Since the harassers’ list in India has been growing by every passing second, there are also a lot of skeptics. I already wrote about the ‘time issue’ argument for people who doubt Tanushree Dutta simply because this case is gaining the attention it deserves 10 years from when it had happened.
In this post, I want to answer those who smugly say “why don’t you just report?”
I want to share with you the story of workplace harassment at a famous Indian University in Dubai. And the reason I am not naming specific people is that I already won what I could and since those people are powerful and wealthy, I don’t want them harming my family in any way. Also, I have multiple sexual harassment stories as well and the one that is the least worse of all is this, the one that I have had the courage to share.
And before you say “then why are you sharing the story if you don’t want to name them”, I am sharing this to explain what a woman goes through when she reports harassment in the workplace, even when she wins ultimately (or what seems like victory).
So here it goes.
The year was 2012. I was in my second year Ph.D. in the UK when I was applying for work around the world.
I applied at this very famous Indian university that was just opening its first branch in Dubai. I got accepted. Although leaving the UK was an extraordinary decision, I decided to continue writing the rest of my thesis from overseas and visit the UK once or twice for annual reviews.
I arrived at the university and it felt great for a very short period. And then the staff that was brought from India revealed the horrors of that place. Few among them were:
I had to find a place to live because the company sponsored place was only provided for 30 days. The rule in Dubai is that the rent is collected for 6-12 months in advance. That makes people take debt from their employers which in turn becomes extremely torturous. I shall explain how in a minute.
Anyway, one fine morning, I, like the rest of the women faculty received an email from the HR lady (who was used as a garb by the 2 old dudes as an HR authority, but honestly she was only an assistant doing all the HR related paperwork for them and they were the only decision makers).
The email said that all women faculty were supposed to wear miniskirts in order to look ‘professional for an MBA teaching faculty’.
I found this weird because I was lecturing back in the UK and wore both western and ethnic clothes but never once was told to wear a skirt. We are highly qualified doctoral-level women not staff at a McDonalds. No university I have ever been to has ever had any dress-code or uniform for the women faculty and I have traveled half of Europe for guest lectures and doctoral workshops.
At lunch that day, when I met the other women, they all complained about this. Most of them were middle-aged mothers who had worn saree their entire lives. They were appalled at this idea of wearing tight skirts as many of them had post-pregnancy body issues and other reservations.
While discussing this, they opened up about the sexual harassment going on from that Pakistani dude, the VC and the enabling of his behavior by the Indian dude, the dean. Troubling as it was, I told myself one problem at a time.
So after lunch as I headed back to my desk, I decided to write to the HR lady (obviously oblivious to the fact that she isn’t the one who made the rule and she isn’t the one who will hear me out) and CC’d it to the women she had already sent the circular to.
I clearly explained that as much as we women respect the university policies, I at least am not comfortable with wearing a certain dress 30 days a month. I have days when I am not feeling so well and would need 4-5 days to be in something comfortable that would make me able to do my job as expected (I didn’t mention the word period or menstruation but implied it). I also mentioned how this was not mentioned in the contract and neither of the other women was happy with it. Plus, as lecturers, our performance is enabled by the power of our knowledge and not the length of our skirt (something like this, just more polite). Hence, re-consider and invite us all to talk about this.
Hell broke loose.
I was called in to speak with the dean, the Indian old dude, while the poor innocent HR lady just sat there silently.
He asked about the email and said he was horrified that I implied menstruation. He said, “what if some male faculty saw this somehow?”
I didn’t know our male colleagues would faint if they came to know that their female colleagues bled once a month.
He gave me a lecture on shame and refused to hear my issue with the dress code. He bluntly said, “we want you to apologize in writing”.
I got back to the hotel and kept thinking where I went wrong. It was the night of September 25, a few hours before midnight, my 24th birthday.
I spent my birthday in an absolute horror and disgust about the situation I had gotten myself in. Next day at work, after I logged in my computer, I wrote a one-liner email simply saying “I apologize”. I had to keep the job, didn’t I?
By mid-day, I was called again. I was busy prepping my MBA students for a fantastic field trip at a highly exclusive Chocolate factory in Dubai.
All ruined. After all male ego trumps student learning.
I went into the room, this time the VC’s office and he was there too.
I was quiet, wanted to see what was going on.
This time the VC started blasting me. It wasn’t sexual in nature but personal remarks, name-calling, and intimidation. I asked politely multiple times, “what do you want me to do, I already apologized?”
The two old men kept abusing and intimidating me, threatening me but never directly answered what they wanted from me.
