At the age of 22, I worked in a place where half the employees, every half an hour or so, would gather at one desk or other and together watch porn on their PCs to a background of lewd comments and loud guffaws.
It was the kind of workplace where a woman passing by someone’s desk was accompanied by a sneery “X’ngħamillha kieku!”
It was the kind of workplace where young women in the sales department were specifically told to wear micro skirts and show their cleavage and were packed off to target mechanics.
“Wait until they’re under a car and then go in to explain the advertising rates… so they get a good peek,” they were instructed.
It was the kind of workplace my immediate boss spoke in double entendre all the time, where ‘good morning’ was followed by ‘ġisem’ and where sexual innuendos were bandied about like a tennis game.
Did I ever answer back? Did I every turn round and say: “Hoy! This is not on. Stop!” I did not. It was my first job. I was aghast, but it being a male-dominated environment and, not knowing any better, I thought this was the normal price to pay when the office is a ‘boys’ club’.
Instead, I looked down, I dodged the worst of the men, ignored the behaviour of the rest and got on with my job.
Last Sunday, 64-year-old veteran actor, John Suda was arraigned in court, charged with the violent, indecent assault of a 22-year-old actress.
“U ajma,” many people have been saying. “At 22 you’re not a child. You are mature, and you can fend for yourself and able to fend off certain situations.”
Well. On paper they are right. But in practice? Please jog back your memory to when you were 22. Back then I barely complained if someone smoked in my face, let alone if a person whom I looked up to in my field would have come up to me and told me I needed one-to-one individual attention.
It was not because I was scared, but because there was an inner voice, that niggling doubt, that ħeq, surely if it was wrong other people would be saying something too?
I don’t like writing this – it is embarrassing to admit to having been so weak. And yet that’s the situation into which probably every woman in Malta has been forced at one time or another, whether at the workplace or in the street, or in an acting room in Fgura.
“But surely if you have good values, you would avoid certain situations,” other people have been saying since Sunday. This is not about values. Sometimes there is no time, ability or clarity of mind to say anything, let alone ‘Stop’. You are just not assertive quickly enough because you are shocked by what is happening.
Even if a woman is the cockiest sex kitten on earth, it does not give anyone the licence to harass her
And the final argument: “I know someone who knows someone who knows her and they said this 22-year old is really full of herself. Veru kiesħa.”
This is the she-led-him-on, the she-provoked-him age-old argument. It makes me angry because there is no logic to it. Even if a woman is the cockiest sex kitten on earth, it does not give anyone the licence to harass her, most especially in a relationship where there is power imbalance, such as that of a teacher-student or a boss-employee. The person with the highest power concentration has a humungous responsibility towards the other.
What is perhaps different between now and when I was 22 a decade-and-a-half ago is that, today, at least it does cross people’s mind to report and raise the alarm when boundaries are overstepped.
It is still embarrassing. It is still demeaning. And shameful. Because at the end of the day it means still talking to total strangers about something which broke you down. Most of us are fairly reluctant to do that in public, especially to a public who thinks that there’s nothing wrong with calling someone “Aw ġisem”.
The pressure is to be quiet about the incident. The unwritten rule is that if we speak out, it will cause more trouble than good for us (you’ll be fired/you’ll be labelled a nerd/your boyfriend will dump you and so on).
So most of the time we are shaken up, but we tell no one. Over the years, we become tougher and tougher, we learn how to quickly extinguish any hint of harassment and we put past experience in a folder called Just Forget About It And Move On.
What would I do if I chanced again upon a workplace like the one I had when I was 22 years old? I would resign by the end of day one. But then again, something like that cannot happen to me today.
I am not the vulnerable target that I was at 22. No one would dare step out of line with me. But why does it have to take years to get to this point?
What I am saying here is easily summed up in a brilliant post by Pia Zammit on the Facebook group Women for Women.
She says: “I didn’t speak up when I was 10, I didn’t speak up when I was 20. Our silence tells them that it’s okay. But I am speaking up now. This isn’t something we should accept. This isn’t something we should allow others to tell us not to make a fuss about. Let’s speak up, let’s give each other the courage to do so.”
Please, let us do so.