Your Silence Will Not Protect You

Fariha Sarawat

Published in the Daily Star Forum, May 2009.

This piece refuses to quietly ‘deal with it’.

In June 2008, a survey conducted by the Social Science Research Council of the Planning Commission revealed that 90 percent of working women face gender-based violence of some form or the other at their workplace. The news report by BSS stated that: “92.3 percent working women of urban areas and 88.3 percent of rural areas have been badly treated by various types of violence by their male counterparts.”

If you are a woman working anywhere in Bangladesh, this news would hardly come as a surprise, though the statistics are distressing.

The report stated that a large number of adolescent girls and women were being sexually abused in their workplace, but it was hardly ever reported because of the propensity to deny such incidents.

Almost all the women I know, including those I have worked with, have complained about facing gender violence of some form or other at their workplace. It’s a malice we are all equally aware of, but powerless against.

Even this report — for all its gravity and accuracy, and apparent positive reception — after being discussed, debated and dissected, was forgotten, and our fates have remained the same as always.

Perhaps, women who are violated every day have already lost faith in our institutions, laws and elders, and their ability to protect us. Perhaps, it’s because most people still don’t even understand what constitutes gender violence/sexual harassment, not even the victims themselves. Perhaps, it’s because we’ve all somehow contributed in making things worse for us by encouraging violence through our silence. Perhaps, because we’ve become so complacent about this that we just choose to take it in our stride — after all, independent, successful women who are trying to make it in a man’s world should learn not to complain and just deal with it.

The Planning Commission study revealed that: “More than 22 per cent of the working women identified existence of few legal provisions as one of the main reasons for violence at the workplace in the urban area.”

I don’t know if the sample included women working both white-collar and blue-collar jobs, but I do know that the problems in both cases, even in the public sectors/local government are, fundamentally, of the same nature.

Thanks to the hue and cry about “compliance,” “ISO” and “ILO standards,” garments factory owners, among others who promote themselves as emancipators of women, begrudgingly introduce “codes of conduct” to try and protect the women whose hard work go into sustaining this 10 billion dollar industry. Sure they all have codes and ethics and rules and laws. But these efforts, as exposed in the latest survey? by Directorate of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, are cosmetic at best.

Nonetheless, at least the garment workers have some activists and trade unions fighting for their cause. What of the white-collar female workers?

A female colleague of mine was once slapped, had her hair pulled, and arm pinched, albeit playfully, but unsolicited, by a male superior at the office. Outraged, I had asked her if she had liked being “handsy” with her male colleagues and why she hadn’t reported him. She had given me a sad smile and said: “Ki korbo? Where would I go and complain? At the thana?”

When the same happened to me, among other things at the same office, I did take it up to our female HR director, who said: “Yes, I know this happens, but what can we do? It’s very difficult to get candidates for this job [referring to the perpetrator]. I can’t fire him for this now, can I? I guess I’ll just have to warn him again.”

Indeed, that wasn’t the first time the perpetrator had violated a woman and gotten away with just a warning. I quit that company ages ago, but that man still works there and is currently a director of the company.

A few days ago, I met another (male) colleague from the same office. While discussing another ex-employer’s nefariousness, he remarked: “See, I had told you. These guys are everywhere. You should just learn to deal with it.”

Deal with it — so easily said and so arduously done!

My banker cousin was routinely bugged by a persistent client who wanted to take her out for lunch/dinner. She was married, so was he — and he was aware of the facts. After failing to get him to curb his untoward behaviour, she reported him to her boss, who completely ignored her complaint. The same boss would also routinely engage in extra-marital exploits of his own, in full hearing distance and view of his female colleagues.

Outrageous? But that’s just how it is. In the absence of a working mechanism, legislation, or at least a platform where our work-place woes are actually dealt with, we have no choice but to “deal with it.”

“How is watching pornography at the office sexual harassments,” a male colleague once asked us, a group of his female colleagues. I can’t say I blame him for not realising this simple fact when most women don’t. Watching porn, making derogatory comments about the opposite sex, using foul or offensive language, or engaging in any kind of conduct that is found “sexist” is actually sexual harassment. The company I worked for then finally disallowed downloading and viewing porn; not because it was sexual harassment, but because it ate up bandwidth and reduced productivity.

I have been dubbed a “militant feminist” and have been accused of seeing everything as “sexual” — starting from those friendly pats on the back, the seemingly harmless propositions, sentences like “I want to massage that idea out of your head,” discussions on people’s conjugal lives, or just plain old dirty language. It’s the same, resounding, echo: “It’s the same everywhere. Deal with it!”

Audre Lorde, the American feminist, wrote: “Your silence will not protect you.” And it doesn’t. The study also states: “Most women do not talk about it in order to protect herself/himself from shame and stigma as well as to protect the perpetrator who is usually a colleague or supervisor.”


Photo: Amirul Rajiv

Sure we talk about sexual harassment at round tables, seminars, conferences, in newspaper op-eds, blogs, and on TV. But we don’t raise our voices in protest at the workplace, because that will stunt our professional growth, get us shunned by society, make us the gossip-of-the-week, or make us the “girl who claims she was sexually abused.” The man, of course, will be rehired in no time or worse still, will be “warned.”

Our male colleagues will forever bask in their oblivion: “We never hit women or hurt them now, do we?” At the end of the day, until we actually tell them what they’re doing wrong, and these guys realise exactly what they’re doing wrong, they’ll keep violating us; with their eyes, their words, and their actions.

For how much longer can we just “deal with it”? How much longer will we hide in the shame of our silences?

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