirling in my head. What happens when those of us who believe we know how to protect our bodily integrity and autonomy (forgive the lingo but I don’t know how to say it better) are not able to? Because there’s something to be said for being able to feel that you control your body enough that you can say no when someone has gone too far. What silences us? What makes us question ourselves? And doubt whether we’re blowing things out of proportion? How do we disappoint ourselves in our reaction, or the lack thereof?

All of these questions come because of a recent experience I had at a clinic, where I went for a check up because of symptoms I thought I could self-medicate with home remedies (mostly plenty of water + apple cider vinegar) but were refusing to go away. So I get there and the doctor orders an ultrasound. I get into the ultrasound room and it’s a man. I’m immediately thinking about closed vs open doors. On one hand, I know I don’t want people walking in while I’m undergoing an ultrasound, on the other (and sadly so) I know that an open door offers me protection. Why should a woman have to think through all these things? Why should she wonder if she’s safe in a health facility where she’s come to receive care?

He starts asking me questions, which at first I dismiss as medically related. (The amount of benefit we give to folks ….even when our gut tells us otherwise/ the silencing of ourselves). The questions go – are you married? Do you have kids? The answers to both are no. He continues, without skipping a beat – what’s the problem, let’s have a baby then. I’m quiet. Not even sure what’s just happened. Or how inappropriate a health worker can be. I hate myself later for not having shut him down then and there and told him how inappropriate he was. I’m reminded by sisters later when I recount this story that the onus is not on me – it’s on him.

He proceeds to ask questions related to work and study and in between winces as he presses into my side with the machine, I respond – as simply as I can. Although it’s a scan of my stomach, he proceeds to do a scan of my breasts. He wipes me down.

He’s done, I pull down my shirt and get off the bed, anxious to get out. He tells me to sit as he records some things. He alludes again to us having a baby – and follows up with – what’s the problem, we all want love and babies – we both want it – so why not have it together? He asks for my number, which I refuse and leave the room.

It’s only once I’ve left that the scene unfolds and replays over and over in my mind. I’ve just come to a health care facility because I’ve been unwell. I’m privileged – with language, means, knowledge of my rights+++ and yet I fell silent in the face of very inappropriate behavior from a healthcare professional who was anything but that. I was upset. At him. At myself for not having reacted differently, for not having made him know.

I go back and speak to the doctor to tell her what happened. It takes me some time to do so because I’m worried she’ll laugh it off. That it’s become too normalized to be taken seriously. But I do. Initially she chuckles and says – he’s just messing with you, these young ones always do. When she sees I’m not amused she tells me, some laugh it off and others tell him off. She says even her, married with kids (and a senior doc) gets hit on by him and she just brushes it off. When I tell her he’s also done a scan of my breasts her entire demeanor shifts. That seems to be a red flag for her – she asks if I’ve complained to him about pain in my breasts and when I say no, she gets even more serious. She then shares that I’m the second female patient to come to her with this complaint about this man.

So how many more women must there be? And for those who seem less privileged, less assured, how far does it go? Must we always be on our guard, irrespective of whether we’re in our homes, our places of worship, our care centres? Can we trust no men? Stranger or known to us? Can we be in a closed room with one without wondering what will happen and if we’re safe?

I’m still looking for the answers to these questions….


Nebila Abdulmelik is a pan-African and feminist storyteller who uses the creative arts to speak her peace and archive stories of daily existence for coming generations. Born and bred in Addis Ababa, she has since criss-crossed the earth but found her way home again. She is a photographer, poet, writer and editor.