A lecturer at my college, who taught me last term, approached me as I entered the premises.
"Long time, Varaidzo!" he exclaimed.
We shook hands, asked after each other’s health and quickly went through all the customary pleasantries. He held onto my hand.
I responded to all his questions, all the while wondering how a quick “Hi, How are you Sir?” could have turned into this idle chit-chat. I had no choice but to carry on, my right hand now at the mercy of his tightening grip.
"You don't look quite yourself today", he observed, as my hand started to feel clammy from the unnecessarily prolonged contact.
And even though he was right about me not quite being my usual self, and seemed genuinely concerned for my well-being, I could focus on nothing else but my growing discomfort.
"What's wrong, Varaidzo? What's going on?"
Oh nothing. I’m just wondering why you are still holding my hand, I thought in distress, not daring to give voice to this statement. I instead gave some generic response with regard to stress, and this launched him into a series of questions and suggestions, which he seemed quite satisfied with. It felt as though my brain had now temporarily shut down all unnecessary functions in an effort to focus on the mission at hand; to reclaim my hand from this perpetual greeting-cum-oppressive-grip.
"What are you doing to deal with the stress?"
He was now rhythmically squeezing my hand, and I was instantly enraged. The sudden rush of blood to my head heated up my face, and my throbbing heartbeat was all I could hear. I knew then what it means to see red!
"You know Varaidzo; you need to blah, blah, blah..."
His voice was now a distant hum.
Photograph courtesy www.ekantipur.com
And you need to release me! I screamed internally, all the while managing to remain outwardly composed. I began, gently but quite firmly, to pull my hand free, no longer caring what effect this might have on our student-teacher relationship.
But he tightened his grip.
At that point, my hand could not have been more constricted by his grip. I tried to tug my hand free. But then his other hand encircled my wrist.
"I'll try to tug my hand free one last time and if that doesn't work, I'll simpIy ask him to let go of my *@$#ing hand!" I mumbled to myseIf.
But that’s when he suddenly remembered that he had to go somewhere, and released my hand.
I'm free! was all I could think.
Amazingly, all of this happened in the space of less than two minutes; but even a second of unwanted, uncomfortable physical contact can seem like a lifetime.
And thus my question at the end of all this is this;
Does sexual harassment include incidents like the never-ending handshake?
The following is my understanding of a few of the issues that may help you to answer this question.
What is sexual harassment anyway?
Sexual harassment can be any one of the following; being groped, having someone openly and repeatedly make unwanted sexual advances or ask for sexual favours in exchange for privileges that should rightfully be earned through merit. Also, where someone forces themselves onto you sexually, this is sexual harassment.
There, however, is still so much grey area around the matter in Zimbabwean society; subtle, seemingly harmless, ambiguous encounters that leave many women confused about whether or not to feel violated or to just “lighten up!”. And some of these incidents may be psychological or verbal, without any physical articulation.
So many men, and indeed women, are of the opinion that if you are not touched or if a person does not physically invade your intimate space, then you have to a) just be grateful it didn’t turn out worse; b) be accommodating because, after all’s said and done, vanhu vanosiyana (people are different). To exemplify I’ll tell you of one such incident:
A man selling airtime near Copacabana, in the Harare CBD walked up to me and said,
“Ende Sista, makabatana!” (My sister, you are well put together).
Now, if he had left his comments at that, I would have bounced around town the rest of the day, glowing from the compliment. However, he went on to vividly describe his favourite parts of my body and what he would do with me given the chance. He never once made an attempt at physical contact and maintained the distance between us; but by the end of this encounter, it felt as thoughthe had had his way with me. He had violated me!
So at what point can one say that she has been sexually harassed? And at what point can the matter be taken up seriously via the law?
Is that all?!! It could have been worse.
Someone may even ask what is wrong with what just happened in my encounter with my lecturer. I’m sure his intentions were pure and it’s not like he groped me, made sexual advances or anything of that nature, right? The thought never crossed his mind, right?! In addition to that, many women studying at tertiary institutions throughout the country put up with much worse and survive, so what’s my complaint? It could have been worse…
Well, it is this very issue of creating separations between ‘minor’ and ‘major’ incidents that I’m struggling with. Many a times, victims of these apparently small invasions of personal space and boundaries choose to ignore them or simply sweep them under the carpet because they are not as major or intrusive a violation of self as being groped or raped.
It’s all harassment!
I therefore put it to you that EVERY time something blatantly or ambiguously sexual is done to you that makes you even the slightest bit uncomfortable, you are being harassed! What you do about this, and how much of it you put up with, is now a matter of your tolerance levels.
This article was written by Varaidzo Tagwireyi, a proud mum of two boys and keen blogger and journalism student.