The black and white of sexual harassment

Published: July 8, 2014

. There is a difference between disagreeing with or disliking what someone says, and feeling discomfited as a result of it. Be mindful, use discretion.

The Oxford dictionary defines sexual harassment as,

Harassment (typically of a woman) in a workplace, or other professional or social situation, involving the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks”

Gauging from this definition, the meaning is pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it?

Apparently not.

I am often surprised (read: unimpressed), by the type of conversations I hear surrounding the so-called ‘dubious’ nature of sexual harassment. A few years ago, a colleague came to me saying she felt awkward by the way her now ex-boss would treat her while they were at work. She wasn’t sure if he was interested in her, or if he was just being over-friendly – either way, his behaviour, which included both verbal and physical advances, made her extremely uncomfortable and she didn’t know what to make of it.

For a minute, I simply stared at her. This was a bright, intelligent, young woman, who had been part of one of the most prestigious undergraduate programs, and here she was, telling me about a reoccurring unpleasant ‘experience’, unsure of what to call it. I am not one to sugar-coat the obvious, so I asked her two questions:

a) Are you okay with him treating you this way?

b) Would you do the same to him if you were interested in him?

Needless to say, the answer to both questions was a no. And then it dawned on her: there were no two ways about her dilemma, she was being sexually harassed.

She had refused to term it as such, because, you know, how could it happen to someone so independent and successful, on her way to a thriving career under his mentorship? Didn’t these things happen to people who were in more vulnerable positions? She refused to recognise that she was being sexually harassed because that would mean accepting she was weak. That’s when I told her how terribly wrong she was.

Let’s get one thing straight. There is no grey area when it comes to sexual harassment. If a co-worker, man or woman, is making advances towards you, be it verbal or physical, and it makes you uncomfortable, its sexual harassment – no questions asked. It may come to you concealed in the form of flattery or ‘casual flirting’, or straight-in-the-face with an offensive comment or action. Do not ignore it!

I am not saying you should jump to a conclusion straight away and file a complaint with your human resource department, but consider this: if this person makes you uneasy with their actions – especially on more than one occasion – and if you have tried to let them know that you are not okay with it then it is not okay.

Use your judgment; is a compliment really a compliment when it makes you uncomfortable? Is a compliment really a compliment if you would rather not hear it? And, perhaps most important of all, is a compliment really a compliment if you have to think to this extent about it?

I came across an interesting statement recently:

“If your flirting strategy is indistinguishable from harassment, it’s not everyone else that’s the problem.”

John Scalzi, the man behind these words, makes a very valid, strong point. It is important to understand that not everything is said in good faith and not every compliment is automatically a sexual advance. Everyone has their own way of communicating their appreciation, or lack thereof, and not everyone has their etiquettes down to the T.

However, what it comes down to is how you feel about it. There is a difference between disagreeing with or disliking what someone says, and feeling discomfited as a result of it. Be mindful, use discretion. There is a fine line between what one construes as a casual work friendship and unwarranted sexual advances, but there is no mixing the two if you trust your gut. A casual friendship shouldn’t make you uncomfortable – and that should always be your red flag.

Ultimately, regardless of the hype surrounding sexual harassment being dual in nature, my argument is plain and simple; irrespective of sex, gender, race, creed or culture, everyone is entitled to work in a safe, harassment free environment. Sometimes, we may not want to bring up the issue because we are afraid of the consequences, but if we don’t stand up for ourselves, who will? If we don’t make the decision to correct a wrong today, what if tomorrow, someone else gets it worse?

Ask yourself these questions if you find yourself in such a situation. Confide in the ones you trust. Don’t be embarrassed. Take a stand for what you think is right. You are not a victim, you are not weak or helpless, so don’t treat yourself as such. You have the power to not only put the perpetrator to test, but to also change what happens in the future. You are not the one at fault here: know that. Believe that.

Have you ever experienced sexual harassment at the workplace? Write to us at [email protected] and let us know!

Have you ever experienced sexual harassment at the workplace?

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Zehra Kamal

Zehra Kamal

An avid reader, keen writer, political enthusiast and cricket aficionado with a Bachelors in International Development Studies from the University of Guelph, Canada. She tweets @zehra_kamal

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Zaheer Ahmad

    Good write-up with a strong logic. Nice share!Recommend

  • SM

    I disagree with parts of this. This is A-Level sociology class all over again.Recommend

  • Hira Kamal

    Good article!
    However, I think there is a thin line between not knowing you’re being sexually harassed, and refusing to accept that you’re being harassed. A lot of people (especially those working at higher positions) consider the downside of bringing her/his boss’ actions out into the open – especially since jobs are already scanty and there’s a good chance they would not get an equally good job again. Then, there’s family. Here in Pakistan, a very small percentage of the population allows their women to work (not talking about domestic work here – those men are just lazy) so there’s always that risk of losing that permit. Sure, the abused need to know they’re not alone and their confidence needs to be boosted etc., but nonetheless the family/friends/society are the more important ones because eventually they are the ones who help the person heal (or not). Recommend

  • faraz

    I am more amazed at the Poll , nearly 40% used the poll says that they have been harrresed at workplace….. What type of place are we living in !!!!!!!!!!!Recommend

  • Kashif

    OK now comes my question …I’m a young guy & my coworker asks me to give her a drop once but now she asks very often and on our last trip she offered to stop by some place to have an Ice Cream which I denied!
    Now I really felt offended by it…will you categorize this as harrasment??
    I have many coworkers with me and I have a friendly relationship with them.Recommend

  • Visibly

    “There is no grey area when it comes to sexual harassment. If a co-worker, man or woman, is making advances towards you, albeit verbal or physical, and it makes you uncomfortable, its sexual harassment – no questions asked.”

