Sexual harassment anyone? Just on the side, please.

The aid sector is an enlightened one filled with codes of conduct and HR handbooks filled with how to deal with being sexually harassed.  I’m not getting into SEA issues when we are in communities but rather within our own work places and with colleagues where there is not a power imbalance (or is that naive of me to ignore that there is always a power imbalance either because of age, culture, socio economic reasons etc–but let’s also take that out of the equation).  Very simply, I was sitting with colleagues after work one day, in the not so recent past and some people I knew, some I didn’t.  One of my male colleagues took two small onions (you know those small pickled onions?) and wrapped a piece of dry meat around it so now it resembles balls and offered it to my other colleague, a woman.

Every single bell well off in my head.

And I did nothing.

I knew this male colleague better than the female whereas the two of them knew each other better than knowing me.  She didn’t seem terribly offended but I wasn’t sure if she was just trying to not look like she was.  This was not a situation of flirting gone wrong either.  Out of nowhere, he just did this.  The thoughts going through my head:

Do I say something?  Is this as wrong as I think it is?  It wasn’t offered to me so do I have the right to say something?  There’s a reason it wasn’t offered to me cuz he knows I would have taken his balls and put them around his neck by this point.  Is he just picking on her because he thinks she’s weaker than the rest of us?  Why do I think she’s weak and why do I feel like her non reaction is just confirmation of this and I’m not really sure if my speaking up will help her (does she need my help?) or will it just embarrass her (is that a reason to not speak up?) but I’m at this table and am having a reaction and I SHOULD say something.  If I say something I am going to be labeled the one who has no fun and I won’t be asked to come out next time OR it’s going to go around on the small gossipy grapevine that I can’t take a joke and therefore don’t have a sense of humor and therefore am a bad addition to a team cuz I take everything TOO seriously.  Am I overreacting?  Why does no one else at this table seem upset by this and if the men on the other side of the table don’t stop sniggering, I am going to say something and I think maybe the women sitting here near me ARE in fact just as uncomfortable with this as I am….and all of the rest of us women are from the west and the one offered the onion balls is not—oh man, was that just racist of me? I don’t get how to help her or why she is not helping herself and just telling him to stuff it or maybe I AM overreacting and this is not a big deal but it still feels like a big deal to me.   What the hell am I supposed to do?

The moment to say something passed (or has it since I’m saying something now).  The thoughts going on in my head are still going around in my head.  I mentioned it to another male who wasn’t there and knew all the people there and I said, I think that was inappropriate and his initial reaction wasn’t yes it was.  He said XYZ is just boorish sometimes and I would have said: yeah that’s the real size of your balls (or some other such witty comeback). Hmm I said.

In my head, that’s not enough.  That isn’t putting a STOP to this kind of behaviour…rather it’s saying, if you can’t deal with it, you are on the losing end.  Here’s the thing that really bites:  I have so much respect for each and every person in this story.  Professional respect and if not great friends, we do have bonds that bind us together.  Situations like this hurt more because of that.

Before you get an idea that I am some sort of a meekling, let me reassure you that I am the poster child of empowered emancipated bad ass woman.  Poster child.  Which are just facades it seems.  I had something happen to me in Haiti….in the middle of the god damn emergency.  An older male colleague of mine, who I was seeing everyday for work related things, says to me one morning while I am putting in a request, I had a great dream about you last night.  This was not whispered to me or said in a low voice or in private.  Right out there in the open, in front of other colleagues.  I had a nice dream about you last night.  I had so little time to react, and I said, lucky you and left.  And stopped being as friendly with him as I was (I was married at the time, no secret and it’s not like, I was “asking for it”…whatever that is supposed to mean).

