The black and white of sexual harassment

It is important to understand that not everything is said in good faith and not every compliment is a sexual advance.

Zehra Kamal July 08, 2014
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 and let us know!

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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 necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Baba Ji | 9 years ago | Reply Bittiya it is simple ... If a "cool dude" talks to you, it's innocent flirting but otherwise it is plain simple harassment !!!
asad | 9 years ago | Reply men and women should work separately and not together.
Hameedullah | 9 years ago Thats not possible.
Moiz Omar | 9 years ago Men and women can still work together and not have these problems.
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