Friday, November 29, 2013

Trigger the Talk.................Break the Silence

With all the discussions and debates around the Tehelka episode, I am compelled to reflect and remember my own personal experiences on sexual harassment both in public and at the work place.

One particular incident stands out in my memory. I was 12 years old, travelling by train with my mum and sister from Parel to Andheri. In those days, around 7 pm the ladies compartment would turn into a general compartment. As it so happened, on that particular day, we were still on the train at 7 pm and the compartment suddenly turned from an empty ladies one into an extremely crowded one with lots of men. As we prepared to get off at Andheri, we were crushed at the doorway amidst a sea of bodies. Suddenly I felt my skirt being lifted and a strange hand groping me from behind. I was shocked, horrified and felt utterly violated. I wanted to get off but the train was still moving. I wanted to do something but my arms were pinned against my body because of the crowd. I started to shout “stop it, stop it” but my voice was drowned in the noise. Fortunately for me, Andheri came and I was able to get off and away from the man.

That incident is so vivid in my mind today and has affected me so deeply that I hate travelling by train. Given a choice, I will never choose it as an option instead preferring to drive by car and wasting time stuck in traffic. I hate the fact that I was not only violated as a child but also robbed of my choice of public transportation. I wonder what happens to those women who do not have a choice and have to travel by train or other crowded transport.

I also remember the incident when I was a young cabin crew of 19 and quite inexperienced, immature, insecure and naïve. My safety instructor (a foreigner) used to play mind games with everyone and I was in particular targeted by him. He first heaped praises on me and then when I was once in a vulnerable position tried to make advances on me. I of course resisted but I was completely shocked. It was not only a personal violation but also shattered my dreams/illusions. Here was my instructor, my mentor, someone I looked up to. There was also an unstated threat that I could lose my job as he had the power to do so if he chose to. Thereafter I stayed far away from him but never once did I think I could complain against him.

Many years later, the same individual returned as my boss. This time I was the instructor. He knew he could not take advantage of me but he definitely stalled my career progression. I helplessly watched as he continued to play mind games with other young cabin crew and dread to think how many of them may have succumbed to his advances. However I could not take up the issue as the system did not allow for it nor did I feel I had the power to do so individually.

A few years later, there was another incident involving a senior management staff who gave me an unsolicited neck massage in the board room in full public view of other staff and he even had the gall to whisper into my ear that he wished he could have known me better before then (he had just resigned from the company). I sat frozen during this entire episode not believing that I had the voice or power to raise it as an issue. I was a manager by designation yet did not have the power to call him out on what I now know is a case of sexual misconduct. I remember that I did not feel that I could take it to HR or the top management as once again I did not feel the system would have supported me nor did I feel I could actually fight the battle on my own.

Reflecting on the Tehelka case, I am reminded that my organisation still does not have a sexual harassment policy. If it has to follow the Vishaka guidelines, there must be a committee with a majority of women in the panel. Given that I am one of only 2 women who head departments, it does once again hammer in the fact that we work in a man’s world, in a system dominated by them and therefore difficult for a woman to feel supported should she be harassed or violated by one of the majority.

As women, we face many such instances throughout our lives both in public and at the workplace and sometimes even at home. As women, sometimes we are left wondering if it was our fault, brought on by us or our dress or our behavior or our messaging. As women, we have the intuition to actually identify that these are uncomfortable incidents and not appropriate in context. As women, most of us never even discuss these personal violations with our family or even our closest girl friends. As women, we have been conditioned by the system to believe it is our fault and never to raise our voice against it.

Last year post the Delhi rape incident, my friends and I started Safecity so that women and men could report their personal experiences of harassment and abuse. As the reports started to come in, I was startled and shocked to find that there are so many women, all over the country who continue to face this abuse. What I faced when I was 12 years old continues to happen to many women even 25 years later. When will it ever stop? If we truly want things to change, if we want the next generation to not face groping or sexual harassment at the workplace, it is important that we start talking about it openly. If we talk about it, more women will hopefully come forward as well. Talking openly about it is the first step, acknowledging it to be a problem is the next. Solutions can then be found.

But it starts with the first step – talking.

Come share your experiences on and inspire other women to break the silence!