Sexual Harassment at a Store
Recently, my brother, my sister-in-law (bhabi), my friend, and I went to a superstore in Baridhara (diplomatic area in Dhaka, capital city of Bangladesh) to have a gift wrapped for my teacher. My brother darted off to another aisle while my bhabi and I were trying to figure out which corner provided the gift-wrapping service that we were seeking. Just minutes into the store, a young sales assistant smacked his lips and made a kissing gesture very close to my ears while I was walking past him.
I was wearing a loose, fully-covering salwar-kameez (traditional South-east Asian attire). I had my hair and bosoms draped in a large dupatta (scarf). The only visible parts were my face and hands. On the other hand, my bhabi did not have her hair covered, although the rest of her dressing style was exactly the same as mine. Who was more likely to be harassed? As the incident clearly demonstrated, BOTH had an equal chance of facing unwarranted sexual approach.
When the sales assistant did what he did, I instantly froze! Was it fear or guilt that made me freeze? No, it was utter disbelief. Did he really do that? Did it really happen to me (or somebody else for that matter)? I feel we, human beings, have a hard time coming in terms with reality, no matter how strong we consider ourselves to be. It was no different for me. To reassure myself that it was indeed something I should ignore, I turned only to find the man, along with another sales assistant, making fun of me and glorifying his "sexual victory."
At this stage, I gave a stern look, as is my habit, to show disapproval of his action. He showed no remorse and was instead mocking me. It was a given to him (and other abusers like him) that women could only glare and curse passively. Why did he have such a notion? Maybe because it was indeed the usual practice of women to either ignore such acts, or at best, to mumble a few bitter words. Take the example of my friend. She suggested me to ignore the incident as what was done by the man could not be undone and any retaliation will neither teach him a lesson nor benefit me directly. It was not worth spending time and effort on this. She also warned me of the “embarrassment” that protesting will bring upon us. People will be staring at you as if you are at fault.
However, in my opinion, silence was not the answer. Although protesting would not benefit me directly, I was willing to walk that extra mile to save the next victim who could as well be my friend, my daughter, my sister, my relative, my fellow citizen. As soon as I grabbed him by the collar and raised a hue and cry, the man was taken aback by my courage. After a brief period of denying having done anything wrong, he admitted his mistake and began to apologize.
What was the community’s stance on this issue?
It was inspiring to see other women joining in to protest the incident. However, it was equally disappointing to see not a single man, except my brother, come forward. The male guards, responsible for our safety, and a few men in religious attires, who are otherwise so vocal about women’s rights, stepped aside as bystanders. Some men were trying to pacify me saying they would “take care of it,” only to advise the perpetrator to escape, which would have happened if I had not maintained a tight grasp of the perpetrator. When the news of the incident reached the top management of the store, they were appalled. According to them, they had no idea that a man of such low morals was working in the customer-service section.
However, it was disturbing to see that the management was more concerned about the store image and if I would “return” to their store (or remain a loyal customer, in other words). It was as if they would not be concerned had it happened an inch outside their store.
I cannot thank my brother enough for supporting me throughout the protest, and beyond. He took the responsibility of informing the police for ensuring security of women in that store. Store managers assured us of stricter hiring policies and gender-sensitive training for all employees. As for my friend, she went home with a lesson: the consequences of protesting sexual harassment were not all bad!
Note: A slightly-modified version of this article was published by The Weekend Independent on 31st of August, 2012.