    I agree with your overall assessment, but people meet at the work place, they can even become attracted to each other.

    So, the critical word is “NO”.

    Any man or woman continuing with advances after the other party has said NO is harrassing their collaborator.

    So teach both men (especially) and women about the value and importance of saying a clear NO.Recommend

  • Zehra Kamal

    LOL. Of course you do. We can agree to disagree, as always, “SM”. :)Recommend

  • Anum H

    I used to work in a company where I was the only girl in a sea of men. There were managers who felt entitled to strike personal conversations and demand friendships outside the workplace. I always confided in my trusted coworkers/supervisor because not doing so made me more victimized and the “harrasser” more confident in his advances. As Zehra so eloquently said, its very important to believe that its not your fault and you are not a victim.Recommend

  • When will people learn not to start articles or essays with “The Meriam Webster / Oxford Learner’s/Cambridge/Chambers dictionary defines XYZ as…”Recommend

  • fek

    How so? Recommend

  • Manahil

    It’s sexual harrassment. But if you don’t like her asking you this, that means you’re being used by her. If you do like it/do not mind, then I guess that makes you friends, or at least good acquaintances.

    Sexual harrassment means someone is making remarks about your physical appearance, making inappropriate comments that are sexual in nature, standing to close to your body, asking for sexual favors, touching without consent, making lewd remarks, and so on. Anything to do with your body and, well, sex.Recommend

  • Usman Afridi


  • Deen Sheikh

    Trust me it is not black and white, there is more than what meets the eye, many careers have been sabotaged because of judgmental women who made a big issue out of situations that could have been dealt with an organized manner, your human resource department is there for a reason, you communicate it if your feeling discomfort and the sooner the issue is resolved, the sooner it will be forgotten, the longer it will be dragged, it can lead to something devastating. I come from an HR back ground and you would be surprised at the sheer volume of academic literature published on actual accounts based on careers that were sabotaged through false accusations of sexual harassment at work.Recommend

  • Abbas

    Its a nice piece of writing ma’am, many women who believe themselves as victims are the ones who doesn’t know the fact how timid and cowardice are those men, who approach towards them. One strong answer to them would take them away, i have seen such jerks working around me.Recommend

  • Azka

    Yes ofcourse!Recommend

  • Syeda KAzmi

    Good points.. but u missed a very imp point here… not admitting to harassment is another case but there are women who got sexually harassed at workplace and they silently compromise on the advances thinking about the perks they are getting. I am not doubting their intentions here, may be they just want to keep it aside and do not want to mess up the working relations.. but if you do not speak up or deal it some other way just because you are not ready to lose the benefits, then it is your fault more than the harasser.Recommend

  • Necromancer


  • Dogar

    What was actually the theme of your article?
    Women/Men normally know if they are being sexually harassed or not because they are human and have instincts.Unless they are dumb burger ones.
    If you actually want to write about it then write about how to tackle it and how to cope with it.
    Promote sexual harassment society or something which can help.If people are unable to take stand then whatever you write to motivate them its simply useless.
    Normally people at jobs doesn’t/can’t show balls.
    People already have a lot of problems, don’t tell them what they are already going through if you don’t have a solution for their issues.
    Come up with some new and innovative ideas to help others if you have brains, stop sprinkling salt on the burns of others..

    Rape, Sexual harassment and blah blah… why?? why it all is happening?perform a root cause analysis and then think of the ways to curb it from the roots.

    This is the holy month of Ramadan, most of the people are fasting and frankly speaking I have no regret to say that some infact most of the woman still don’t bother to come in restaurants, even at the time of Aftar, covered in a way that they should not provoke prurience.

    Yesterday, at McDonald during Aftar, I was unable to go and pick my meal.As during this holy month I was trying hard not to see any of such wanton in lewd dress.Recommend

  • JBG

    Great article! It’s pretty black and white as far as I’m concerned. Those people who start to see grey, remark on how one party was dressed or blame the victim, are only trying to justify their own lurid actions.Recommend

  • Noman khan


  • Mahad Shahbaz

    There is always a grey area. You just have to be careful enough to tread along it to have some casual fun.Recommend

  • Kaptain Mirza

    Men who harass make the gender sound too cheap..!!Recommend

  • Iftekhar Khokhar

    “Satyriasis” is a disease(maybe psychological or othewise) in males whereby the males are more inclined to excessive sexual desire. Eventually, our ambiance in the work places, offices, markets. parks, railway stations, bus stands even hospitals etc is highly frequented by the sick mentality with the result, to them, if nothing else could be done, let there be ogling as a pastime. I think the experts vis sociologist, psychologist and the likes should probe into this issue of grave significance, and recommend treatment to cure this disease called sexual harassmentRecommend

  • asad

    men and women should work separately and not together.Recommend

  • LS

    Really? She asked for lift repeatedly and offered ice-cream, which he denied and it becomes “Sexual harassment”? Maybe you missed NOT in there? It’s NOT a sexual harassment… Surprisingly you have your definition right…Recommend

  • Baba Ji

    Bittiya it is simple … If a “cool dude” talks to you, it’s innocent flirting but otherwise it is plain simple harassment !!!Recommend

  • Moiz Omar

    Men and women can still work together and not have these problems.Recommend

  • Hameedullah

    Thats not possible.Recommend