By Mahdi Fakhouri
Cover picture taken from: https://www.eandblaw.com/employment-discrimination-blog/2016/08/29/effects-sexual-harassment-work/
!ما تجرّصينا! بدّك تساوي فضيحة بالعيلة؟ بكرا بتِبْلي خَيّك أو بَيّك
“It’s strange how a few short seconds can lead you in a whole new direction, it alters how you think and see your own reflection. From a single moment on, my life was forever changed, like everything I previously knew had suddenly been rearranged. But I feel so much stronger than I have ever before. I’m putting the night behind me so I can open a new door.” – anonymous
How dare you! Do you want to start a family scandal? Those were the phrases that silenced me when I wanted to tell the truth. My mother terrified me with her weak words and the fear of a sin that I did not commit, and of a crime of which I am the victim, the survivor. My mother’s concern – who was raised in a traditional Lebanese environment, was to “cover up the scandal,” and to “guard the family’s honor,” by preserving the virginity of her daughter before marriage. The “disgrace” was not limited to that only, but rather to the identity of the harasser: He is my sister’s husband, and the father of her children, in which I’m their aunt! My mother didn’t want me to speak up, fearing that my sister’s marriage would break, and fearing that our family’s “reputation” will be thrown into dirt. As for the trauma that I suffered, and the psychological damage that befell me, it did not concern anyone. “Reputation” was the only word rotating up my mother’s head, it was the only thing that mattered. I was nine years old when I was first molested. But that wasn’t the last time, rather it was repeated as I got older and the features of my body emerged and showed up. When I began to realize what had happened to me, I decided to raise my voice. But my fear of punishment and accountability made me choose suicide when I was fourteen. I am not dead of course, and here I am at the age of 26 narrating my story after years of discretion. I have decided to speak up and confront. So, here’s my story…
It is said that those who are closest to you are worthy of good. But, which “closest” should I tell you about? About that monster who entered our family seeking closeness to my older sister and succeeded in exploiting her heart, becoming a member of our family, and possessing the family’s confidence from its youngest to its eldest? He would sleep in our house and would visit us any time he wanted. He would take over my brother’s room, and he didn’t hesitate to annoy my youngest sisters whenever he got the chance to! He wasn’t only my brother-in-law, but he was also my manager at the company that he owned. It was a Friday night, when he had asked me to stay overtime so we can run on some paperwork together. He had told me earlier that those papers were of high importance because his company is taking a leap to sign a huge contract with a worldwide business investor. He called it “the million-dollar deal”. I was extremely excited to see my sister’s husband grow his business. Till now, I still cannot express the gratitude and pride I felt that minute when I saw my sister’s husband grow on a personal and professional level right in front of my eyes. I saw him grow from zero by signing contracts with other firms and reaching prominent business partners which made my heart smile, he really inspired me: I wanted to be him in the coming years, grow my own business as it were my child and dedicate my life for it. The clock ticks. At 8:06 PM, everyone’s shift is over, and it’s just him and I sitting in his office at a round table. I never felt so safe ever before, I trusted that the man sitting in front of me would guard me with his soul, rather this soul that I was talking about turned into a demon drenched with sexual desires. As we were going through the contracts, his hands started touching mine frequently. To my inner self I said, maybe it was a false sense of security that I got because I was around someone familiar that got my guards so low, and I tried to think of every possible explanation of why he would touch me in ways deemed ‘inappropriate’. At first, I thought it was some sort of a mistake, that he accidentally had his hands lingering around intimate parts of my body. But his intention became clearer when his touches became heavier and somewhat violent. As if he was silencing me “don’t you dare speak about this or you’ll regret it”. He then put his hand over my mouth and repeatedly said: “Shut the f**k up”. It started with him invading my space and ended up with him invading me. Throughout it all I had the hope that he will come to his senses and stop. I felt detached from reality, I felt weak. I had the urge to fight back, get him off me and get as far away as possible from him. When I tried to coordinate my muscles, it simply wouldn’t work. I gave up, I froze, and my body went numb. I let him carry on his monstrous