An hour or two later, when they finally let me go, soon after the HR lady sent someone and asked me to meet her in the ground floor toilets.
I went. She said they wanted me to beg!
The formal apology, the written apology was not enough.
Since the male ego was hurt, they wanted me to tremble and beg and make promises to follow orders like a puppy.
I returned back to the hotel that day cried like a little baby when I shared all of this with my dad.
The humiliation and intimidation from that day were unbearable. I couldn’t take it anymore.
The next day I wrote to their dean and VC in India. One was a lady another was a man.
I repeatedly wrote to higher authorities, reporting about the intimidation, but never once have I heard back from them.
So to all those people who say “why didn’t you speak or tell someone,” well this is it.
Those people in power didn’t respond to me but obviously would have spoken about this with the people involved and guess what was the decision?
They suspended me!
For what? For daring to question why the women faculty were being forced to wear miniskirts.
And with the suspension, they asked me to pay a huge amount for the accommodation and other things.
I had no recourse.
I went to the Office of Labour and Employment in Dubai. They have a complaints section where employees can seek mediation on their issues. And if they don’t get a satisfactory response, they can then take the case to Dubai Courts.
These egotistical men didn’t have enough harassing a 24-year-old kid, they pushed me to the point that I went to that mediation office.
They were asked to come in as well. At the meeting, these haggards had nothing to say to defend themselves but tried to label me as a ‘troublemaker’.
The Emirati guy, the authority there asked me if I wanted to continue working at that place, and if so, he could insist them to remove the unfair suspension.
I thought long and hard and refused because I knew for sure that I deserve better than this.
The meeting ended with the mediator suggesting I take this to the court in order to get rid of all the money charges they are asking me to pay and for punishing them for unfair suspension.
Now, this is something you all need to understand, please, it is my humble request.
Yes, we know there is law. Yes, we know there is police. Yet, this costs money. Hiring a lawyer, fighting your case costs money.
At that juncture, I was totally spent, both financially and emotionally. Plus my visa was running out and since the company was not going to extend the validity, I would have to pay heavily for both the visa and staying in Dubai’s super expensive hotels each day.
I was devastated and confused. I kept receiving supportive calls from some genuine colleagues who said that as unhappy as they were about all of this, they were bound to put up with whatever stupid rules these people make because they were under debt. They had taken lots of money in advance from their employers for their rental contracts and quitting would mean paying all that money at once. They had kids to support and hence they keep looking for better places of work until they can leave this hell hole forever- this last one was said by the HR lady herself.
While all this was going on, I had an idea. I knew there was this one millennial colleague who was the spy of those men in power. They literally paid her extra to keep tabs on all other employees and she was labeled as the Big Boss Eye in that hotel where we stayed.
She called me to fake her support and curious to know what my next action would be.
I used my brain cleverly. I said I was going to take the entire university to the courts and get them all shut down for what they did. And since I was making it formal, I would also mention how they have unpaid staff, the extra hours for no extra pay and all the sexual harassment going on.
Of course, I didn’t have the money or time to hire a lawyer but getting this thought in their mind that I was going to shut them all down, worked!
The very next morning I received an email from the HR lady saying that the university decided to let go of the money for the one-month accommodation, let me keep the 1-month salary and the money for travel tickets.
I had somehow won. They had to back down and let me go; and to some, this may seem like a victory but was it?
To take that job in Dubai, I had uprooted my entire existence in the UK.
When I returned back that winter, I had not even a spoon of my own in the country. I was homeless, jobless and broke in a country where I had no family or extended family.
Thankfully my UK visa had plenty of time on it otherwise my life would be over because I didn’t want to depend on my father for money or home.
I initially spent some days on a friends couch and gradually built my life from there. Just a month on and ‘Nirbhaya’ happened in Delhi.
The trauma from that intimidation and humiliation had not left me yet and I began watching BBC narrating the harrowing details of the rape and other oppression women were facing.
My boiling point was way more than my limit and I found a way to channelize my anger- I started reading and writing about violence against women. My first book was published months after that.
I have shared my traumatic harassment in the workplace experience on my blog and on several other platforms with the sole intention of showing how power dynamics in the workplace keep women silent. And when they do speak, they must be ready to forgo their job/career most of the time. Also to remember is the role of wealth and the ability to afford a qualified lawyer who can fight for you. Otherwise, these men in power have such resources on their side, exclusive high profile lawyers who fight for them; your chances of victory become slim.
And keep in mind that if they win, then they get to file a case against you and ask for a hefty compensation and if you can’t pay, you go to prison or sell off every drop of blood in your body.
So, the next time you yell at a woman “just go and report”, remember my story.