Featured image courtesy IPLeaders.in

The post itself was perfect at a glance – everything I could have imagined and more, and even stood up against my questioning nature. Regardless of the name of the position and the office, I wasn’t about to settle into a role where I would be exploited.

And so, full of hope, I embarked on a yearlong journey that I can only describe as hell in retrospect.

In the name of self-preservation, I have decided not to name this organisation, as it would leave me wide open to a lawsuit. Suffice it to say that it was in the higher echelons of the Public Service sector. My first clue when I walked in should have been the fact that I felt like I was walking into a boy’s club. I was the only female. There were plenty of women in the organisation in its entirety, but they were encountered while catching the lift, or only if they needed to contact my immediate Supervisor — let’s call him Mr. D.  No matter I thought. I am after-all, a strong independent woman, capable of holding my own in a male-dominated department.

My professional priority has always been ensuring that I deliver quality work, and I assumed that if I did so, I would be accepted as a vital part in the organisational culture.

It’s important to understand the organisation I was going into and the mindsets that prevailed.

My department and one other had a flexible dress code. The rest of the departments saw the ladies clad in sarees. However (and I checked and double checked) I wasn’t required to wrap myself up in 6 yards. I wore shirts — never sleeveless — paired with knee-length skirts and trousers (like the other department I just mentioned). This seemed to attract a lot of attention from the saree-clad ladies, proving once more that women truly are your own worst critics. And this was never more evident than in that organisation.

This wasn’t my first tussle in the arena of dress codes. I have gone head to head with a female supervisor at a banking institution who constantly put me down because, “Cassandra, your skirt is far too short”. Being conditioned to take these comments from men is one thing. But to be put down in front of an entire department by another woman was another. This is when I realised that women need to stop being judgmental of one another if we want to achieve true equality.

Misogyny and gender roles have been so internalised that women accept it as the norm and thereby enable harassment (in all its forms). Evidently wearing skirts and pants and acknowledging that I have limbs didn’t sit well. It was blasphemy that I should expose my calves, while the midriff and belly-button were fair game. There was no logic. All these unabashed stares and pointed whispers shouldn’t have bothered me, but they did.

Going into this job, the gentleman who interviewed me (Not Mr. D), stated outright that he believed I had a task ahead of me in fitting into that organisational culture. I was warned that my liberal beliefs on issues such as Gender equity and LGBTIQ rights would seem alien to the rest. I was even told that I should change my views to suit the organization. But again, I was ready to take up a challenge. What better way to address gender disparity and challenge societal mindsets firmly wedged in archaic notions, than to engage in a meaningful dialogue with people?

The work itself was dreary, dull and far from what was described to me. And try as I would to make suggestions which would not only streamline the work process, but also make it more efficient and inclusive, time-and-time again these were listened to and instantly dismissed. Professional growth was non-existent, as were ownership and credit where it was due.

My frustration and job satisfaction were closing in on zero.

However, there were far more pressing factors to contend with. And that’s what this story is about.

I can safely say that the percentage of organisational work I performed in relation to the personal requests made by Mr. D were 30% to 70%. Mr. D was a man who liked to flaunt his non-existent power and scare people into submission. He would yell at people in Sinhala filth that would reduce many people, myself included, to tears.

On the topic of the many the personal requests of Mr. D, one sticks in my memory more vividly than all the rest.

On 2 occasions, he had me print out visa documentation, not just for him, but his family as well, obtain the supporting documentation, and fill them out for him. On one occasion, along with one of the men of the department, he had me come into his office and fill out his forms for him. And he kept saying, “මොලේ පාව්ච්චි කරලා form එක fill කරන්න. හැබැයි sex කරලා තියෙනවා කියළා අහාළා නම් yes ගහන්න”. (Translation: Use your brain and fill the form out. But if they’ve asked if I’ve had sex, definitely say yes.”) This was then followed by raucous laughter. And despite my obvious embarrassment, he went on to say, “මොකද කියන්නේ? ඇත්ත නේද?” (Why? It’s true, right?) I couldn’t finish filling out that form and get out soon enough.

In addition to this, Mr. D spent over 50% of his time at work on his phone. During these, I would hear him share crude jokes about women with people on the other line (“Don’t make a woman’s eyes wet. Only make her p**** wet”.). Then he would ask me what I thought. My opinions were deemed as madness.

But I persisted. I was determined not to be defeated. But what followed, made every single situation above pale by comparison because they went beyond the norm. That moment for me was a combination of a few incidents occurring in quick succession.

  1. When Mr. D said “Here’s some money for you” and threw a coin at me from across the room that hit my nose, causing my eyes to well up. To say that I was flabbergasted to the point where I couldn’t even react would be an understatement. Even more so when he just laughed at my expression and strutted out.
  2. I mentioned how I would wear knee-length skirts and pants coupled with shirts. I stopped wearing skirts early into my posting when Mr. D said, “Your legs look very nice in that skirt.” On yet another occasion Mr. D said (regarding a shirt I was wearing), “ඔයා මෙහෙම අන්දින්න හොඳ නෑ. හොඳට body එක පේන්න tight එකට අන්දින්න ඕනේ” (Translation: “You shouldn’t dress like this. You should wear tight clothes so that your body can be seen well.”) This was done whilst gesturing to my chest.

Shortly after my arrival from a vacation, Mr. D came up behind me and started playing with my hair, followed by, “මොකො මෙච්චර කැත වෙලා තියෙන්නේ? කලු වෙලා, මහත් වෙලා. අපරාදේ අපේ department එක ලස්සන කරන්න තියාගෙන හිටපු කෙල්ල”  (Translation: Why have you got so ugly — dark and fat now. What a shame. We kept you around to make our department pretty).

A few weeks after this, I was filling out yet another visa form for him when he came up behind me once more, this time squeezing my arms and asking me how I was.

To those saying I’m overreacting, that it’s like this everywhere, and that I should be more patient and stop being so sensitive and reacting to everything (all of which was said to me) please direct your attention towards Article 12 (2) of the Sri Lankan Constitution:

“No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any one of such grounds”.

As for the men of the organisation; they were complicit. From passing their own lewd comments, to attempting to touch my arms or hair, to asking me if I was a homosexual when I started posting messages and images in support of the LGBTIQ community in Sri Lanka.

Mr. D made my skin crawl, but I stuck to my guns. I wanted to engage in a dialogue with my colleagues. But try as I would to present both sides of the conversation to them, all they wanted to do was laugh at me and make crude jokes. They even gave me a pen-drive with porn on it once, but I chalked that up to an honest mistake. Up to date, I’m not sure.

I left after 11 months. In that time, Mr. D not only refused to give interviews to any male applicants to replace my post, but when a girl came in for a trial, she wasn’t called back because, in his words, “she is too ugly.”

These are all based on personal experiences, from a personal perspectiveIn no way am I saying that these situations are true of everyone, but they are true for me. And if you don’t believe that the issues I address are a systemic problem, I urge you to take a long look at yourself and wonder if maybe you’re part of problem as well.

Perhaps, in the grander scale of things, what I faced might be minor, but that does not make them any less valid. And I look forward, and continually work towards the day where none of us, irrespective of our race, religion or gender will ever have to say the words Me Too. Where we don’t have our experiences belittled and chalked up to “boys will be boys” or “that’s just how it is”. And if we stand in solidarity and maintain an open dialogue, maybe that day is truly on the horizon.

Editor’s Note: Also read “Change is not Courage in a Boy’s Club”