Does this sound familiar?
A twenty-something beautiful young woman has just joined a reputed organisation and is all excited about her first job. But alas, things are not as fun as they look like. The boss here has the reputation of a sexual predator and every young thing that comes in catches his eye. Our girl, Maya, let’s call her that, has no idea of all this and is very thankful for the lucky break she got and she knows that working here is going to make her career. After all, it is one of the biggest names in the industry.
But after a few days of working, she sees an old man, who had perhaps been once upon a time handsome, looking in her direction and smiling leeringly. She doesn’t quite know how to respond so she turns her face away. And that’s when a male colleague tells her that she did the wrong thing. This old guy is the most powerful man in this office and probably the entire industry in which she wants to make a name for herself. Now, she has probably offended him by her behaviour so she should be more particular next time, if she wants to scale the ladder of success, is his advice. Now, Peter, her colleague, is no pimp, but he definitely knows which way the bread is buttered.
Maya is shocked. On further queries, she gets to know that her big boss likes his women young and if she falls in line, the sky is the limit for her. Now Maya is a normal middle-class girl with lofty dreams but she never thought she would encounter a situation like this. Still, she doesn’t let it bother her, after all, there are so many girls working here…maybe he wouldn’t even look in her direction again, she thinks.
But that’s not to be. Many a time, she’s accosted in the office corridors by the big boss and he almost always smiles at her and she returns the smile now because she doesn’t want to offend him. But then one day the dreaded summons comes. Her immediate boss, a mild old lady comes to tell her she needs to see the big boss in his office. Maya is quite naturally petrified but decides to not let it show. She goes to meet him and after the exchange of a few polite greetings, he drops the bomb.
He compliments her. He tells her she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. What does Maya do? She smiles, says thank you and asks him if there’s any work that he would like her to do. He says no…he just wanted to chat with her and then she leaves. There’s been no physical touch, nothing and he kept his distance from her. When she enters her own office again, she can feel all eyes upon her with questions on their faces. She feels a burning shame but holds her composure anyway.
After that, it starts to become a regular feature. He would call her to ask about her work, summon her to his office and look her up and down. All she could do was to grin and bear it. Till one day, he actually made a kind of proposal to her telling her that he’d like to see her outside the office. Maya retorts politely that this will not be possible. At which he asks her why hasn’t she figured out how attracted he is to her and that he’d like to sleep with her if she’s willing. Maya is shell-shocked because despite everything she never expected things to get so brazen. He hasn’t touched her so far but he will and it depends totally upon her.
What would you do if you were Maya?
There are no greys here. It’s just black and white. If you don’t like it, leave, complain and get out. If you like it, meaning if you think it will help you professionally advance and you are totally okay with taking this route to success and also controlling the situation, it’s your call entirely. Either way, there should be no regret or shame about your choice. And honestly, that is my view about this whole issue of sexual harassment. And that’s what I told the colleague who faced this, many many years ago.
Of late, all that’s making the news is about men abusing their positions of power to sexually harass women junior to them, such as in the forgotten story of media biggie Tarun Tejpal. Some are in the dock for being abused even when in a position of power such as producer Vinta Nanda who was allegedly assaulted by the lead actor of her hit TV show, Alok Nath. And yet another Bollywood starlet Tanushree had to leave the film industry because senior actor Nana Patekar wanted to feel her up.
And of course you must have all heard about Prashant Jha, the journalist from my old workplace, the Hindustan Times who has been at the receiving end of virtual abuses galore after his lewd messages to a colleague on WhatsApp was widely circulated. And then some more people are crawling out of the woodwork naming a minister who harassed them when he was simply editor M J Akbar to them ages ago.
Along with the numerous cases abroad and the #metoo movement gaining strength here in India also, what affects me strongly is when one talks about sexual abuse and harassment in the media since I was part of that same fraternity when I worked in a mainstream newspaper, not all that long ago.
I know that no profession and no man or woman is exempt from being harassed. But what is really puzzling about a lot of these stories is that most of the women who are coming out now with their tales of being abused or harassed are all strong, independent, feminist women.
Not the average bechari types you would imagine them to be. And that is what makes their stories so surreal. It comes across as unbelievable that they kept quiet all these years and also some of them continued working in those organisations with those bosses they accuse.
It’s a mystery.
Are we then to believe that they were sexually harassed and exploited and yet they thought it more important to keep working there? Why? What is the compulsion for a woman that makes her job greater than her self-respect?
I don’t think there should be any choice about this. Either you respect yourself enough to walk out immediately like the actress Tanushree did, in the process, wrecking her career or if you’ve put up with it this far, don’t come crying out later, after probably you’ve reaped the benefits of sleeping with the enemy.
There is, I believe, a certain type of women who would put up with sexual harassment and keep quiet about it—the same kind of woman who can get abused and raped for years and never have the guts to talk about it or seek punishment for her perpetrators—a woman with a weak and timid mind and spirit. It’s that particular person that doesn’t ever speak up. Maybe they will, after twenty years, or forty years when #metoo movements hold sway.
But the other type personality of the strong, independent and gutsy woman who never spoke up then and is dying to do so now…baffles me. That just doesn’t fit in. The whole theory is in contradiction of what they are essentially as human beings.
Forget putting up. Why on earth did they continue working with their abusers?
While I am no one to judge, All I can say is while I was actively working as a journalist in the national media; I worked with a lot of editors who I had been warned about too. And yes, I had the opportunity of seeing them in action too. But all I can say is that there was a valuable lesson in there for me.
It’s called the power of choice and the choice to say no and the choice to walk away from that godammn job.
Firstly, never come across as a victim. The vibes are all that matters and even if you put up with one or two mild confusing incidents, don’t ever let them cross over from the mild to the strong and sure.
When they get the unspoken and sometimes spoken message that you are not to be toyed with, usually, very usually, these men will not cross the line.
Nobody can harass or torment somebody who they feel may speak up or cause a ruckus. It is all to be done behind closed doors. And if some girl or woman shows that strength that their job/career is not more valuable for them then their self-respect, nobody can harass them as they cry silently and put up with it.
That’s been my experience so far and if ever I’ve seen women giving in to being sexually harassed at first; it has been a two-way street. A single mother sleeping with the boss to get that much desired promotion and perks; a middle aged married woman giving in to her boss’ advances because she feels it might help her career prospects; a young girl who was ambitious and wanted to scale up the ladder very quickly so she did what she thought was right for her. None of them have complained because it was their choice.
For the ones who didn’t choose to be harassed or maybe didn’t pass on the message to their perpetrators very strongly, I truly feel sorry.
In the end, which type of personality of woman would you rather be..? The quiet types who put up with abuse, rape and sometimes just harassment because she needs her job (though I still can’t figure out why the job is so important) or the strong, feisty, feminist type who will leave the job and also file a complaint.
No prizes for guessing which side I’m on.