Blurred lines of harassment

If there’s one thing that virtually every workplace has discussed in the last couple of weeks; it’s the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Every day more women are coming forward claiming he harassed them. As if this wasn’t shocking enough – a multi-Oscar winning media mogul disrespecting women in the most crude way – then what’s amazed me is how many people are coming forward saying such harassment is common in many industries.

Before I go any further, I just want to clarify that I’m only talking about harassment and not sexual abuse or rape, because neither need defining. They’re as black and white as it comes to intolerable behaviour towards women.

#MeToo

The Hollywood scandal has led people questioning harassment in the workplace. The #MeToo campaign got me thinking about whether I’ve been harassed at work but I couldn’t recall a single time, despite virtually every woman on my timeline joining the social media campaign. I’ve been complimented, asked out and treated better by some men, which others would consider positive discrimination. I wouldn’t consider any of these things as harassment – although some men have persisted in asking for my number or asking me out without taking the first rejection as an answer. But isn’t it human nature that if you’re attracted to somebody you would do something about it? When does flirting become harassment?

I wonder if men, and women for that matter, will now be too afraid to proclaim their attraction for a colleague and ask them out. Will we see a drop in workplace relationships? I work in a busy media environment where you spend more hours in the week with colleagues than you do at home, so its little surprise many couples have met at work. Will that no longer be the case?

Women represented in media

Then there are the music and film worlds. Every world cinema seems to portray the same thing. In Hollywood and English cinema there’ll be pointless sex scenes that add nothing to the screenplay where the woman is portrayed topless. Likewise in Bollywood: men will be dressed head to toe while women will be revealing as much skin as possible. It makes me wonder if this is done for the audience’s benefit – if so, what does that say about us as filmgoers? Or does it reflect filmmakers, who – lets face it – are usually men.

And speaking of harassment, could it be argued that films like Hitch with Will Smith or Akshay Kumar’s recent hit Toilet: Ek Prem Katha; promote harassment? Will and Akshay are shown wooing their love interests by making grand gestures of affection, following them, giving them gifts and assuming the ladies will be receptive. But when we watch the films, we think of them as love stories, romance, affection. So when does pursuing someone who you’re attracted to become harassment?

A couple of weeks ago I saw a film based on Michelle and Barack Obama’s first date; Southside With You. Of course some artistic freedom would’ve been exercised so you can’t take it word for word, but overall Michelle repeatedly asserts that it isn’t a date and argues why they can’t pursue such a relationship. Barack is persistent and doesn’t back down. But if you see the film you can’t help but feel butterflies at how beautifully Barack woos Michelle and wins her over. Now this is a confident, educated woman telling a man sternly – repeatedly – that they can’t date. This intelligent (and suave!) man doesn’t take no for an answer and although he doesn’t physically harass her, he sways her with his words and gestures. Is that harassment? If anything, after watching the film my love for the Obamas has grown even more and Barack truly appears to be the perfect man every woman would dream of marrying. So is it not harassment if the attention is wanted or mutual?

And then there is the music industry – from lyrics to music videos, women are seen as objects of desire. The likes of Nikki Minaj and Rihanna seem to perpetuate this sexualisation with their dance moves, choice of attire and lyrics. But they’re seen as powerful women who know what they want and are proud to declare it. I think Charli XCX’s song “Boys” is a refreshing twist to the traditional take in songs where women talk about how desirable they are (Kelis’ “Milkshake”) and men proclaim what they’d like to do to them (Akon’s “Smack That”).

Women in society

The way women are portrayed in media stems from our culture; what we believe as a society. Quite often we see eastern, developing countries associated with patriarchal views where women are often considered subordinates or secondary to men.

As a British Asian, I’ve seen too often how men are prioritised over women by women themselves – be it mothers, wives, sisters. Festivals celebrate men – be it Lohri where the birth or marriage of a boy is celebrated, or Karva Chaud – where a wife fasts all day to pray for her husband’s long life. When do we celebrate women?

I was raised in a home where the men and children were fed first, then my mum and aunt’s would eat after. Even today, although there has been a generational change and we eat together, it’s the women who will cook and serve.

It used to really bug me when my brother would have a cold and my parents would fuss over him as if he needed hospital care. If my sister and I were ill, Mum was always concerned and nursed us but not in the same way as she did for my brother. Was he treated with more care because he was a boy or did they think he needed more care because men needed more nurturing (in their eyes)?

When you think about rishtey (marriage proposals) – traditionally the demands are for a woman to be tall, slim and fair (academic or career achievements are secondary). For a man, his education and job are promoted – even if he is a bulging, balding five footer! So why the contrasting demands? Why are women judged by their aesthetics, and a man on his earning power? Are we encouraging the archaic notion of “men are breadwinners, women are homemakers”? This is despite so many career women who are also wives and mothers, and in many cases more successful than their spouse.

The more I dissect my cultural heritage, the more I found men were treated far superior to women – sometimes consciously, other times subconsciously. So when I hear or see cases of harassment in South Asia it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Yet why do they happen in the west which is considered to be a modern, educated, developed society? Why are the likes of Harvey Weinstein able to prey on women and abuse their powerful positions to make women feel vulnerable and powerless? It’s not just one culture or community that treat women with less respect, it happens the world over.

Animal instinct

Weinstein has claimed he needs therapy to change his habits. It’s a great way for a wealthy man to deny all responsibility of his wicked, seedy, filthy actions. But actually, it comes down to a very simple notion.

In the animal world, males woo females to procreate. And I’ve seen enough Attenborough to see how damn hard the males work to fight off (literally!) the competition. But have you ever heard of animals raping each other? Ever heard of animals forcing themselves onto another for sexual gratification? Yet sexual abuse and harassment is so rife in humans – so are we less evolved than animals?

Are we all complicit?

From what’s emerging in the Weinstein scandal; his actions were well known in the industry. Actors, filmmakers and designers have said it was laughed off as “there goes Harvey again”. So women were being harassed, manipulated, made to feel vulnerable – and bystanders just let it be…let that thought sink in for a moment. This is twenty-first century Hollywood, advanced in technology, the epitome of glamour, one of the most successful industries in the world – and women are being mistreated but nobody is saying anything. Eyes seem to be open but mouths are shut. Why?

The intensity of the situation hit home when Angelina Jolie – who is testament to a strong, powerful woman – said she was victim to Weinstein’s harassment when she was starting out as an actress. Yet she never spoke out. What does that say for how vulnerable he made women feel, how powerless they were in this empire that was controlled by men? Its a chilling thought.

But if you relate to us lay people – if you knew that a woman was getting unwanted attention from a man who was abusing his position, would you intervene? Isn’t it time that everybody not only opened their eyes but their mouths too and put a stop to women being harassed, manipulated and abused?

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