Sexual abuse in the workplace: Address the problem, not the symptoms

Sexual abuse in the workplace: Address the problem, not the symptoms
Comment: For many women, the issue of abuse in the workplace strengthens the argument they require special treatment and protection, rather than addressing abusers and their behaviour, writes Amal Awad.
6 min read
11 Oct, 2017
99% of Egyptian women reported experiencing some form of sexual abuse [Anadolu]
As revelations around the alleged sexual abuse by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein continue to surface, I've found myself reflecting not only on how common abuse in the workplace is, but how it can play out differently, depending on your circumstances.

In my early days of journalism, these workplace power structures became quickly evident to me, particularly as someone in a position like mine required me to foster strong relationships with people in various industries.

As a woman in a headscarf, I was afforded a certain consideration, perhaps respect, and maybe – somewhere in there – a level of pity by people around me. I was present but not really a participant in the real world everyone else occupied. They had less "innocent" lives, they had freedoms I lacked, and I was inexperienced and unable to truly play with the big kids. It meant that I never felt I could talk about situations that made me uncomfortable without being accused of being precious or conservative.  

Make no mistake: I had some bad experiences in the headscarf. But taking it off at this particular time saw a shift in behaviours from others that was noticeable. Not only was I treated differently – and not necessarily in a good way – by superiors, I was also the subject of fascination by industry connections and colleagues.

This is not meant to sound self-flattering. I was not special; I was just female. And like a magic trick, taking off the scarf changed everything around me, including how men and women behaved towards me. From my earliest days working in retail, I had seen and experienced the vulnerability of being a woman in the workplace. At a supermarket job, twice I was pinched by males who were strangers. And later, even in jobs that were occupied solely by females, I was subject to massive amounts of judgment and discrimination based on my background.

For Muslim women, for example, the idea is constantly peddled that a headscarf keeps you safe. It doesn't.

But the more difficult experiences came later, when I was in journalism and freshly sans headscarf. In one memorable meeting, a male industry executive made inappropriate comments about his attraction to me, indicating a very clear departure from his previous behaviours with me. Not keen to embarrass him (as though his feelings were more important than mine), I brushed him off as politely – and lightly – as I could. There was no danger, but there was a great deal of discomfort. I knew I might see him again at an industry event. My manager at the time subtly but unmistakeably directed the blame at me. He'd warned me about the 'harasser' (he hadn't), and so – in his mind - it was my fault.

Ultimately, the professional relationship with the contact turned sour. I had lost a valuable professional relationship because I rejected his advances.

I don't think my experience was at all uncommon. If it's not sexual harassment, women are often vulnerable to bullying or even physical abuse. In another job, a discussion with a co-worker quickly escalated into a confrontation when the very tall, heavyset man picked me up by my arms, leaving bruises. My manager and the HR representative seemed deeply uncomfortable by my reporting of the incident, and so I quickly felt self-conscious about it. My manager in particular tried to suggest that I'd asked for it. Both of the people I was reporting the incident to were females.

Read more: The New Arab's special coverage on women's rights in the Middle East.

It's unfortunate, and I loathe to share such experiences, but it's necessary. My concern does not stem from my own feeling of sensitivity – I long ago made peace with the situations, though perhaps not the unfairness of them all. Rather, I know that talking about it could give ammunition to people who advocate that women need protection. For Muslim women, for example, the idea is constantly peddled that a headscarf keeps you safe.

It doesn't. You can still be an object of fascination. You can still behave however you choose. You can still be the victim of poor behaviour and abuse.

But from a wider, societal perspective, how you dress acts like a security blanket that protects you from criticism. You weren't asking for trouble if you were dressed modestly, or in a headscarf. In the recent Weinstein scandal, fashion designer Donna Karan even went so far as to challenge the women reporting Weinstein's behaviour (they are good friends).

"… how do we display ourselves? How do we present ourselves as women? What are we asking? Are we asking for it by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality?"

And this is the pertinent point for me: the women who reported Weinstein all spoke of how they blamed themselves and had to live with shame.

In all of my experiences where I was made to feel uncomfortable around a male colleague or contact, I always looked first at myself. I was always the one left to feel icky. And this is because no one ever talks about changing the attitudes of men. We talk about protecting women from men, not embedding in males from a young age that women are not their inferiors and sexual objects to play with as they please.

This attitude is pervasive and, unfortunately – as recent events demonstrate – universal.

In the Middle East, women talked often about how easily the need to protect women is invoked as the reason for restricting them.

Take Halima, a women's rights activist from Jordan, who had an admirable way of getting to the heart of the issue succinctly:

"I always say about the women in Saudi Arabia - the issue isn't to sit in the car and take the wheel. It's to steer your life."

Read more: Sexual assault in MENA 'caused by fragile male ego'

This is indeed at the heart of the rights issues facing Saudi women – driving is a symptom of a much larger, damaging issue, that of guardianship laws that see women treated like minors.

And on the lack of trust of women – which says that they should not have the same freedom afforded men – I asked Halima if it was really men that aren't trusted.

Why don't we work on changing the men?

"Yes. They don't trust women and they don't trust themselves. This is the situation. And this is why they use the justification that all men are wolves, they are evil, you can't trust them and we want to protect women."

"Why don't we work on changing the men?"

"No one wants to work on changing men. It's easier to control women in our society because in our society, if you have a daughter and a son, you will control your daughter and not allow her to go out late, but you will not control your son. Although your son will go to others and he will abuse other women."

And this is what I find most concerning, not only when it comes to the acts of abuse women experience, but the ways in which we talk about it. We reiterate negative stereotypes about women. We continue to emphasise that it's the responsibility of women to make it easier for men to not harass them.

But even as subjects of abuse, not all experiences are created equal, and nor are our reactions to them.

Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist and author. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the lives of Arab women. 

Follow her on Twitter: @amalmawad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.