Our company said if he didn’t touch you, it isn’t harassment
What happens when you finally voice your opinions over the unbearable harassment that you’ve had to face for three months? You are ridiculed, you are blamed for having filth in your mind; you are indirectly under suspicion in everyone’s eyes and all this, for what? Only because you raised your voice against something you do not want to endure anymore.
Three years ago I started working at an IT company – it was the beginning of my professional career. The company provided a van service for women, a facility which almost every working woman needs and that is one of the reasons why I accepted the job.
Every morning, I was the first one to be picked up. The distance between my house and the next girl’s was around 15 minutes. The van driver was a man in his 30s, about 5’3, medium built with a black beard. So for 15 minutes every day, I was alone in the van with the driver. Being my first job, I didn’t know how to deal with situations in a particularly professional way and would respond whenever the driver spoke to me. Soon, I realised he would speak without reason, just to make conversation. Some days, he would greet me and I’d greet him back out of courtesy.
The one thing that annoyed me most about him was his eyes. The way they followed me from the moment he parked outside my house till I sat down on my seat. Even then, they’d watch me. Initially, I tried to ignore them but it became like a ritual for him. I began sitting in a seat that was away from his gaze to get away from them.
He would bad mouth the other girls to me, even when I showed my disinterest, as they were also my seniors at work. I avoided conversation with him, but the eyes, I could not avoid. I’m not calling myself a saint, or saying that I don’t backbite but I didn’t want to discuss anything with him. One day, I sternly told him to stop speaking poorly about them infront of me. He was offended. He retorted,
“Mein burayi kahan karta ho, mein tu sirf apko bata rha ho”
(I am not backbiting, I am just telling you)
One time, I was filling up my water bottle in the office kitchen and he must have spotted me from the window as he began yelling my name out, as if I were his best friend. Like the eyes, I ignored this as well.
I remember this one morning where I forgot to greet him as I got on the van. He feigned irritancy and asked,
“Aap aaj mujhe Salam karna kyu bhool gayi?”
(Why did you forget to greet me today?)
It was unintentional, as he usually picked me up around 6:55am when I used to be half asleep and drowsy. Safe to say, he didn’t let that go so easily. He told me,
‘‘If you don’t greet me, I will not pick you up, even if I have to leave the job.’’
I was shocked by what he said. But again, I chose to stay quiet. Maybe I didn’t tell anyone at work because I thought that no action would be taken. Or maybe it was because ever since I was a young girl, I was never told what harassment actually was.
Starting the next day, I ignored him completely. I didn’t greet him. That was when he started misbehaving with me. He would ask me personal questions from why I was doing this job, whether I needed the money and things like that. He even told me that working women are not considered highly amongst other things. Those 15 minutes would feel like an eternity for me. I can’t even put into words the angst I felt in that duration.
I want to tell you that this was his first job as a van driver. He used to work as a truck driver before this. I’m just trying to explain the circumstances; it’s not about degrading anyone.
I finally decided that I had had enough. I told my mother everything. She said I should discuss it with the rest of the women in the van-pool. When I told them, I realised how wrong I was. He treated all of them like that. Every female he came into contact with in the van said that he behaved badly with them.
One of my van fellows told me,
“I had a late sitting in the office, I was going back home around 9:30pm so he asked if we could stop at his house first as he needed to pick up something important.”
That made us uncomfortable hence she said,
“No, please first drop me home and then you can go anywhere.”
“Trust me, I’m a good person, I just want to pick something up,” he tried to convince her.
But she refused firmly.
He got furious and retorted,
“Agar itna darr hai tu baher nikal kar kaam karne ka kya shouq hai?”
(If you are so scared, then why are you so fond of working outside your house)
Staring, whistling, and intervening in personal lives was his venom. He did it with all the women. We finally decided that together, we can take a stand against him. We wrote an application against his misconduct and once it was submitted, he was called in by the administration of the company. They warned him severely, but they did not fire him. He didn’t try and apologise, instead, he got angry. He got offensive. He started picking us up according to his mood.
It became unbearable. Again, we complained about his behaviour but we were told to “compromise”. I remember my administrator said to me,
“Aap ko staring and misbehaviour ke ilawa apke sath harassment toh nae ki na.”
(Other than misbehaviour and staring, he didn’t harass you, right.)
I was appalled by his statement; just because he didn’t touch me; it does not mean there was no harassment. What about our emotional discomfort? What about the way we could watch his eyes following us everywhere we went? What about his tone when he spoke to us? My administrator probably didn’t know the definition of harassment. When someone annoys you to such an extent, you get psychologically disturbed. And the way he was acting, it was not innocent. Our complaints were justified. We felt threatened and no one was doing anything about it.
Apart from what our administrator said, we did not let it go so easily. In order to validate our point, we initiated a silent protest in which we abandoned the van facility and instead, took the public bus. To our dismay, the company’s ‘solution’ to this problem was to end the van facility completely. They could have easily hired another driver, but no. They took the easy way out. They took the chauvinistic patriarchal way out – by ignoring the women all together.
What astonished me more was the behaviour of the other female staff in our office. Instead of empathising with us, these girls blamed us (Gulshan van girls) for creating a mound out of a molehill. They targeted us, they mocked us, and they questioned us.
Did they think to ask us what happened? No.
Did they want to know? No.
We always stress on the fact that the workforce is dominated by men and that’s why they try to pull down the women. We also hear that men do not give women the positions they deserve and that every bad thing that happens to women is because of men. But this made me realise that this was a case of women putting other women down. There was no sisterhood, no help for us.
I know it’s been three years and I realise that I could have stopped this earlier. Getting out of university and entering the professional world was like a dream come true. It was my first job; I was naïve and didn’t know how to handle the situation at the time. I am sharing my story to let people know that sexual harassment is not the only kind of harassment. Other forms of harassment, including verbal, are no less than psychological torture. So the next time you see a pair of eyes wandering over you; don’t ignore them. And always stand up for what you believe is right.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.