Sexual Harassment - Time to break the norm

It only takes one woman to stand up and speak out on her experience with sexual harassment or gender based discrimination for women like myself to also raise our hand up and say me too. It happened to me too. Susan J. Fowler an engineer at Uber recently wrote a personal blog post that went viral. Her blog, ‘Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber’ not only signals her strength to speak out, but also her privilege to do. Uber CEO has quickly reacted by launching a full independent investigation into the matter. Regardless of what the outcome may be, she has reminded corporate America and perhaps even the world, that sexual harassment is still pervasive and that very little has changed to protect women against it. For many other women in other parts of the world, speaking out is not an option; in fact the act of being verbally or physically sexually harassed is normalized often attributed to ‘culture’, making women less likely to report or take action against their harassers. 

In a world where women are increasingly entering positions of power in every possible field, graduating from universities at unprecedented rates and are breadwinners in their families, women still face a wage gap and are forced to operate within systems (educational or professional) that aren’t responsive to verbal or physical sexual harassment. Sexual harassment at work or in educational spaces can take many forms; inappropriate comments and jokes directly or through social media platforms about a colleague’s sex life to unwanted touching, hugging or kissing and even to demands for sexual favors.  Often reported in the media are criminal acts of rape, assault and molestation, while ostensibly ‘less severe’ forms of harassment like verbal abuse, repeated lewd emails of texts, physical touching or unwelcome comments on behavior or dress are given free reign. Even where the law is strong, where such acts may qualify as criminal acts, it is very difficult to collect incontrovertible evidence. It is difficult to establish or prosecute feeling “uncomfortable” or “violated”. Also, the process of prosecution or internal investigation can be very painful for the woman. She is made to relive the experience constantly; grilled about it, asked about past sexual history and other character related issues, which are inexplicably considered relevant to the proceedings, as also her attire as well as her behavior, which is believed to “provoke” a reaction from the men. Often, this can be a career-damaging move. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), sexual harassment is a clear form of gender discrimination based on sex, a manifestation of unequal power relations between men and women. It is also one of the most difficult experiences to talk acknowledge, to articulate to address, and to seek legal action on.

I frequently write about what returning to Sierra Leone at age twenty-four felt like, the complicated process of learning and growing from an emotional and spiritual perspective, I have yet to speak frankly about my experiences of being a young professional. My story, very much like Susan’s, transcends borders and I am sure that women, regardless of geographical location or background, can relate to many facets of these experiences.

In my experience, being young, female and ambitious is as much a blessing as it can at times feel like a curse. Patriarchy has no boundaries and operates more explicitly in some settings and in others more insidiously. I remember the first time a male colleague and I were introduced; he starred me up and down only to quickly dismiss anything I said from that point forth. In the two years we worked together we never got along, purely because I refused to agree with many of the ideas he put forth and resisted the manner in which he would impose an approach to the work we did. I was unlike the many young girls he would invite to the office for ‘meetings’, I spoke out and I often called him out on his inconsistencies. However, what ensued was two-years of sometimes very volatile confrontations and from his end, any opportunity to sabotage my work was swiftly taken. My boss, also male, often appealed to me to ‘soften’ up and understand this male colleague’s perspective. Never once did my boss take the necessary steps to make me feel safe despite openly sharing with him that I felt physically and emotionally unsafe around my male colleague. Instead, I was told to ‘stop overacting’.

I continued to endure a difficult work environment, often times suffering from major anxiety attacks but convincing myself that I would have to simply work through my anxiety. What was worse was that I often sought to locate the problem within myself; as women are often told to do; to second guess themselves; to victim blame. This is what prevents us from reporting incidents of harassment or even violence. My boss and the many men I encountered during my professional career would cross all professional boundaries without reservation. My situation was not unique; many women in my country have similar experiences. What compounded my situation was that I was single – unmarried and not in a relationship, which for the many men I encountered made me fair game. My boss would often pass inappropriate comments and many times intimidate me by standing extremely close without actually touching me, close enough for his breathe to remain on my clothes after a conversation. I remember very vividly, walking away feeling dirty, like I had done something to induce this types of interactions especially because an hour or two later, any inclination of such behavior completed disappeared and all would feel professional again. It also did not help that the cultural attitude towards verbal and physical sexual harassment places the burden on women. These unwanted advances from my male colleagues, boss, other male counterparts that I would meet due to my job felt like very insular experiences, there was no where to vent, to talk through what I was going through, to even begin to unpack the level of emotional damage that was occurring and the slow and steady erosion of my mental wellbeing.