attacks on me, I was a slave of lust. Even if I were to run and hide where would I go? He’s part of our “family”, no one would take my word over his, he’s the “dominant sex”. I even thought of it more, even if by any chance they believed me, they will blame me for it because that’s the norm in our society. At that point I felt devastated, worthless, hopeless. The self-hate and the self-blame were probably the worst part of it. This monster was able to change the way I perceive myself, and I still didn’t heal from that. I was trying to search for an excuse for this criminal, when I was unable to justify my silence of his crime. Sometimes I say that he is mentally ill so that I do not harbor hatred and hostility towards him. At other times I say that it is an animal that does not know what to do. At that time, I could not suppress my rage, for I poured calls on him for revenge, begging God to answer my calls. And a third time, I prayed that Earth would take my justice from him, because I can no longer wait for the justice of heaven. I was sitting in the shower for 4 hours trying to “get clean”, but the brutal images and feelings didn’t slide off easily. It took me years to forgive myself and tell myself that I did not let that happen. At a point in my life the grief got so intense, and the sound of me choking kept playing in my head like a repeated tape. I realized that sexual assault takes years, if not a lifetime to heal from. I remember my mother let me down. My sister did not confront her husband. All she did is that she gave birth to a second child with him, fantasizing that their relationship had strengthened by growing their family. But I wonder: Did she find out who killed her little sister’s innocence? A girl may cope with the wound of groping, but the wound that does not heal no matter how much time passes is the wound of betrayal that afflicts her from relatives who left her struggling alone with pain. This incident did not prevent me from building the family of my dreams nor the company that I always dreamt of owning. Today I am the mother of a child. I will teach him that his body is his property, and that any girl’s body is inviolable. I will teach him that some of our social traditions are outdated and false and that confrontation always relieves the pain. It is true that my relationships with people decreased, my confidence in those around me declined, and I lost safety in a society that rules the oppressed and does justice to the oppressor. But I found a man who was able to understand my pain and ease the crashes that plague me when I mention that the criminal is still living in our home. Today I’m the CEO of one of the greatest companies in Lebanon, and if there’s one thing that I valuably care about within my company is the presence of HR policies that ensures the safety and wellbeing of all my employees within an inclusive system.
They say that the love of a family is unquestionable and sacred, but conversely, sexual harassment and rape can also be situated within the family itself. Statistics have showed that 54% of women have faced sexual harassment within the workplace, and 35% of these were forced sexual abuse by relatives within the workforce (Chatterjee, 2018). I personally believe that this is not just a felony of violence; it is one of the most wide spreading and ubiquitous human right breach, as well as one of the most “least reported incidents” and one of the key challenging cases that an HR manager would face within the business framework. I personally believe that this is not just a felony of violence; it is one of the most wide spreading and ubiquitous human right breach, as well as one of the most “least reported incidents” and one of the key challenging cases that an HR manager would face within the business framework. This framework has really motivated me to centralize my vignette around a very specific type of sexual abuse, one that occurs between relatives within the workplace. I have chosen to explore this topic because it is of great significance to the females surviving the daily challenges faced within a working environment.
Furthermore, I reckon and affirm that gender plays a huge role in a person’s security, and sexual assault carried against women is disproportionately higher than the one carried on men. One study within the MENA region has showed that 39% of surveyed women (against 22% of men) reported that they have been exposed to sexual abuse (Bouhlila, 2019). This was another motivation that pushed me to explore sexual abuse faced by women in their day-to-day life and to also shed a light on the power dynamic that relates the victim to the harasser. In such delicate cases, things can either be left untreated (which is the case in my vignette), or it can be ongoing or underreported, which again, raises a lot of questions on how an HR manager should approach such a critical issue from an HR/managerial perspective.
