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Four Indian Women Reveal How Battling Sexual Harassment At Workplaces Is A Nightmare

And you're always advised to ignore harassment.

16/03/2017 11:04 AM IST | Updated 16/03/2017 2:24 PM IST
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Image used for representational purposes only.

Sexual harassment rarely ends when the drunken colleague is dragged home by others. It does not end when the discomfiting messages at 1AM stop coming. Sexual harassment does not end when the sexual harassment ends. It persists. It lingers.

Let her eat cake

"You are my Daenerys Targaryen".

Priya's* colleague, a senior journalist from work, waited till three colleagues left the party and two other had fallen asleep, to start this conversation. She had thrown the party at her house and this senior was more than a few drinks down.

"Haha sir."

"I find you very sexy. Have sex with me?"

Priya was sure he'd stop once it was clear she wasn't interested. She didn't want to be rude. So she tried to reason with him.

"No sir. This is inappropriate. You have a wife and child."

"I don't believe in monogamy."

"No sir, you're making me uncomfortable.

But he didn't stop. For fifteen minutes this senior journalist followed Priya around her own living room, from the couch to the chair to the verandah, requesting the same thing. Please, he said.

"I find you very sexy. Have sex with me?"

Eventually, she shook awake the two sleeping colleagues and had him escorted out.

She was not physically hurt, would making a big deal out of what happened the last day be considered unnecessary over reaction, she wondered the following morning.

Besides, there were no waking witnesses, and he had come to her home on her invitation. Her ground, she thought, was flimsy.

Yet, there was a nagging need to do something. So she confronted him over WhatsApp.

He denied remembering any of this. He said he was too drunk. He, however, offered to buy her tea and really great cake, making them sound like a compensation for his behaviour.

This angered Priya more. So she demanded upfront a written apology documenting what happened in no ambiguous terms.

He agreed. The apology letter he sent the following day detailed how many drinks he had had, what kind of drinks those were, how many joints he had smoked, and the precise sequence of events leading up to his proposition.

For fifteen minutes this senior journalist followed Priya around her own living room, from the couch to the chair to the verandah, requesting the same thing. Please, he said.

And then the narrative stopped. In the last paragraph, seemingly out of nowhere, he sought forgiveness. For what offence, the letter did not specify. There was no mention of the actual event of harassment.

So Priya asked, again, for a letter documenting what happened, in no ambiguous terms. Second time around, he did acknowledge the harassment. The second letter detailed the events of the night in their entirety, and apologised for it.

And that was enough. Priya no longer wanted to report it. She did not want to endure the guilt of costing him his job. She was satisfied that there would never be a repeat--with her or with anyone else. And on the off-chance that there was, she had all the proof she needed in black and white.

Most significantly, if the night in her living room had left her feeling disempowered, this letter had returned her sense of agency. She notified her editor about the episode, but insisted she did not want to take any action.

Three months on, she isn't happy about seeing said senior journalist still around at the office. She does not interact with him. But she chose not to bear the burden of costing a man his livelihood.

Things that can go wrong

Priya's story offers a glimpse of the rare occasion when everything goes right.

More often than not, however, things don't work out that way.

Four years ago, Devika* worked in an Indian consultancy firm in Delhi. Sometime in the second month of her first job, she started receiving texts from a number she did not recognise.

"You are looking cute in spex"

Probably a school friend with a new number being idiotic. She replied, asking who it was.

"I am in your office. I am noticing you."

Devika stopped responding. She checked--the phone number did not exist in the employee database. But every other night, around 1AM, she received a text to the tune of

"You were looking cute today."

She confided in four colleagues. Eventually they were able to recognise the phone number. It was the second, private phone number of a senior manager who sat two rows behind her. One colleague recommended very strongly that she report the messages. The other three advised her to ignore them.

"They said that the best thing to do was ignore. These guys just want bhao (attention), don't give it to them. And it's not like he's hurting you in any way. Pretend it never happened."

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Over the next two months, the messages began to dwindle in frequency. Then stopped. What didn't: that Devika had to constantly look over her shoulder. That she had to carefully avoid being alone with this manager - avoid speaking to him, avoid smiling in his general direction. That she now had to be wary at all times in her place of work, operate with the knowledge that she was constantly being watched. Hurtful or not, the man's messages had already cost her her comfort.

Devika had to constantly look over her shoulder. That she had to carefully avoid being alone with this manager - avoid speaking to him, avoid smiling in his general direction.

In retrospect, she wishes she had reported it. "Almost everyone I spoke to told me not to. And more than anything else, I was afraid. What if he lost his job? I was living alone. What was going to stop him from coming after me with a vengeance?"

"Now I wish I'd done something."

It's the same niggling wish to have done something that makes Aditi* write to me.

"I was 18, interning for the first time, at the Mumbai branch of a renowned bank. My manager put me on the trading desk on Day 1. On day 5, my trading supervisor told me he wanted to get a room with me."

"His numbers had gone up that week, simply by my sitting at his desk. His manager had jokingly advised him to sleep with me so he could perform even better. I went home and never went back."

But this was just the very early stages of her career in finance. When Aditi began working full-time at an investment research firm four years later, she discovered things could get much worse.

On one occasion, the sales team went for a night out at a club. Her CEO, (a British citizen, lest anyone imagine that this is an Indian phenomenon) placed his palm on her behind and said, "Every day you girls come in, in your short skirts, do you think we don't notice?"

Her CEO, (a British citizen, lest anyone imagine that this is an Indian phenomenon) placed his palm on her behind and said, "Every day you girls come in, in your short skirts, do you think we don't notice?"

Aditi's immediate manager intervened, dragged the CEO out of the night club, and apologised to her on his behest. "It was understood that the next morning we were to pretend that it never happened."