The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) notes the seriousness of sexual harassment and urges for “measures to protect women from sexual harassment and other forms of violence or coercion in the workplace.” This is rarely enforced and even ‘progressive’ institutions still fail to protect their female students or employees, I went through it during the early years of my career, and I am currently witnessing it wherever I go.

Currently in my late twenties, my confidence and self-preservation habits have vastly improved and I am much better at defining my boundaries. I am even quicker to express discomfort, and I also have little fear to speak out against feeling harassed, and even less fear to engage with the institution on my safety. In short, I am unafraid to walk away if I do not feel safe; this very definitive approach to protecting my emotional, physical and mental wellbeing comes from about three years of being sexually harassed in a professional setting. My zero-tolerance policy towards any harasser, whether I am directly impacted or a witness to it, is informed by knowing the importance of setting precedents so that other women do not have to go through similar experiences. I now know the importance of speaking out, despite how challenging it can be.  Reminding professional and / or other public institutions that having clear enforceable policies against sexual harassment is crucial to building a healthy work and learning environment is an ongoing battle. It is for institutions to realize that they are often more powerful and capable of taking action than the individual victim. While it is important to respect the agency of the woman, institutions must have a zero tolerance policy to certain kinds of behavior; penalise harrassers while protecting victims and their identities. And sometimes it just means openly sharing our experiences so that other women can raise their hands up too and say ‘me too’. This happened to me too.

Note: I also recognize that men go through similar experiences in both educational and professional settings. 

Love - In all its FULLNESS

How many of us are, secretly or explicitly, addicted to freely proliferated self help quotes that urge us to “self love” because we are “worthy”? I mean, I certainly am despite being cognizant that feel good quotes are often short-term fuel for actualizing the love and the worthiness that should be inherent and thriving. Here is the crazy thing though; I do love myself, most days. I do know at some level that I am worthy of love, of goodness and of all the success in the world. I am generally confident; I have the ‘I will prove you wrong’ type of confidence that works to keep the world that tells me I am not worthy wrong. That type of confidence often comes with a high-level worth ethic, boldness and persistence, important qualities to possess. Yet, that type of confidence feels reactionary, a slight imbalance between buoyancy and innate sense of self-love.  I relegate this tilt to being big-bodied which often elicits self induced head bobs and snapping of fingers when with white friends and/or acquaintances – I get it, the classic internalization of the American mammy caricature. I am African. This conflates histories.  I often meet people, regardless of where I find myself, who matter-of-factly refer to my body as ‘fat’, ‘obese’ or ‘big’. Or, for those who take a moment to examine my physique, a big girl with ‘a shape’ somewhere amidst my mass. To the latter commentators I mumble a quick thank you, and to the‘you are fat’ callers, I become feisty and again start to bob my head, blinking my eyes at shutter light-speed with explanations that my ‘fat’ is none of their business. Internally I leave that conversation a little bruised, a little sore, wishing I did not carry this much weight; habitually believing that if I just lost some pounds, I would be so much more worthy, so much more innately happy and comfortable. More importantly, if I just loose weight, I often think, the issue of my weight will cease to act as a conversation starter, filler, or wrap up.

I have always been the big girl. I remember in middle school having a crush on the class hottie. During a math class one day, I sat next to him and his friend who both said I’d be much prettier if I lost weight. I agreed with them and went on a soliloquy about my weight. Heart sunken, my thirteen year old self registered that cute boys like him do not go for girls like me. I was hurt, but confident and so I went on with my life, not loosing weight, but rather joining theatre, running for class president, then school president and being on every social organizing committee. I did what confident people do, kick-ass in all that I did, while licking my bruises every so often. Right before I graduated from high school, one of my pretty and slim girlfriends asked me how on earth I felt comfortable wearing sleeveless shirts despite being ‘big’. I confidently told her that I did not worry about such things. Her comment threw me over the edge and after graduation I lost fifty-pounds.

