Thursday, 8 January 2015

A Heartfelt Letter from a Sister Harassed at Work

A dear sister writes,

Dear Reader, 

     I apologize in advance. I am sorry such a topic as this is necessary. I am sorry this is a real life threatening issue. I am sorry this issue even exists.

    I find it hard to introduce a topic such as this. There really is no way to ever start a conversation about sexual harassment without a heavy heart. In an ideal world, such an introduction would never be necessary. But this is the real world, and unfortunately the world we live in is a harsh one. Growing up, I was never what you call “sheltered”. I have seen and experienced some horrific things in my life. I bring this up only to demonstrate to you that my shock from the worsening conditions of sexual harassment is not the result of my naivety or sheltered-ness. 

     My experience all began at my work. I am a server/waitress at a restaurant owned by people within my own community. From the first week, I began to notice things that made me feel uncomfortable. For one, one of the cooks would occasionally come by and say flirtatious things to me. I was shocked by his boldness, and told him to stop. Soon after, another cook followed. This time it was worse. He said dirty things to me whenever I bent down. He said things whenever he walked passed me. After seeking the advice of my mother, I gave him a cold, hard look the next time he said another word. If he did anything else, I promised myself I would inform the manager. This thankfully worked. I was feeling relieved until another younger woman confided her worries to me. She complained about him making her feel uncomfortable. She shared the comments he made towards her. I told her she should do something about it. She told me she couldn't. She told me that a few weeks ago another cook (no longer working there) had bothered her and when she had gone to complain she was told “oh him! He wouldn't hurt a fly”. She told me if she complained about this new cook, then they would probably do nothing about it.

     I was getting really annoyed at this point. But he was the last of my worries.
What followed was an even more invasive incident. I had thought I could seek protection from my manager. I never knew my manager would be the next man to make me feel uncomfortable. It began with me noticing how close he seemed to stand next to me.  I thought “you’re imaging things that aren't there”. Then came the odd comments. These were the warning signs I ignored because I thought I was going crazy. They weren’t enough to alarm me, they weren’t enough to make a convincing case, but in retrospect, I can see how he was ‘testing the waters’. Over the next following days, I noticed he was getting bolder in the ways he touched me. I put off my worries until he touched my waist. That was I started feeling anxious. Anxious because I started asking myself “did that really happen, or did I imagine it?”. I knew for sure that I didn't like it, I knew for sure that I felt my my comfort zone had been invaded. I worried about it happening again. Would he? Could he? Was this just a mistake? He didn't mean anything by it did he? He is a balding man in his 40’s with three kids for goodness sake! Surely, he doesn’t mean anything by it…

     My patience ran out when he made a few comments that insulted me a few days later. Up until that point I had been bottling in my anger and anxiety. I ranted to my closest friend about how angry he made me feel, and in as I ranted my heart out, I reached a point where I had to share. “Can I tell you something? It’s a secret” I told her, “I haven't told anyone”. I proceeded to tell her the ways in which he would touch me. Immediately, she sensed something was wrong and urged me to do something about it. “But he’s a married with children!” I said. She told me what he did was still not okay. 

    I felt utterly weak. I did not know if I had the strength to stand up for myself. I was so scared. I thought I would have to quit my job. I needed the money and I was very upset that this would make me very financially unstable. I also didn't want to quit this early on in the job—surly everyone would ask my reasons for quitting and what would I say then? He was my manager, and his family owned the restaurant. Surly I would either be fired or I would have to quit. And in all honesty, I felt that sharing such a thing with others would be humiliating. I didn't want anyone to know what he did, and how uncomfortable he made me feel. I started feeling sick.

      I had no idea what to do. At the time, my friend was giving me all the support she could to do something about it. She reminded me that if I did not quit or complain then my only option was to endure whatever else was coming. I knew she was right. I did not want to let her down. I did not want to let myself down. I knew for certain that I would not allow some random man touch me around the hips without my consent. 

    The next day, I decided to tell my mother. I had decided I would make my complaint to head office, and I was ready to be fired if it came to it. Immediately my mother was upset. She told me I was blowing things way out of proportion, that I was reading too much into it, that he probably saw me as a daughter, that sometimes at work you just have to deal with things that irritate you. I share this with you not for you to be angry with my mother. I am sharing this because I want you to know that sometimes, even the people who have always supported you, the people you trust most, those very same people can be wrong. Those very same people may not support you. I do not blame her, I only felt sorry. After all, she is a woman, and perhaps after all these years, society finally managed to convince her to not speak up about these things. 

