My Experience With Sexual Harassment Taught Me A Tough Lesson About Speaking Up

As Indian women, or maybe in today’s world, as women in general, one psychological training that we gets is “how to stay safe” or “how to not do things that we want but should avoid in order to protect ourselves”. It is a sad reality where women are subjected to abuse, especially at the hands of those who believe from their beings that the female sex is secondary.

What made me think of all this was the recent furore over allegations of sexual harassment against the CEO of a certain (very) popular entertainment startup. While I do not want to and am not writing a response to the case here, I believe that the conversation is out there and hopefully, the truth will be upheld. My opinion on whether the allegations are true or not do not matter since, the deed of announcing to the world and the style of responses of the party have already dropped big hints.

Why I am writing this today is because I want to talk about the other side of the coin, vis-a-vis, reporting sexual assault. When I read tonnes of women responding to Indian Fowler on her post on medium.com, I found myself angry; angry with them for not standing up for themselves in time. “This is a typically Indian thought,” you’d say? At least, I said that to myself. I delved more into the subject and realised that all these girls, seemingly younger in age were new to the city or the industry.

In such scenarios, it is definitely very hard for one to stand up, no matter how strong they may be. I was angry because I reasoned that when I faced sexual harassment and lecherous behaviour at an earlier workplace, I reported it and sorted it out, even if it took me some time.

I was thinking of all this and resigned myself to the fact that maybe, the women speaking up now were simply too young and too scared to report. I also read a thread on Twitter, where the user shared how she had spoken up against harassment at her workplace following which she was threatened, her parents were harassed and she had to apologise to the person concerned! In that moment, I thanked my stars for working at a good place, that heard me out immediately. But then, as I read further, I started questioning everything again. Here is what happened:

I had been working in a big city in India and went to a smaller one for two days of work. The team there was all men and all fairly new while, I had spent a little more time in the organisation. Apart from the other regular things to be done, one of the tasks assigned to me was to train the new guys. Despite being drowsy from a very early flight, I was excited as it was my first time in that state.

Now the two new people (lets call them A and B) in the team were also the ones who were involved in an important but problematic assignment. Since they were new, and I was sharing the assignment, I had been trying to teach them the ropes as best as I could over phone. From the last time that I had spoken to them, it seemed to me that A, a young fresh graduate had become friendlier than necessary. Like most women, the red flag rose in my brain but, I let it pass and decided to not to be too polite to him anymore.

Maybe a woman’s politeness in a workspace is always interpreted as an invitation to be friendly. Anyway, as I was going through the day in a car with the team, by instinct or going by the internalised “how to survive public spaces – for women handbook,” I stuffed my backpack right in between A and me so that our bodies did not touch. Even though, we were two people on a seat made for three. After half a day had passed, I noticed that A was sitting with his legs spread wide apart and kept on falling over the backpack, such that after a while the bag itself seemed half its size. His elbow too seemed very close to my arm.

A dupatta is used to cover the breasts. Unfortunately it does nothing to avert the gaze of men from women’s bodies.

I time and again pushed the bag towards him and curtly asked him to sit up straight. He would oblige but, return to the same pose after a while. When we were outside the vehicle for a meeting, I noticed his eyes fixed on my breasts – I was wearing a salwaar kurta, with a dupatta.

As the day went by, I found ways to take him to task since I was training him as well but, at the end of the day, I was livid with rage. I had never felt so angry. I felt violated and I kept on asking myself why, he never touched me and I found sly ways to set him right. Why was I still so angry? That’s when the reality of abuse hit home.

To those who might never understand what it feels to be at the receiving end of catcalls, dirty stares, grabs, molestation or any form of abuse, it feels like you do not have any right on your own self. It feels like your body is just a case in which you exist only to be used by those who feel entitled to his body and mine. That is what it felt like – as his work senior, I could set him right but, as a woman, I had failed to own my body. It was easier to stand up to a complete stranger – difficult to a colleague. I cannot imagine the plight of those who are abused by relatives, friends or even parents.

The next day I heaved a sigh of relief because A was nowhere to be seen. I was saved but, I forgot to tell you about B. B was this funny, talkative chap and from where he comes, I have seen this tendency in most people (men and women) and hence, I presumed he was being himself. This chap had added me on Facebook, like a lot of my other colleagues, and I had accepted the request (making only my public profile visible to him). Using Facebook for me has changed to sharing thoughts on the socio-political existence of the country and a little bit of my writing and illustrations. No harm in colleagues seeing that and even better if it leads to a good lunch time discussion next day?