The harassment would get progressively worse. One colleague would stalk her around the gym next to the office. Another would send her emails about how "in that black dress... you look just wow".

Sales meeting with clients were the worst. Most of her clients were HNIs (High Networth Individuals), and many propositioned her at client events. One in particular, stood out because of how old he was. He was a 65-plus year old chairman of a knowledge infrastructure firm in India.

"He was older than my dad, man. I thought he was being funny. He wanted to fly me to London and to Paris and he offered to cook me paneer. Obviously I didn't take it seriously."

Except he was being serious. The night eventually ended by her rudely and abruptly, leaving.

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Over the next year, churning out phrases like "I am not comfortable with the way you are speaking about me", and "this is highly inappropriate" became de rigueur during most personal interactions with colleagues. She knew the HR in her tiny firm had no teeth. Her choices were: survive it, or quit.

At some point, she realised she could no longer breathe in her work environment. So Aditi quit. She joined a U.S based start-up. But her anger, rooted in helplessness, has not abated. "I thought that people in tech would be different. But they're the same."

"I thought that people in tech would be different. But they're the same."

Aditi's bitterness in many ways, reflects Devika's. Neither spoke out. Neither took action. With time, both are now woeful about it. Both wish they had done more.

About Last Night

I have been sexually harassed in the past. A colleague, also a journalist, chased me around a bar, hugged me several times, then insisted he wanted to "save me from the darkness".

"How could I let you go? I want to hold on to you."

In the presence of five colleagues I asked him to leave me alone, that this was inappropriate. The same five colleagues watched him chase me anyway, then ask me to sit on his lap.

After an initial refusal, he decided to meet me outside work where I demanded a formal apology. He said he would send me one by evening.

Evening came, the apology did not. By midnight I decided to file a formal complaint with the organisation.

When you file a complaint with the Vishakha committee, during the process of enquiry you're entitled to paid leave of up to three months. My editor offered me the alternative of working from home. I refused. I did not want to signal that I was in any way weak, or needed time off.

I now recognize this decision for what it was: bravado. I believed that I could handle it, whatever 'it' entailed.

Big mistake. In the three weeks between the complaint being filed and the harasser being fired, I crumbled.

I was called to meet the Vishakha committee (at the head-office) in a different city. Once there, the head of HR told me I was the first ever complainant to the Vishakha Committee. In the entire history of the organization, he smirked. I understood that this was not a compliment.

'The head of HR told me I was the first ever complainant to the Vishakha Committee. In the entire history of the organization, he smirked. I understood that this was not a compliment.'

"This does not happen here. These things only happen in Delhi, where all of you are so informal. In so many decades here we have not had a single (emphasis his) sexual harassment in any department, in any city, before you."

I was ushered into a room. There were three people - one woman took notes, another asked me questions, a man nodded. They each had copies of all the emails I had submitted to my editors.

They asked me for contextual background, then to narrate what happened. I did. They asked me to list witnesses. I did.

Finally, they asked me what action I wanted them to take.

It felt all kinds of high handed to say I wanted him fired. So I fumbled. Stalled. Whatever they deem fit, I said.

They asked again, 'What action did I want them to take?' They needed a written statement.

I said it was up to them. Whatever they thought was fair.

But they wouldn't relent. "What did I want the Vishakha Committee to do with the complaint?," they asked again and again. I fumbled again.

And again. And again. Around the sixth time that they asked I finally admitted I wanted him fired.

I didn't want him lurking on the horizon. He hadn't apologized with any degree of sincerity. This was a long time coming. I wanted to do it for myself.

I'm not sure if I was explaining myself to the Vishakha committee or simply thinking aloud, but it all came tumbling out.

Okay. We'd like a written statement please.

Someone handed me a pen and paper.

I wrote on the top of a blank A4 sheet "I want ____ ____ fired." Signed my name below it. Wrote the date.

I felt horrid.

"Is that it?"

That was it.

Later, in a private moment, the head of the Vishakha committee told me I should have tried to talk it out with the harasser. That there was no need for a formal complaint.

"What does it matter if he does this with anyone else? At least he won't do it to you! That's all that matters."

The next week, five witnesses received a questionnaire from Vishakha Committee. I do not know the contents of the questionnaire. I am told all five supported my testimony.

The journalist who harassed me admitted to everything. He did, however, disagree about the intention. "It was a misunderstanding. I had no sexual intent."

The journalist who harassed me admitted to everything. He did, however, disagree about the intention. "It was a misunderstanding. I had no sexual intent."

Three weeks from the night of the incident he was fired.

In the interim, I pretended I was not affected when a colleague told me I should not have complained. I pretended I was not affected when a friend said, "There's no way he would have ever done ANYTHING like that." But I was breaking.

I stopped venturing to the pantry for lunch. I found myself a seat in the furthermost corner of the office. My heart beat would go crazy every time he walked in the direction of my table. When he made jokes with my friends and they laughed.

I cried, I worked longer hours, I'd have colleagues walk me to the cab. And a day after he actually left work, I had my first anxiety attack.

If there is a common thread that ties together all anecdotes of sexual harassment, it is the need for the victim to be kind to herself.

You may never be prepared enough for when it happens.

If there is a common thread that ties together all anecdotes of sexual harassment, it is the need for the victim to be kind to herself.

Priya did not want to deal with the guilt of having a man fired. That guilt is human, and well, so is Priya. Acknowledging that the guilt, while irrational, was real - and therefore needed to be factored in anyway - was her form of kindness to herself.

Devika and Aditi wish they had been kinder to themselves by addressing the harassment. By giving themselves more agency, more control, whatever the repercussions. They wish they had acknowledged what they were suffering.

As for me, I wish I'd been able to acknowledge the very fact of my suffering.

*Names changed to protect privacy.