     I was quiet for a moment. I told her, “would Dad say the same things you said? Would Dad be comfortable with what this man is doing?” She was silent. 
I went ahead and told my father. If I was going to complain to head office, I needed to know that at least one adult saw what I saw. Immediately, he understood. Immediately he told me what my manager was doing was not normal. That no man would do that unless he meant it. He coached me through what I had to say.

    And so I went to head office. I was scared. I made my Dua’as and asked God to give me strength. I approached them and calmly said “I would like to speak with you. I have a complaint.” I went on seriously, retelling everything that had happened. With my father’s advice, I spoke like I meant business. I spoke like I was ready to destroy the company if they didn’t take what I had to say seriously. At first they tried to defend him. They said it might have been a product of miscommunication. They said he probably see me as a daughter. I told them I didn't care. I told them I wont have any man touch me without my consent. I told them I would pursue further action if they did nothing. They had no choice but to comply.

     What followed next was the consequences. When others heard the message I was told I blew things out of proportion by going to head office. “You could have just gone to the owner. Why get head office involved’ three people said to me. I began to feel guilty. “You made the problem bigger than it should have been” I told myself.

    Then I started to feel like what I had complained about wasn’t a big deal at all. 

     Had I imagined everything? “No” I kept telling myself, no man gets to touch me around the waist if I don’t want him to. I had to keep reminding myself that my complaint was legitimate, that it was real, that it was worthy of being taken seriously, that I have the right to feel comfortable and safe when I am at work. It was hard. I didn't believe myself. Up till now, I remind myself that it was real, that I what I did was perfectly well reasoned, though these doubts are fading and I am getting more confident.

     I started to feel like I had brought this on myself. Was there anything in my behaviour that made me seem “inviting”? I am being serious when I tell you that I actually thought to myself, “I smiled too much. I was nice. I wore lipstick” I thought to myself “it was my fault, I should have been smarter”. I felt sick. “How could I have been so naive?” I asked myself. When I mentioned my lipstick to my father, he said “well it was really bright, you know”. This added to my anxiety.
But I no longer feel like I was “asking for it”. Smiling isn’t a “COME AND TOUCH” sigh. Being nice to my co-workers and my manager wasn’t any form of invitation. I was simply being nice. I could not believe I was doubting myself. Did I want some old balding man to touch me? Of course not. So how on earth could I have thought it as my fault. How could I have thought of it as me “asking for it”. That was when I fully saw the power of victim blaming at work. Society never rests until it can put as much of the blame on the woman. Here I was, blaming myself because some old man couldn't handle himself. To hell with the doubts, I wasn’t asking for it.

     To all the women reading this, I want you to learn what I learned. If anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable, I ask you to please take this advice:

     Firstly, ignore all those who do not believe you and those who do not support you. These people may be people you trust. Ignore them anyway. 

     Secondly, find people who will support you and have your back no matter what. For me, those were my friend and my father. 

     Thirdly, rehearse what you will say, make sure your complaint is coherent, and clear. Make it clear exactly what made you uncomfortable and unsafe. Make it clear that you did not consent, make it clear that you have clear boundaries that no one is permitted cross. Say this seriously, say it like you mean business. Say it like you wont stop at nothing until you get what you deserve. My co-worker who had complained and was told that the cook “wouldn’t hurt a fly” had shared her discomfort weakly. They did not take her seriously because she did not yet know how to defend herself. No one will take your fight seriously if you don’t. No manager or head office member will inconvenience themselves for you unless you force them to. Scare them. Threaten to take further action if need be. Fourthly, guilt and victim blaming is to be expected. Do not listen to those harmful thoughts. They are not true. Believe me. There is never was a woman who “asked for it”. Women who “asked for it” don't exist. You deserve to feel safe and comfortable and whatever you have to say is completely legitimate. 

     As a woman, I have increasingly come to realize that the world is not easy for women. They say feminism is dead. They say women have all the rights and freedoms they could ever need. They say women have reached the same statues as men; that a woman can enjoy all the privileges a man has. I say that day has not yet come. For now, protect yourself and protect the women around you. Believe me, I would do anything in my power to help another sister out. 


Your sister in Islam