Sexual Harassment at the Workplace

Instead of going home after work, I loitered that day. There seemed to be a scream stuck in my throat.

I kept walking till I reached a market. I bought a book that I had read a few years ago. Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger. I wrote down the date on the first page of the book. A terrible thing had happened that day.

I was 23 years old. I had spent the whole day on a work assignment stuck with an older male colleague who had narrated sex scenes from a Hollywood film, described how he hung around a university campus to look at girls in hot pants and made references to his penis every time I asked him to hold a microphone properly on the shoot we were on. He had sat too close for comfort next to me in the car, squashing me with his thigh.

At the end of the day I was left with shock and confusion. I worried that if I withdrew from the project I would be seen as a weak professional. I didn’t want to end up offering proof for the fallacy that women were not suited for the work role I had chosen for myself. I felt violated but was all this really bad enough for me to complain? Who could I speak to?

The project required me to travel to Aurangabad with this man for another three days of shooting. I had been excited to get this high profile assignment. Now that joy was dead. I had to choose between refusing to travel on what sounded like “flimsy grounds”, and setting myself up for more trouble by choosing to go ahead. I did not have the power to imagine an alternative that would not hurt me for no fault of my own.

We were a small, flexible and very progressive organization. I confided about the senior producer’s inappropriate behaviour to a friend at work. I would try to handle the situation on my own, but I was informing her in advance that I might call her for help if there was emergency.

On the shoot in Aurangabad, I told the producer to stop taking photos of me on the sly. The offensive man upped his game and tried to change our ticket bookings so that I would have to stay alone with him while my assistant returned to the office. He continued to talk dirty. I got away from the team and called my boss. She firmly asked me to come back right away.

I found myself officially in the middle of a sexual harassment case at the workplace. I had been working for less than five months. The three most significant people in that episode were my closest friend at work, our boss in the office, and a lawyer-activist that my friend and I met to seek counselling. All four of us were women. I had their support and I braved everyone else’s harsh judgements with this strength.

“You are women on the frontline,” the lawyer said to us. “Your actions and decisions will set the stage for others who come after you.”

I allowed these words to inspire and flatter me. There was fear and yet there was a fearlessness in our spirit. I believed in the world and in my power to land on my feet. I believed that my mentors would not let me crash. Some of them didn’t. Some of them fell from my grace themselves.

Speaking up officially and demanding that the organization take formal action against the harasser changed me overnight from just another young person at work to someone under a constant, unwelcome spotlight. Perhaps I was making too much of nothing. Was I a man-hating feminist? A vengeful, manipulative opportunist?

As the news broke last week of the sexual assault by Tarun Tejpal on the journalist from Tehelka who worked for and with him, I found myself hooked to the case in anger and horror.

Memories buried deep inside came back with a jolt. I saw so many parallels. The dogged desire to continue to perform at work because our professional spaces are sacred in our psyche. The losing battle to separate our feeling of inner trauma from our effortless efficiency as professionals. Our pride in and love for the work we do, and our genuine belief that the work we do matters. These are not tangible everyday feelings, but we know they are there when someone walks all over them crushing them to dust.

Even as my rage and disgust grew, I found myself spontaneously admiring the woman for the power and surety in her words. This has changed between then and now, I thought to myself. This is what it sounds like to use one’s voice to defend oneself.

Many of the people who suddenly turned against me had known and worked with me before. I was shocked by their volte face. They were threatened by the idea that these new women in office had said something publicly that should have been buried unsaid. They gave us a practical demonstration of why we had heard so often that the one who speaks up is the one who gets slammed in society. There were no Vishakha Guidelines and Sexual Harassment Act to provide any yardstick to us.

The unwanted attention had been humiliating. Time moved very slowly. As soon as I would finish any work that consumed my energy and attention, a restless pain would resurface. I buried myself in more work. In reading the book I had bought. Fiction provided relief from reality.

Despite the bad news, I was also in a very good place at that time. The industry was growing and our organization was doing pioneering work every day. Just as the silence of significant people comes as a shock at times like these, the support of many others also came silently. Friends and colleagues threw a safety net around me. I learned to be wary of those whose concern made me repeat details of what really happened, leaving me feeling raw and hurting all over again.

As I moved on, I refused to take the episode personally. I learned to fight back in the moment of being harassed. Speak up. Talk back. My world had become smaller for a while. But it was safer. Tighter. My professional growth gave precedence to my personal growth. I gave myself time to recover.

Opportunities that come loaded with the baggage of sexual harassment would always be trashed in future. When I don’t feel okay, I listen to my feelings and respond. That’s my real power.

This week, I spoke to my children about the news. We had just finished dinner and our three daughters and I were sitting around the dining table.
“You know why I have been reading the news so much these last few days,” I said to them. They looked up at me waiting for me to speak. “Someone I know has been hurt very badly in her office and I am reading her story as she fights for justice.”
“Has she been bullied, Mamma,” the eight-year-old asked me.
“Yes, my child,” I said.
“Is this about good tough and bad touch,” her older sister said.
“Yes,” I said to her, “She has been touched very badly by her boss at work.”
“But, Mamma, a boss is supposed to take care of her,” said the child with a question mark on her face.
“That’s true, I said to her. Sometimes we have to fight the people who should be protecting us.”

They listen to me carefully, this next generation of young adults.

[This was first published in Mint Lounge here: