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.