The last couple of years have seen a tidal wave of sexual allegations and accusations against men in professionally powerful positions across the globe, and it seems that finally, this wave has now reached Indian shores. What started as a revolutionary movement initially in Hollywood, has now found its way to our very own sanskar-driven India. And I say revolutionary – because it genuinely has led to the downfall of some very powerful men, and has given women all over the world – the courage to use their voices to speak out against sexual harassment.
Compared to the west, for India, it seems that this revolution has been much harder to process, accept and even acknowledge. Why? Because our societal structure is hinged on a deeply cultural and religious foundation that claims to stand for purity, virtuousness, and a higher moral ground compared to the west. The fabric of our belief system is made up of scrupulously designed ideals; intended to help us achieve a more principled nation. As a result of this social, religious and cultural construction, it is no easy feat for an average Indian to come to terms with the fact that women have been mistreated, violated and sexually harassed for decades, even at their workplaces.
The first question that pops into the minds of millions of Indians when they hear about a woman or girl being molested is where was she and why was she there? In today’s article, I will not delve deeper into the internal workings of an average Indian’s mind; instead, I’d like to focus on one singular issue – why do women in our country hesitate to report or talk about sexual harassment in the workplace?
I am emphasising on Indian women – firstly, because this is the only context I am personally familiar with and secondly because I believe in India, we face a unique set of obstacles when it comes to dealing with sexual harassment as compared to our western counterparts. This is largely due to the deeply entrenched religious, misogynistic and culturally driven beliefs of our people.
Indian women who work full time are often labelled ‘independent’ or self-sufficient, and this is especially true for married women who have ‘settled down’ with their husbands. A number of women in our country forgo their careers once they marry and as a result, the decision to continue working is not the most conventional choice. I am conscious that many urban women from my generation will not entirely agree with this – because they see their careers as an integral part of their lives. But, we must remind ourselves that not everyone enjoys this freedom of choice and for several women in our country, working after marriage is not the norm.
The independence a woman attains when she has a career is regarded as a blessing by some, but for others, it often feels like a burden. Even for those women who are unmarried and working, many feel that they have to justify their ambitions and careers to their families constantly.
So when male colleagues or male bosses harass ‘independent’ women in our country, their first instinct is to hide this experience. Why?
Because they are afraid that their families, husbands, and in-laws might suggest that they quit their jobs and stay at home – where they can be protected and remain ‘safe’ from the evils of the workplace. Women often choose to ignore mistreatment at the workplace to safeguard their independence and ultimately their careers and instead allow themselves to be subjected to unfair and possibly criminal behaviour.
This one might come as a shock to a lot of people, but the truth is that almost every woman I have ever talked to about sexual harassment has at least one story where she was not sure if what happened to her constituted a violation.
Nevertheless, as women, we seem to have inbuilt radars (for lack of a better word) that tend to alert us to suspicious and threatening behaviour. There are times when we walk away from an interaction with a male colleague feeling a sense of unease, but we are unable to properly communicate why or how this particular incident made us feel violated. When we find the courage to share these experiences with others – we are able to see how social conditioning and desensitisation to sexual harassment plays a role in our reactions to these incidents.
While we are conditioned to convince ourselves that these interactions are harmless, a part of our emotional being is unable to shake off the nervous feeling. Simply put, we are so used to inappropriate advances or indecent behaviour that we shrug off instances of harassment as ‘innocent’ interactions.
Ultimately, and rather, unfortunately, men are never held accountable for their behaviour and women have to tread on thin ice as they build professional relationships in the workplace; continually questioning and second-guessing the way they speak, laugh or respond to male colleagues.
Think about that time a male co-worker sent you a text in the middle of the night that was completely unrelated to work but had an undercurrent of indecent content.
Consider the time a male colleague got too drunk and made overtures that – to this day seem inappropriate and loaded with sexual innuendo.
Did all of these experiences leave you feeling slightly disconcerted and alarmed but unsure of whether something inappropriate had actually happened or not? Did you change your stance towards this person as a result?
It can take years to realise that a particular incident was not a casual flirtation – but a salacious criminal offence.
It’s important to remember that a man being ‘affectionate’ with you at the workplace without your consent is not acceptable under any circumstances. Do not allow your colleagues or company to convince you otherwise.
A shoulder rub, a stroke on the cheek, an unwarranted arm over your shoulder – none of these are alright unless you consented to them. We are often tempted to ignore what we know is wrong because accepting that we have been violated can be difficult. But, letting molesters get away with their behaviour is far worse.
One of the key reasons rape, molestation, sexual harassment and any kind of sexual abuse does not get reported in our country is because of the tag that is attached to a woman’s ‘character’ as a result of such an incident. This issue is even more pronounced in a workplace where women have to work twice as hard as their male counterparts and prove their worth on a daily basis.
After spending years building our credibility and careers, not many of us dare to let it all crumble because someone mistreated us. This may sound morose, but unfortunately, it is the truth, especially in India.
As a country, we have decided that a woman’s worth lies not in her ambitions and successes – but what we term in India as her ‘izzat’ (honour, reputation, or prestige). As women, we often wonder if we were to spark a controversy that tainted our izzat where we would land? This question sometimes becomes the deciding factor when we experience sexual harassment in the workplace. Sadly, many women choose not to rattle the status quo and hide away their pain, thus protecting their perpetrators in the bargain.
One of the most unfortunate things is that many women do not stand up for fellow women when they are wronged. Instead, they not only speak ill of women who find the courage to talk about their experiences, but they also go so far as to stand up for the men who commit such crimes.
In the Indian context, garnering support from women for women is oddly quite a challenge. Whether it is due to the belief that men are more deserving of protection or whether it is because of sheer ignorance it does the same amount of harm.
To all those women who choose to ignore complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace, know this, you have failed not only the women you represent – you have failed yourself too. For the women in HR who have been given the responsibility to look after the safety and security of female employees and professionals, you must realise that when you choose to stand by men who harm women, you are doing a disservice to your profession. If you do not have the courage to stand up against what is wrong, then please make way for someone who does.
In conclusion, I would like to say to all the women who have gone through an unpleasant or downright criminal experience at work; you are not alone. You were not wrong; you did not do anything to lead him on. Even if you cannot find the voice to speak out against your harasser, try to find some means to ensure that other women are saved from similar experiences. Don’t doubt your gut instinct and don’t question your own integrity.
You will find another job, you won’t lose your career. And remember, regret, complacency, and silence are far more burdensome to carry than the repercussions of the truth.