Alas, I was wrong! It seemed that B presumed my acceptance of his friend request as an invitation to flirt and be in a strange non-professional space. I clearly remember accepting the friend request after checking his profile which said he was married. He had a lot of cute pictures of his wife.

Throughout the two days, B was friendly and kept on praising me. I was too focused on A on day one to notice what B was doing. The second day just opened my eyes. He found my name too unique and wanted to name his niece after me, he found my blog post very intriguing and he also felt his wife was not necessary to be spoken about. This made me unsure of what he was doing.

When I went back to my city, I received a Facebook message from B asking if I had reached safely. I again, at that moment, presumed that he was just an obnoxiously talkative guy and maybe I was overthinking. How many times do we do that? How many times do we tell our gut, our instincts, to shut up and believe with a wide smile that “not all men” are lecherous and women need to “calm down”?

The next night (read: not day), he sent me a message on Facebook talking about work. We had email, phone, chat messages or SMS as modes of communication during the day but, no, he uses Facebook to discuss work after working hours. My gut laughed at that and just said, “I told you so”. I took screenshots of the message and blocked him. That was the end to my interaction with A and B, and I decided to forget about it all.

Then, one day I saw two of my juniors, young girls who were perhaps a year or two younger than my 24-year-old self. My heart sank at the thought of either of them facing what I had and could no longer sit quietly. I could not bear to be in the know and not do anything about it. I decided to talk to someone.

I spoke to a lady who was in the HR department and she was appalled at the news. She noted it down and said that she would like to discuss it with the seniors. I asked her to go ahead and by the next day and for the next two months, I had become a sensation. At the end of it, A was let off and all women in the team were warned against B and that was that.

Women are often told not to go out under certain conditions. #IWillGoOut is a nationwide peaceful gathering on 21st January in solidarity against sexual harassment and misogyny, and to reclaim women’s rights to safe public spaces.

What stayed with me however, was a question that one of the seniors asked me, a gentleman I was never too fond of because of his subtle sexist attitude. He asked me if I said no to A. I understand that he was trying to be as objective as possible but, I was still taken aback. I was tired after a month of constant rechecking and hushed conversations about it. At the end of it, I trusted one of my seniors to do the right thing and stopped thinking about it, telling my colleagues about the incident one on one and warning the women.

A month after, things got sorted, the hullabaloo died down and life was back to normal. My mother’s fears of A coming to my city and throwing acid in my face also died down. I still felt upset with no action being taken against B, but, trusted a very senior associate’s word that this was the best one could do. I accepted that and moved on.

The Medium post and that Twitter thread have shaken the beehive again. I still have questions. I don’t have anything against my employers per se. The actions taken were indeed the best possible to handle the situation for everyone’s interests but, I still have questions.

  1. Why are we still given manuals as women to adhere to in the public space? Why do we still feel that men are entitled to certain places and hours of the day and not women?
  2. Why do organisations and victims of harassment at workplace feel that lodging an official sexual harassment complaint is a tedious job?
  3. Sexual harassment cases, especially in the workplace must be dealt with a lot of sensitivity. It does take a lot of courage to speak up. We are always asked to adjust and maybe also not “overreact”. Is it because a woman standing up for herself is not believable or acceptable to patriarchy? What about the men who get harassed as well? Where should they go? Can’t we see that patriarchy is damaging both women and men and we shouldn’t go against anyone who speaks up against it?
  4. Why are we okay with crimes happening in smaller cities or in poorer neighbourhoods in big cities? The current furore is just one needle in the entire basket of examples of “educated” men behaving like its the medieval ages?
  5. More importantly, from my own story, the question is still unanswered is how do we deal with such grey areas of sexual harassment like in the case of B who found ways to sit next to me at a restaurant during team lunch or would find ways to take centre stage in conversations and continue to flirt? Why is there no conversation about this? Why aren’t such men taught better rather than the women being asked to avoid them? Why is there no way to take action against them without it being a hassle or an agni-pariksha (test by fire, to determine one’s “purity”) for the affected person, be it man or woman?

I hope that by reading this, you will understand the politics of abuse better and learn to fight it. It takes tremendous effort but, is worth every sweat and crease of worry. Of course, it can be scary as was for someone on Twitter and yes, I have been luckier. However, I feel that the spaces where patriarchy slyly hides in guise of business, politics, power and so on, will slowly be peeled off one layer at a time.

We should start talking about it more (with friends, family, colleagues) and train our minds to speak up. When it happens, you don’t know your body to be yours since someone else seems to have ownership over it. You need to train your mind and body to be yours and yours alone. The next time that something like this happens your response will be quicker and you will claim your body then and there.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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