Haiti was pretty bad in that sense I am now recalling.  I felt continuous sexual harassment (from whistles, to people ‘bumping’ into me, to emails saying, let’s go spend a weekend at the beach, in the same bed, together), and as one of my friends said to me:  You ain’t no Beyonce—if it’s happening to you, it’s happening to others.  I reported it in that I told the security dude that I felt pretty unsafe.  The response was everyone had to have a Code of Conduct training.  On one hand, I thought, OK, that’s something on the other hand I just didn’t feel like that was enough.  Not sure what I wanted.  And no, I never specifically named anyone when I complained.  I am writing this now and thinking how lame I sound saying that but there was something going on, in that moment, where I was like, don’t want to deal with this I will be labeled a drama queen and if I can’t handle this, why am I here.

Isn’t that just wrong?  And I am hoping by writing this that other women can come forward and tell me that I am not the only empowered woman who has been in this position.  Why is the aid sector culture SO bad in giving us space to deal with this?  How have you dealt with this and let’s talk openly about how we DO feel pressure to be one of the guys or be able to take a joke etc etc.  And what are the options to STOP this from continuing.

And I get that different cultures talk about sex differently and flirt differently etc but where is that culturally appropriate line and your own personal line and how do you not cross or just tread very lightly between those two lines?

I don’t want to do nothing next time.  It doesn’t sit with me well.

Is this a huge can of worms that will generate discussion/solutions/shared experiences/other perspectives or is it still too icky for us to pick up?

Let’s see.  Over to you all.


About Zehra

Zehra is a livelihoods and cash transfer specialist working in humanitarian contexts. She has also been a health and lifestyle coach for humanitarian aid workers. Loves food, bollywood and tweeting (@zehrarizvi).
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11 Responses to Sexual harassment anyone? Just on the side, please.

  1. apoorvmat says:

    I too find myself in positions like this. Sometimes I stay quiet, and sometimes I put in a mild “that’s not an appropriate thing to say / do” while smiling. What I am sure of is that such actions violate my own value system. But I don’t protest primarily because I don’t want to come across as patronizing towards my female colleagues. Reading this, I am not sure what’s worse: risking patronizing a colleague or not “standing up” for them.

    • Zehra says:

      Apoorvmat….i’m still not sure 😦 and so totally been there with the mild smile tsk tsking thing… thanks for your comments and for reading!

  2. amand# says:

    oh yes, I can relate.

  3. amand# says:

    oops, didn’t quite finish that! lets see: I am in a car with 3 male colleagues – two older, all above me in the organisational hierarchy, going to a musical event, after work. conversation is a series of sexist jokes that refer to women as girls and their value in terms of their sexuality, how useful they are at keeping the house clean – and one of the women subject of this discussion is the wife of one of the men. Yuk. I don’t feel comfortable or even safe and I most certainly feel like the ‘boys club’ is being clearly delineated with me outside.
    Talking to female colleagues who work in that office or have connections to it, I find out the boys club is very real experience most of the women who come in contact with this particular group have experienced. To give credit, a few of the men in the office stay out of this boys club and find it distasteful. But at the same time, they don’t perceive it as offensive and obstructive as the women do (I asked two of them about it).
    And yes, I wonder if I should say something – but what, and to who? and for what purpose? and with what consequence? The people behaving in this way are in positions of power in the organisation – they have an influence on my job prospects. And in this situation the same thoughts went through my head – there seemed little likelihood of my saying something having any impact on the men involved, and the likely consequence would be to create more distance in the professional relationship – which I have to maintain to do my job.
    However, this incident and others have led me to talk with other women – and some men – about this kind of behaviour in the organisation, so i know that I am not alone in experiencing it. And this in turn has meant that on some occasions I have spoken out to note that this kind’ve culture does exist. I think this does help, in that it helps to know that when we speak out we can also be voicing what others would like to but don’t dare or are not in a position to. Having said that I think it is a career risk. But as we get more established in our careers, we are in a better position to take that risk and make the path easier perhaps for those who come next.
    I think also that recognising that there are very many people (not just women) out there in the industry now who do recognise this as a problem helps. Together we may be able to support each other in cultivating an alternative culture. Sometimes pushing back is not the best use of energy. Simply creating an alternative that eclipses the old way may be a more effective option.

    thanks for putting this post out there Zehra!

