Recently, actress Alyssa Milano kicked off a flurry of #MeToo hashtags all over Twitter in a bid to demonstrate just how common sexual harassment and assault against women really is. And what has come as no surprise to women everywhere, is that the vast majority of women have been sexually harassed and/or assaulted.
I’ve experienced plenty of street harassment — mostly when I lived abroad, but the first time I was catcalled and wolf-whistled at was as an 11-year-old walking around our very own Pasar Gadong.
London was where most of my interactions with sleazy strangers happened: from being followed (more than one occasion), to having a guy come up to me and sniff me (thankfully, only one occasion), to getting slapped on the butt (more than one occasion), to seeing a man masturbating while he sat across me on public transport (unbelievably, also more than one occasion).
Once, I was at a club — a tiny club off Regent Street whose name I can’t recall because it was so long ago — and as I left the bathroom to make my way back to my friends, I was pulled over by about 10 different men. I emphasise the club was tiny, so that you can imagine just how intrusive it was to be stopped 10 times: it was like a round of Pass the Parcel, except the parcel was a woman desperately trying to get away.
One guy would stop me, and I’d politely wriggle my way out, only for another guy to pull me over, and this happened again and again.
Each time, I politely declined but they’d hold on to my wrist, my arm, my shoulder, my waist, trying to convince me to stay.
“Why don’t you sit down with me?”
“Come and have a drink with me!”
“How about you come home with me?”
Each time, I politely refused.
“I’m here with my girlfriends.”
“I’m really just here for the music.”
“I’m here to dance with my friends.”
Each time, I had to politely convince them to let go of me. I’m over-emphasising my politeness because as women, this is what you learn to do, to de-escalate, lest the man becomes aggressive.
By the time I finally got back to my friends, I was too exhausted to dance, so I plonked myself down on a sofa. Seconds later, a man approached me.
But I was over it. I raised my hand so that he may “talk to it” — the universal signal for when you don’t want to hear what the other person has to say. And the man proceeded to lash out and berate me for being rude. Well, pardon me, sir, I’m not rude — I’m just tired.
You might think incidents like these don’t happen here in Brunei, but harassment exists in many forms. Over here, workplace harassment is where it’s at.
Male bosses making inappropriate sexual comments are a dime a dozen – so common that it’s practically run-of-the-mill.
“My boss talked openly about a female colleague’s well-endowed assets.”
“Oh really? My boss encourages all his female staff to wear high heels because he ‘has a thing for heels’.”
I’ve had a boss who thought that just because we got along so well and spent so much time together, it meant we were dating; he’d even confessed his confusion over “who to go for”, me or the woman who would later become his wife. I, completely oblivious that I was in the running for something I did not even want, told him I did not see him in that way. He then told me I was blind.
I’ve had a senior colleague look me up and down while he licked his lips. I’ve had a CEO come into my office like a giggling schoolboy to tell me “ada kawannya ‘terpakai’ ” and that he “kirim salam”. Once, I was in the car with a boss – he was driving, I was in the passenger seat; he said he was hungry, then he started making munching sounds as he turned to me and looked at my chest.
One of my worst experiences of harassment was with a doctor at a clinic. I had gone to see him when I had the flu, but he was very insistent on asking me intimate, personal information, which I thought was strange and irrelevant, because hello, it’s just the flu.
After that, he called me a lot, always during odd, non-office hours. He kept telling me I had to come back in to see him, and when I asked why, he said he’d only tell me when I go to see him. I was young at the time and scared. I felt violated. I had shared intimate details about myself to him because he was a doctor, and in a position of authority. But instead, he harassed me. He kept calling, even though I stopped answering his calls.
Eventually, I had to get a male colleague to answer the phone to scare him off, which finally did the trick, because duh… of course it’s not enough for a guy to back off when a woman says no. We’re free game to be harassed until we belong to a man (this is sarcasm, in case anyone misses it – I can’t run that risk).
These are just my stories, and it’s not even all of it. I have countless more tales of harassment and assault that have happened to the women in my life. I don’t know how to drill home the point any further. #MeToo is not just a hashtag or a catchphrase. It is real, and it is ugly. But on a positive note, hopefully #MeToo will encourage more women to share their stories.