To reflect back on my vignette, the first thing that I would be looking at as an HR manager is confidentiality. I must guarantee that my institute takes all reported concerns or complaints seriously, regardless of when they are alleged to have occurred, and respond to them using survivor-centered approach which respects and promotes the dignity of the survivors, as well as provide adequate support to all those affected. By doing so, I would opt to protect the privacy of all those involved in a response to a complaint or incident, thus ensure that only the relevant staff share identifying information with those who need to know. I must assure that all the data shared by the survivors will be handled in accordance with a data protection policy raised by the office of human resources at the company. I believe this step is a good initiative to motivate victims from coming forward and speak about any incident or type of sexual abuse that they may have faced within the workplace. Moreover, it’s important here to highlight that even if the perpetrator was held accountable, that doesn’t necessary mean that the survivor had overcame their trauma, just like the survivor within my vignette: “I realized that sexual assault takes years, if not a lifetime to heal from”. Besides that, “a feeling of self-blame, especially among women with traditional gender-role beliefs, is also found to be common where emotions of guilt, frustration, depression and anxiety can decrease concentration with the work frame and thus puts the victim in front of two decisions, either keeping their job or looking after their own safety” (Jayashree, 1999). This will lead to victims leaving their jobs and thus a decrease in the overall competency of the company. As a solution to that, I believe that HR managers must include psychosocial support (such as offering therapy) within the policies to ensure the referral of the survivor to the relevant field of psychology.
In addition to that, as an HR manager I would ensure that my company is committed to a non- discrimination policy that compels all my employees to act in a manner that actively seeks to prevent sexual misconduct, because I believe that such legislations would aid for a safer and easygoing working environment where employees have a sense of belonging. Furthermore, as an HR manager, I would guarantee that all my senior directors and their employees within my institute have the responsibility to promote and maintain an environment that prevents sexual misconduct from occurring, as well as ensuring that all the staff members within the workforce have access to safe reporting mechanisms and also receive the relevant induction and training required to carry out their work safely (Hersch, 2015). Moreover, I would assure a common framework to promote safety, respect and dignity for all staff, partners and the communities with whom I work with, because I believe that all people have the right to live free from sexual abuse and sexual harassment (Hejase, 2015). I reckon that staff members within my institute must be given an appropriate orientation on the issue of sexual harassment within the workplace whether through e-learning or in person or some other form of awareness raising, which should be provided to the staff annually through refresher courses under the guidance or supervision of the outreach and human resources office. To further elaborate on the point of training, a study conducted by Joni Hersch on sexual harassment in the workplace states that anti-harassment “policies and procedures are effective in creating an organizational climate in which sexual harassment is not tolerated, hence, this increases the probability that workers, especially men, will identify unwanted sexual behaviors such as touching as sexual harassment” (Hersch, 2015). For instance, it has been proven by a research that was granted the Shannon Award, that employees who completed a training about sexual harassment “were more likely to correctly define sexual abuse, understand its legal ramifications, evaluate it as more of a problem at work than previously thought and report less victim blaming attitudes” (Burke & Cooper, 2016). This has subsequently led to a decrease in the frequency of sexual harassment within the studied organization.
Last but not least, as an HR manager, I will ensure that complaints and incidents reporting mechanisms and follow up procedures are safe and considers the potential dangers and risks to all parties concerned. This includes addressing and mitigating against the possibility of retaliation against survivors, witnesses, staff working on these processes or subjects of complaints. When all of this procedure is done, I would report on these issues in a transparent way to the relevant party. In addition to that, besides the ZERO TOLERENCE policy that I would implement, I would ensure the safety recruitment of employees addressed at all stages of the recruitment process including applications and interviews, which will thus run a history check on the potential recruited employee to ensure that he/she has not committed any form of sexual harassment within his/her life.
HR managers must work on developing an atmosphere of dignity and confidence within the workplace, and administrators should aim to avoid sexual abuse by responding quickly to any report filed by any employee regardless of their gender. After that, an investigation must be quickly launched, and the HR manager must get in contact with the harasser to set up a meeting and discuss the issue to be resolved (serious action must be taken such as deducting money from harasser’s salary or even permanently terminate him/her). It is also crucial for HR managers to ensure the proper training of all employees and staff members within a business institute in order to avoid any type of sexual harassment, as well as encourage victims (survivors) to speak up and give guidelines on how to deal with such incidents personally and psychologically.
To wrap up, I believe that those solutions and legislations presented above are great examples that an HR manager can apply when facing the issue of sexual harassment within the workplace. But regrettably though, I personally believe that when male identity stems from war, work and sexual desires, and when they are groomed to resort to violence, sex becomes a justifiable charming characteristic for men tinged with power and aggression. So, the only way to face this reality is to work with governments on implementing laws and legislations that govern severe penalty to any form of sexual harassment that can occur within the workplace.
She’s a survivor not a victim, she is active not passive.
P.S: This Vignette is written based on a true story.
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