“Read this interesting one-liner by Manto,” said my boss from one of my former workplaces as he nudged his smartphone in my direction.
Knowing who Saadat Hasan Manto was, and well-acquainted with the lascivious nature of my boss, I refused to read what he wanted me to.
But he insisted, “Why? Just read it.”
I was unyielding, “Sir, I don’t want to read it.”
As soon as I gave a firm ‘No’, he uttered, in a desperate hurry, the words that he was meaning for me to read all this time: “Beti koi paida karna nahi chahta lekin bistar par saray mard aurat chahtay hain." (Nobody wants to give birth to a daughter but all men want women in their beds).
Utterly disgusted and astounded at his shameless brazenness, I couldn’t find appropriate words to retort with (something I will always regret all my life), and so I only managed to give him a look of disapproval, seeing which he left the office in a hurry, saying that he is getting late for his zuhr prayers.
This was the second time he had crossed a line in our conversations. The first time, I had given him the benefit of the doubt, thinking that he may have spoken those words on the spur of the moment – but on this occasion, I was sure of his intentions.
Exchanges like these between male and female colleagues are ubiquitous in workplaces. Sometimes, this talk takes place with the consent of females; however, more often than not, male supervisors and their counterparts just force their indecent remarks and opinions upon females – an act that falls into the category of verbal sexual harassment.
Men like him like to harass women as a cheap thrill, oblivious to the fact that women who leave their homes to earn a living or make a career belong to households not different than their own.
Had I castigated him, and recorded a complaint against him in the company’s employee helpline, apropos of his out-of-bounds talks, he would have gotten a taste of his own medicine.
If I had enough courage to do this at that time, odds are ten to one that next time he would have mulled his words at least two to three times over before saying something like this to another female colleague. However, I did not utter a word, let alone file a complaint, like most women in my position.
For starters, many women believe that a harasser’s actions cannot be changed just by a little reprimand. At other times, we choose to remain silent in order to preserve the work environment.
We are rarely ever entirely independent in our jobs – we rely on teamwork, take assistance from each other to make up for our lack of knowledge and experiences in certain areas.
Our promotions and appraisals depend upon how our supervisors evaluate us, and sometimes we are simply not in a position to fight back.
On top of that, we have all heard the arguments since childhood where elders say, “Men are men, they will do what they want, and you can’t fight them. It is you who has to be careful, otherwise you will be blamed”.
Because of concerns like these, in one fell swoop, the kinds of thoughts that cross a victim’s mind whenever she encounters an act of harassment are something as under:
“Did I give the other person some wrong signals?”
“Was I not behaving professionally?”
“Was I not dressed rightly?”
This brings me to why I feel guilt-stricken, and irate with myself for not giving him a shut-up call he rightfully deserved. We start questioning ourselves because that is what we’ve been taught all our lives: the victim is the one responsible for the harassment.
It took me a good amount of time to realise that I was not at fault when my boss unleashed the dirt of his mind on me. I had done nothing to instigate him to talk to me like he did.
Therefore, it is important that as employees (and as women), we should know our rights, i.e. the ability to call out behaviour when it goes off limits, and access to grievance-recording systems and mechanisms in our surroundings that we can utilise in case we are confronted with workplace harassment.
We should always be vigilant of others’ conduct and not let anyone dare take advantage of this idea that since we are women, we are somehow deserving of such behaviour. And if we decide to wage war against the ones exploiting us, we should stand firm and not let them bring us down.
If you are facing sexual harassment at work and would like to file a complaint, please follow the government's guidelines here and here. You can also reach out to NGO helplines. If you wish to share your story at Dawn, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org