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Saturday, July 11, 2020

Clipped wings: Anecdotes of sexual harassment in workplaces in The Gambia

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With Rohey Samba

‘Women are gullible,’ he professed with confidence. He was pudgy and not too attractive looking. His face bore the wrinkled lines of someone who had lived his life carelessly. His bulging stomach repudiated me most, but it was nothing compared to the import of his words when he spoke. It reminded me of a poem I read long ago, about beauty being the words we speak, not the faces we bear. His ugliness was in both his speech and in his facade.

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We were sitting together at the sprawling lunch table of the National Digestion Agency, himself and I and a few other guys. The occasion was a workshop organised by one of the government institutions. Malima, my colleague from work with whom I attended the event, nudged me to keep calm and ignore him. I could not. It was a wasted effort. So I disregarded the gentle nudge of his foot on mine underneath the table and took the best deflection I could summon along the lines of ‘I’m sure you don’t mean all women. Surely your own mother is a woman….’

Then I paused, and looked him straight in the eye. He met my gaze, eyeball for eyeball, before I continued softly, ‘but since you are so secure in your own choice of words, I take it that a woman must have treated you badly in the past.’

My retort was calculated, mean and a bit dramatic, if I must admit so myself. But I had had it up to my throat. At first, the indulgent guy, who happened to be a high placed official from one of our parastatals had loudly appraised the large bosom of the lady-in-waiting hovering over the edge of our lunch table. If you have never seen a black woman blush, well I say it that this lady literally blushed. She turned from black to purple in front of my own eyes.

As if that was not enough, when the timid looking curvy lady came over to serve us bottled soft drinks, the relentless retard, ‘hamut bott darah,’ I may add, asked coyly, ‘Are you married, young woman?’ To which the lady having summoned courage from his benighted remarks earlier on replied, ‘Do I look like someone who is unmarried?’

Obviously embarrassed by the unexpected reply, the guy assured the lady that she was not his type, and that he had better looking wives at his beck and call, patiently waiting for him at his homes. More discomfited than humiliated, the lady dashed off after serving us with soft drinks and lingered inside the cafeteria giving us the dramatic break. It was at this point that the guy, Mr Man, made that oft-handed remark about women, conceivably, to placate his irked ego.

Now looking over at me in stunned silence in which time his face switched between murderous anger and reprisal, before settling for a calmer demeanour, perhaps prompted by the uncomfortable quiet surrounding the table, Mr Man replied softly, ‘Of course, I don’t mean all women,’ he started. ‘I mean some of the young women of this generation.’
‘You mean, women of my age and younger?’, I probed in mild amusement, unnerved by the threat looming in his too soft voice.

‘No, certainly not someone like you. But yes, mainly women of your age and younger. Some even a bit older.’
‘Ah,’ I pretended to understand, but not without adding, ‘Womankind, is one specie, you know. You cannot insult the hand that fed you. If you insult women, you do so collectively. You cannot make the injury one whit less painful by excusing some and implicating others.’

I know this may sound sheepish, but sure as hell, this is one form of sexual harassment men get away with in our workplaces. Disdainful of knowledge and indifferent to facts, some men harass women by belittling and marking them out by virtue of their bosom/buttocks sizes, their pouting lips/legs/eyes or their mode of dress/sense of style etc. These valued judgments and generalisations when voiced out or acted upon by touching/caressing, to make the woman feel uncomfortable, ashamed or humiliated, is sexual harassment.
While the sexual connotation is alarming for most readers at this point, please bear with me as I seek to call a spade a spade.

‘Do you have a date?’ The very married new manager of the block asked the young intern newly recruited by the organisation. Such a harmless question, is very becoming of men in places of work that are sprawled with spinsters. The lady in question, smiled back and answered ‘No,’ lying through her teeth of course. Two can play the game, ain’t it?

‘Okay. Then henceforth, you may come over to my office for breakfast. I will be glad to take care of a beauty like you in this institution,’ he adds with a wink.
Superficially, these are two consenting adults flirting during working hours. At a distance, the lady in question has not been coerced into accepting anything she did not assent to. She has willingly obliged the man upon his first try. Yet, it is well worth it to say that the work that directly connects these two individuals makes one superior by far to the other; one being manager and the other a mere intern. The power difference displayed here specifically, translates into the guy’s success in getting the lady upon his first try. Any man of less distinction or coming outside of the institution would not have thrived that easily.

In another episode, a young lady well educated by her father attempts to find work. She meets one of the Directors in one of the institutions she applied for a job. . This is not a gullible, semi-literate young woman, but rather a qualified one who has taken up professional courses and passed with high percentile scores upon completion of the senior secondary school leaving certificate examinations. The director promises to get her the job. But this job offer comes with a slag, she must first sleep with him, before the job can be handed down to her. Desperate and unsure of her rights, she agrees. She lands the job and become forever beholden to the director, serving as his whore.

Again, aside from the snide remarks women have to deal with daily at the workplace. Remarks prompted by ignorance, prejudice and the usual stereotyping. Remarks like, one an incorrigible bachelor continually makes of her superior at work, behind her back of course…
Miss Superior walks into the cubicle, requests for last week’s data factsheets which incorrigible bachelor has neglected to do by the way. Mr Inco Bachelor feigns poor memory and effusively promises to hand over the sheets by the end of the day. Miss Superior nods her approval and walks out. He makes sure he hears her door closed behind her before he declares, ‘She’s angry against all men because she got no one to warm her bed during the night. If only she could lower her pride a bit and let me service her, all this correctness would be removed from her.’

To which his compatriots at the shared workspace would laugh, some even adding salt to the batter; ‘A woman without a man in her life is like a man dressed in skirt and blouse! No wonder she is so hard’
Others would remark, ‘Damn right.’
‘Ah, and they are the ones that want it the most. In fact, I pity the first man who gets her to bed. Women like this are insatiable. She will ooze all the energy out of one…’ another adds philosophically, much to the glee of his colleagues…

Certain industries women find themselves working in makes it really hard to assert sexual harassment. These include the tourism and hospitality industry, the masseuse’s salons, eateries, and so forth. Men visit these places with the impropriety to do as they please with the women rendering their services. Many working class girls working in these industries as cleaners, waitresses or even managers have experienced one form of sexual harassment or the other, whether it is the proprietor/supervisor asking to sleep with them first before offering them employment or the tourists and even Gambian guys groping at their breasts, or spanking their buttocks at wimp without any consequences.

Women for obvious reasons are inclined towards powerful men. Whilst it may be argued that the rise of bigotry in our workplaces is a mere perpetuation of patriarchy in our society. The awkwardness of responses to all forms of discrimination against women and women’s unawareness about sexual harassment itself, has left many cases unreported and therefore unregulated.

Women have the right to work in every institution and/or industry in this country without fear of harm, unwanted advances and mental stress. Women are tired of being pursued in the streets, in the places of worship, at work and even at the Death House in Banjul, when they are bereaved. Being single is not a mark for desperation neither is it a privation on the part of women. We put the onus on men to accept this reality.
Imperatively, the need to integrate women in the workforce is not an option for development but rather a colossal necessity. Arguably, women make up more than 50% of the population of this country. Therefore, the government of the day must assert affirmative action set by national regulation to protect women against all sorts of sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace.
That’s all for today…

 

Rohey Samba is an award winning Gambia writer and author of 3 books, with experience working as a media analyst, press and public outreach assistant for the EU Election Observation Mission in The Gambia National Assembly Elections, 2017. She owns a publishing company and works as a maritime specialist, specialising in maritime safety and environmental administration at Gambia Maritime Administration.

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