Welcome to the world of women and women of colour. Don't get me wrong - I love being a woman and embracing my strengths as a woman but I won't pretend it's easy even though I know some of us make it look effortless. The art of being a woman in the 21st century consists of an overwhelming amount of pressure to have it all while facing the challenges of living in a world where masculinity and whiteness are set as the standard. It took me years to understand that sexual harassment or assault is not about desirability but power, control and a sense of self-entitlement. Yes, sexual harassment is real and no, wearing the hijab doesn't prevent it. It's the gender dynamics in our societies and cultures that makes the mistreatment of women pervasive or not.
How Prevalent is Sexual Harassment?
The statistics vary from country to country but women do get discriminated and/or take advantaged of in the workplace - a place they go to contribute to society and seek financial independence so they can create a life for themselves. It's a physical and symbolic space that should empower and liberate women. Think about that for a minute. In the United States, 1 in 3 women claim they have been sexually harassed and 71% did not report it. A study in Singapore revealed that 54% of they employees the interviewed said they have experienced some form of sexual harassment and 79% of the complainants were women, which means women are 3 times more at risk. Then there are companies that would prefer not to hire pregnant women (it's called pregnancy discrimination), women of a particular race or religion, and if they do hire or work with women they expect something unethical or sexual in return. Exhibit A: the recently fired Bill O'Reilly. (more on him in paragraph 4)
"The reporting suggests a pattern: As an influential figure in the newsroom, Mr. O’Reilly would create a bond with some women by offering advice and promising to help them professionally. He then would pursue sexual relationships with them, causing some to fear that if they rebuffed him, their careers would stall."
Bill O’Reilly Thrives at Fox News, Even as Harassment Settlements Add Up, New York Times
But Isn't It a Man's World?At the same time, I wouldn't say it's 'a man's world' because it's that very discourse, vernacular and mentality, by both who accept and oppose it, that perpetuate injustice against women. Instead, I argue that women have every right to flourish and prosper but it's definitely a world where men abuse their power and privilege often and lack the self-awareness or knowledge to stop or prevent it. Sadly, some women are also complicit in this abuse of power due to internalised misogyny or ignorance and apathy about sexual harassment affects other women. Consider why 53% of white American women felt justified when they voted for Donald Trump, a man who openly and non-chalantly admitted to sexually harassing women.
Speaking from personal experience, workplace harassment is traumatising and disempowering, especially when it happens repeatedly and dismissed as a social norm ("Boys will be boys"). There are plenty of exposé articles and cases illustrating the seriousness of workplace sexual harassment, like this one by a former employee of Uber, Susan Fowler. Moreover, thousands of women participated in a Twitter conversation to raise awareness about workplace harassment using the #DropOReilly hashtag recently. The Twitter discussion was prompted by New York Times report about sexual harassment and assault allegations made towards one of Fox News' most celebrated anchor, Bill O'Reilly, in 2016.
If you live in Malaysia, do you ever wonder why workplace sexual harassment or assault reports like this aren't in the news? I can assure you it's not because they don't happen but because women are silenced when told they are at fault or that the issue can be solved internally to avoid shaming the abusers. In other words, a victim must sympathise with the abuser. It was only after this lawsuit that the Malaysian Federal Court granted more protection for victims of sexual harassment last year. And then there's 'gas lighting'.
"Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where the abuser manipulates situations repeatedly to trick the victim into distrusting his or her own memory and perceptions. It makes victims question the very instincts that they have counted on their whole lives, making them unsure of anything. Gaslighting often precedes other types of emotional and physical abuse because the victim of gaslighting is more likely to remain in other abusive situations as well."
What Can We Do About It?Ladies, we have to be smart and alert. Firstly, understand what power is and how it is exercised. At the same time, even though power may have a negative connotation it's not just coercive or repressive because it's also a necessary force that produces resistance, love and compassion. In other words, we have the agency to use power as a force of good.
"Power is a system, a network of relations encompassing the whole society, rather than a relation between the oppressed and the oppressor; and individuals are not just the objects of power, but they are the locus where the power and the resistance to it are exerted." ('Michel Foucault's View on Power Relations')
Secondly, we have to ask ourselves: What is the best way to exercise our power and what should we focus our energy on when it comes to creating safer environments for women? I suggest the following: Build their self-confidence. Create safe spaces for them. Support and guide women to take action by giving them tools to heal, seek justice and possess self-efficacy. Encourage them to be constructive and help other women. Be empathetic and tell them there's no excuse for how they were treated instead of judging them. Show, not just tell them, that avoiding a victim mentality does not excuse the abusive act or erase one's victimhood but it does allow them to approach and think about the future with hope and positivity. It's important to acknowledge that an injustice has taken place but having a victim mentality will not change anything. Hence, we must inspire women with stories of success, healing and triumph.
In the case of men, both women and men must educate each other and other men and young boys about sexism, misogyny, abusive behaviour and what it means to have self-worth and self-respect so we can create a culture of respect for both men and women. Men are not always the enemy. When done right they are important allies in the fight against misogyny and sexism.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” - R. Buckminster Fuller
Think that was an intense read? I haven't even touched on the gender pay gap yet! Being a woman and a male ally is far from easy but the fight is worth it and with the right support the sky is our limit.