What the Indian male colleague doesn't get about sexual harassment at the workplace

Annie Zaidi
Annie ZaidiMar 15, 2017 | 10:52

What the Indian male colleague doesn't get about sexual harassment at the workplace

Need and desire, the twin horses pulling the chariot of your life. Need equals bread. Housing, clothes, socks, shoes. Suction pumps to unblock the kitchen sink. Need equals a pay cheque. Love. Maybe sex. Desire equals garlic flavoured butter. Well cut jackets, high heels, a mini bar at home. Desire equals fast cars and Diwali bonuses and firecrackers. Desire equals sex. Maybe love.


It is hard to separate the twins. We cannot say, now we're at work, get lost, horse of desire! Nor can we say to the horse of need, this is the street of fantasy, run off. Chances are, we will end up looking for both love and jobs, sex and friendship in the same space. Colleges, offices, parties, volunteer groups. And that's okay. But not always.

Let me tell you a story.

First reporting job. I was just a few months out of college, working for a major tabloid. The reporters were mostly young and single. People in the office must have asked each other out. Some married each other. Someone asked me if I wanted to hang out (one lunch date, never repeated). I wanted to be asked out by another intern. Didn't happen. It was okay.

He was wrong to touch me after I'd made it clear that I didn't like it.

There was one colleague, though, a few years senior. At the time, he was single. He kept suggesting we go out for coffees together. I refused. Since we reported only to the chief or to the resident editor, I never needed to spend any time with this man. Except once.

He came to me and asked if I wanted a balloon ride. Some company was offering new "adventure" activity. There was a press conference, he said. I was curious. And it was a press conference, right? There would be dozens of journalists around.


Turned out, the balloon demo was inside the national park. Miles of forest-land. Turned out, this colleague had turned up on a scooter and insisted I ride pillion. Turned out, he stopped the scooter at a spot where there was nobody else around.

He tried to hold my hand. I was nervous, wanted to get away. I said the sun was too hot (yes, roll your eyes, reader). He tried to persuade me to stay. I insisted on going home. He finally agreed to drop me to the nearest autorickshaw.

I didn't say anything at work. I thought he'd get the message – NOT interested. But he found ways to pester me. In passing, he'd slap my back or shoulder. He would suddenly lean over my chair, pretending to be interested in my computer screen.

To onlookers, it's a friendly gesture. A colleague-ey gesture about which one shouldn't make a fuss. It isn't sexual. The sort of gesture that causes men to write mocking Facebook posts these days, complaining about feeling violated by female colleagues who hug them or playfully slap their shoulders.

I knew and that man knew what was happening. He was touching me against my will. I told him, in front of other colleagues, more than once, that he shouldn't slap my back. He wouldn't stop.


One day, I yelled in the presence of my chief reporter, loud enough for a few people from the other teams to hear. I yelled: don't touch me. I've told you before. Just don't!

He stopped. I wish I could say that fixed his behaviour. But I heard from friends that this same man had been making blank calls to another young female colleague. The call was traced back to his office extension. He was warned (he wasn't fired). 

Why didn't I complain of harassment? Partly because I didn't want to become the subject of office gossip. Also because, even at 21, I understood that things are complex. He wasn't wrong in trying to ask me out.

But he was wrong to touch me after I'd made it clear that I didn't like it. However, the main thing was, I was angry but I didn't feel harassed. My work did not overlap with his and I was confident that if and when I complained to my chief or my editor, they'd be on my side.

But what would have happened if that male colleague got promoted to chief? Or, if I changed jobs and discovered this man was now my editor?

Reader, I would have quit. I'd never feel safe around him.

Let me also say that I'm well-acquainted with the messy mish-mash of fear and hope that is the human heart. I know people often seek to meet a crush using work as an excuse. "Bahaane-baazi", as we call it. “Can we collaborate?” “I've an idea I wanted to bounce off you.”

Women do it too. I've done it myself. But if a colleague is not interested in you romantically or sexually, s/he will politely sit through your bahaane-baazi meeting, and things will go no further. And that's fine too. Women colleagues have desires too, but they know enough to back away politely when confronted with what looks like a rejection.

I just want to tell you, male readers especially, that we – women who work in offices, work all hours, who go out to meet strangers in cafes to see if we can work with them, who go to meetings in offices that are actually converted residential apartments, who can never predict whether there will be other people in the office or not – are neither sexless nor available. And that you have no idea what it costs to manoeuvre a path to dignity.

You have no idea what it costs to sit across from an older, more powerful man giving you the once-over, and to keep talking about your ideas, your politics, your art whilst willing every cell in your body to give off a not-available vibe. To measure your clothes, your perfume, your shoes against the possibility of unwanted touch (Fabric too flirty? Lips too bright? Do you need to go to a meeting looking so nice? Wanting to look nice might be interpreted as having made an effort.)

Reader, I want to say, the world is a difficult place, full of corruption and filth. Love and good jobs are very hard to come by. Don't make it worse for your colleagues.

Maybe a female colleague wants to go out with you. But if you are a boss or a senior colleague, she is also scared that your hurt ego will punish her for saying "no". If you really like her, if she seems to like you too, ask her if she wants to go out with you. Don't ask in the office. Meet in a public place. If she is reluctant to meet you outside office, it's a "no".

Let her know that "no" is okay. Put it in words. And do not ask a second time. Not as long as you two work at the same place.

Do not touch her body if she has said no, or expressed reservations (“I have a lot of respect for you” means "no"). If she said "no" and you are too hurt, too angry, quit your job. If you are unable to unyoke desire and ego from aspiration, then she deserves her job more than you deserve yours.

People can make passes. But ideally, not when a woman is meeting you as a professional. Let her do her job. Let her not feel as if she or her job are at risk. It doesn't kill you to keep your distance. It does kill her to have to fight off fears that she'll never be anything other than a sexual object.

If you want casual sex, do not approach women on your team. There may not be any moral right or wrong about it, but remember that she came looking for work. To be paid for time, labour, creativity. If she did come looking for sex, let her make the move.

If you must make a move, ask yourself if you can quit your job for this sex. If you're her boss, at the very least, ask if she'd consider moving to another team so she does not report to you directly, so you are neither responsible for her promotions nor her failures.

Every time you go to work, you will take your need for love and sex with you. Each time you meet a woman, you're going to have to confront her need for bread, for sock and shoes. Also, her need for respect and consideration.

Look at her. Really look. Take a moment's pause and ask yourself: am I having to corner her or manipulate her into being alone with me? Is she smiling right now or does she look frightened? Witness her humanity before you witness her womanhood.

If, through some misunderstanding, you have made a mistake, do not plough further in the same rut. For God's sake, say sorry. SORRY.

Say, I misunderstood. Say, I thought you might also be feeling the way I felt and I feel wretched now but I swear this will not happen again. Say it in those exact words. And mean it.

Last updated: March 17, 2017 | 15:45
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