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All went well until it was time to wrap up. He chose to stay back at the guesthouse and occupied the room next to mine. The handle on the door leading to my room turned that night. Not once, but many times.
Sexual harassment at the workplace! Most of us have gone through it in one way or the other. We have kept quiet for the fear of being ridiculed. For fear of losing our career. For fear of earning a bad reputation. In my case, it has often been a powerful superior of mine wielding authority to his convenience. Oh, did I write ‘his’? What if I tell you it had been a ‘her’? Can you imagine a woman trying to sexually harass her subordinate by throwing her to the wolves?
It was the year when Tsunami ravaged the Andaman Islands. I was deputed to the islands with an able team. Soon, my work was recognized and I bagged a few more projects from the funding bodies.
I gained prominence and mustered enough courage to protest against the President of the organization who sought sexual favours. It never struck me that this would come at a cost. A price, which would end my career in the developmental sector.
One rainy morning, my colleagues submitted their testimony against me. The women blamed me for dressing obnoxiously. They accused me of inappropriate behaviour. At the end of the daylong drama, I found myself locked out of the cubicle, which had been mine. The laptop which had all my written work was confiscated robbing me of my years of hard work. Soon an investigative team arrived from the funding body, headed by a woman whom I knew well. I had pinned my hopes on her only to realize that she had an agenda of her own. A report was submitted which corroborated the evidence dished by my colleagues. The incident proved to be a turning point.
I felt let down by my tribe. I learned that women, to rise up the ladder, did not mind stepping on their kind in collusion with the perpetrator. Sexual harassment was the perfect tool of oppression.
Let me tell you more. I was fresh out of college and had bagged my dream job. It involved travelling to far-flung areas organizing fellowship programmes. Eminent members of the organization would drop in either for the inauguration or the closing ceremony.
The first assignment was in a city, nine hours away from my base. The accommodation was in a guesthouse on the top floor of an NGO. The floor had a terrace and two rooms. To my dismay, I found that my room had a door, which led to the other room. Thankfully, no one occupied the room and I locked mine properly.
The next morning, the chief guest, a powerful man, arrived from the Headquarters to inaugurate the session. All went well until it was time to wrap up. He chose to stay back at the guesthouse and occupied the room next to mine. The handle on the door leading to my room turned that night. Not once, but many times. A voice implored to be let in. A series of text messages and calls followed. I remained frozen in fear. There was no one else besides us in the building.
My only hope was the woman I reported to. I sent a message to my boss asking for help. ‘Cooperate. Else…you know!’ Came back the reply. The next morning, the man looked at me accusingly. I evaded him.
In the evening, we wrapped up the program. While he was supposed to fly back, I would take the overnight bus. Pulling me aside, his fingers digging into my arms, the man whispered. ‘A young girl like you should not take the bus. Join me. We will fly together. And after that, I will ensure you fly higher.’ Pulling my hand from his, I stepped away, thanked him, and went back to my programme. That evening I took the bus back home. The boss remarked that I was too young and naïve to understand how a career flourished. I kept the incident to myself. For no one would believe me. Moreover, if I dared to disclose it, I would ruin my fledgling career.
I escaped then. But not every time. The boss ensured that there were numerous other instances where I would be thrown at the wolves.
The head of the organization was popular for his charm. It was considered a good fortune to be summoned by him and spend a few minutes in his chamber. I would see the summon come in for the women. What followed left me flummoxed. The sleepy office would suddenly wake up. The women would spring into action, touching up their lipstick, brushing their hair, straightening their clothes, and then rush off to the main chamber. While the others giggled and marvelled at the woman’s good fortune, the chosen one traipsed to the cabin. Whatever happened in the cabin never came out.
Well, I was summoned twice. The women pushed me to the changing room, ordered me to dab some perfume, comb my hair, and walk-in confidently. Thankfully, nothing untoward happened. Probably my shaky frame, the trembling fingers, and the wobbly legs gave away my inner state. The man would take one glance at me and hand out the files.
The moment I stepped out, the women would hover around me. ‘What happened? What did he say? Anything happened?’ Then they would give me a knowing smile. My boss sighed in exasperation and laid down a few points to practice. ‘Look your age and not act as a Behenji by wearing saris. It’s a turn-off.’ ‘Apply some bold lip colour so that the message gets through.’ ‘Make your presence known. Those flats are boring.’
As a woman, I have helplessly looked at other women in my workplace to bail me out. Unfortunately, I never found a sympathetic woman. Sexual harassment is almost like a chain. ‘If I have gone through it, you might as well go through it.’ That has been the sentiment. The chain has continued unbroken.
We, women, have a huge role in breaking this despicable chain. Please come out in support of the women who have been wronged. Voice your feelings. If you cower in fright, remember that you are giving the perpetrator leverage. If we as a community strike back, no man would ever think of using sexual harassment as a tool. When you keep silent at work, allowing the perpetrators to continue with their actions, you are equally at fault. You are at fault for allowing it to happen, for not acting in the woman’s defence. A witness to the act is an indirect victim. Stand with your tribe. Stand by her and ensure that no woman is taken advantage of. Only then can we look towards a better tomorrow.
Image source: still from the short film The Feeling is Mutual
Sreemati Sen holds a Masters in Social Work from Visva Bharati, Shantiniketan. She is a Development Professional, specialised in Psychiatric care of Differently Abled Children. That hasn’t stopped her from exploring other fields. Years read more...
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A ‘thank you’ makes a lot of difference in the way any woman in your life sees herself in your eyes. It might even mean the world to her.
I have not received any appreciation in the past. Probably never will. This is the experience of ample women across the globe. The expectation to be thanked for all the sacrifices she makes to keep others happy has faded. Yet the urge to hear few words of acknowledgement always lingers.
There is never a day when she pushes off her own burdens. She knows not to give up on people she loves. Women in general, are givers by nature and hence, give without asking anything in return. They have been the care givers and lovers since centuries however receive no appreciation.
It will mean the world to your mother if you answer her calls. If your sister seems lost give her a hug and assure her about her strengths. Tomorrow, there might come a day when you would have to make your daughter feel empowered with few words of wisdom every now and then. For the children to feel wanted and loved, you must be able to spare some quality time with your wife and be present in the moment.
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