  4. I have also experienced this. Someone I did some work with (on a work place I don’t reference anymore) used to ask me questions about how much I “please” myself or what my sexual habit were. The colleague was well known in this organisation for being like this but people kind of laughed it off, rather than treating the issues with the seriousness it deserved. I also said nothing formal while within the organisation. I did confront it within my exit interview, asking for a conversation with a third party listening and taking notes that would then be shown to the board. This happened and the person in question was banned from travelling with girls from within the organisation but was not given exited from the organisation.

  5. Zehra, this was a brilliant post on a very unsettling topic. I had to rack my brains hard to see if I had encountered anything inappropriate over the past decade. I can remember some recent examples where national staff experienced harassment from other national staff but amongst expats or between expats and national staff I couldn’t come up with any examples. Sexual harassment policies have been strong in the places I’ve worked, especially in recent years, but I do wonder if it’s also a case of selective memory and subconsciously avoiding these situations. One situation I did encounter was sexual harassment from a ministry counterpart and it came to mind as I was reading your entry. We were in the middle of some very difficult and politicized negotiations. I was part of a three-member committee, and there were three members on the other side. As we walked down the stairs during a power cut, one of the counterparts held back and touched me inappropriately. I was walking at the back as out of cultural respect, I didn’t want my rear end to be positioned in front of the others, who were all men. I was shocked when it happened and had to suppress my instinct to react. It was like as you said, a decision made in a split second on the spot. Later I spoke with the head of our committee and mentioned this. He did some background checks and it turned out the guy had been done twice in the past for sexual harassment in the workplace. We agreed I couldn’t make a fuss out of it (of course organizational objectives were more important than my feelings!) and instead ‘managed’ the situation so that I was never put in that situation again. It still upsets me that I didn’t react on the spot, that would have saved my self-esteem in that moment. What’s the worst that could have happened, I get fired? It’s ridiculous even to think why as grown up women who stand up for so many things, live and work off the beaten track and hold our own in high-level discussions that we can still allow some things to slide by. For sure it would not have happened if I was a man. Next time I’ll be quicker!

  6. One of the WWIAD Linkedin Group members just recommended this article in response to this post:

    She also said the following:

    “I think that, considering the values the aid world claims to live by (gender equality, social justice etc), sexual harassment is far more common than it should be. And the fact that people are often living in close quarters and socializing together presents more of a challenge. While people do seem aware that major infractions are unacceptable, the smaller things–comments, attitudes, jokes–can create a culture that subtly discourages reporting, or creates a climate that is uncomfortable for female staff. And power differentials are often still at play even amongst staff, and definitely between foreign and national staff.

    One problem, articulated well in the blog post, is that calling out such behavior entails risks. Ideally managers should create an environment in which that is not the case, but sometimes managers are the ones who commit the infractions themselves. It’s ironic that we put so much focus into SEA and creating an enabling environment for victims to come forward, and yet often fail to do so in our own workplaces.”


    “It’s true about that “line.” I think it depends on a few things: 1. Are you actually friends with the person or have established a respectful or close relationship? 2. How offensive, sexist, bigoted etc was their comment/behavior? 3. Is there any kind of supervisory relationship?

    I also loved this post from Lindy West on Jezebel, in the wake of Obama’s comments about Kamala Harris:

  7. Pingback: Because it’s 2015 | Women in Aid

  8. Nicola Kelly says:

    Hello, I am a reporter for the BBC World Service and am preparing a piece on sexual harassment and assault against aid workers in the field. We know anecdotally that there are many cases of aid workers who experience unwanted advances by their colleagues. If you are willing to speak anonymously on mic to tell me your story, I would be very grateful. Or please do fill out the survey of 4 questions below. Many thanks Nicola

  9. Pingback: #MeToo in the #globaldev and #aid sector | Women in Aid

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