I put it back on; every single pound of it especially since moving back to Sierra Leone where being fat is the holy grail of conversation starters. One’s weight, it seems, will often be spoken about, spoken off, and becomes the barometer at which one’s presence is acknowledged. This surprised me because it completely dispelled the myth that generally, Africans appreciate bigger women. I have been told that I should go to Nigeria or Mauritania instead, the men are more appreciating of big-bodied women in those countries. The statement rings problematic, that my weight is directly linked to the male gaze and acceptance. Yet, in relation to the male gaze I also learned that being a bigger woman does often-illicit conceptions of wealth, aggressiveness and or overt sexuality. Like the time a now prominent female leader in Sierra Leone shared with me that her husband thought that ‘bigger’ women, like myself, are very sexual. This was after my twenty-five year old self read an erotic poem at a Valentine’s Day event.  The message was clear; my bigness is political, threatening, weak, misunderstood. I also once dated a man, who him self was anything but fit or muscular, who would watch me eat, disgust plastered all over his face. His voice smooth and clear would gently ask, ‘why do you eat so much’? On the continent, Africa, where I thought I’d be more accepted, the thin, light-skinned, silky hair trope is hard-wired into the general psyche. In short, notions around beauty, body acceptability, and perfection are standardized globally.

I continue to read the self-help quotes ‘I am love, I am worthy’, often re-posting on my social media accounts with daily chants ‘I am love, I am worthy’. This is until I am sat next to a petit, dainty and soft-spoken young woman at a women’s workshop who gasps, to say, she’d never met someone like me who was so ‘huge’ in body and personality. I immediately become uncomfortable and begin to over-talk about my weight to blank stares from other equally small to medium sized African women. Nowhere seems safe, even in women’s spaces.  

I am looking at my body; zigzag-lightening shapes act as overlay across my brown. My breasts heavy as they lay lazily at the top of my belly, I spread my arms; gravity pulls small pouches of excess fat, and I wiggle my arms just so see the pouches shake a little.

I have no make up on and I think of Alicia Keys’ ‘No Make Up movement’ (hashtag) and wish my face had a more pronounced dimple and more freckles or something. The ‘love’ yourself movement gets it wrong every time. Alica Keys with her pretty button nose and freckled face got it sort of wrong this time. My presumption that 'Africans' would appreciate me more than people from other cultures failed me. Women in my social circles, my conscious friends charging the streets for liberation and feminist ideals also drink warm water with lemon first thing in the morning as a weight control mechanism subtly acclaiming thinness – they have a right to. Plus-size fashion bloggers with round belly's, double chins strut in designer shoes and made to fit plush dresses shatter fat stereotypes, acclaiming that sexiness is for ‘bigger-women’ too. They only tell half a truth.

I arch my head up, turn my body around and see my buttocks, half round and half square – a shape of its own perfectly unscarred, smooth, calabash brown. I wonder what it is going to take for us to focus less on the body talk and more on the strength and perseverance of our spirits, or ethereal souls. Are you going to show me where he hit you that night, or how you broke when you learned that he cheated on you, or how you felt when you experienced cultural displacement? Are we going to discuss colorism, sexism and that time your boss, or that influential man pushed your back against the wall against your will? I mean the real shit.

My thighs touch one another and I smile, repeating ‘I am love, I am worthy’, striving to feel this way about my body as authentically as possible.

It is important to me that as I evolve spiritually and mentally that I stretch the depth of my confidence to encapsulate my physical body and my soul. To gather  and affirm all the times I hurt only to grow. All the times I fell into a ditch, or down a flight of stairs, or got bitten by mosquitoes that my body and spirit still healed. That every time life threw me a hurdle and I felt empty, I clawed my way back up with my bare hands and through divine grace. That even with this BIGNESS, physically, I have achieved every goal my spirit wanted or needed for nourishment.

If fatness is easy to roll off the tongue, so should insecurities, so should vulnerabilities, so should self-love - love. 

I pull my hands to my face, palms thick, fingers heavy and I watch blood run through my veins. Starring into the mirror I see ‘ love’, I see ‘worth’ I know off ‘strength’, even when all the world warrants that i focus on my unworthiness because I am difficult to ignore – physically of course.