Sexual Harrassment of Female Aid Workers
July 11, 2007

 
Before I went into a developing country for the first time, back in 2002 or so, I got lots of warnings about how *not* to relate to locals, and all sorts of stories about how behavior and dress that's normal for a woman in the West could be misinterpreted in a developing country as that woman welcoming sexual advances. But despite all those warnings, I've rarely had a problem with local men in the developing world, even in Afghanistan. Men in Mexico, Egypt, Jordan and India were quite polite. In my experience, Afghan men have been more disrespectful than harassing, at least to Western women.

What I never got warned about -- and I should have -- was international co-workers of *any* nationality, many of them married (wives not at the duty station, however) deciding that sharing an office, sharing a ride to and from work, being in meetings together, working on a report together, etc., somehow means that the woman is interested in a romantic/sexual relationship, and she can therefore be targeted again and again with comments, leers and loaded (if not overt) invitations for something outside the office. From talking to other women aid workers, it seems to be a pervasive problem. From talking to younger women aid workers, it seems to be a problem that makes their lives hellish in the field.

So far, here in Afghanistan, the times I've encountered this have not been threatening, just really annoying. But these attitudes, as well as stories from other women aid workers, has made me curb my usual exuberance in the work place and alter my outgoing personality in a lot of ways. I'm so different in the workplace than I was my first four weeks here, because of these non-Afghan guys. And that really makes me mad -- I can't simply be me, but all the men around me can be themselves, no problem. I'm so stunned not only at how much this happens, but that being 41, married and very overweight provides no buffer at all. It doesn't matter if you are married, have a huge family back home somewhere, whatever: you are female, you left your family to work in the field alone, you must be a big 'ho.

I'm not talking about a single guy who doesn't realize I'm married and asks me out. That happened. I said no. He got over it. And from then on, he treated me with the utmost respect and never did anything that made me feel uncomfortable. Because he was a *gentleman* not a CREEP.

Maybe I need to say what sexual harassment looks like...

There's what I would call "obvious", which usually gets taken very seriously if reported and which I haven't yet experienced, thank goodness:

But then there are the gray areas that may not sound so bad written down, and get dismissed as you over-reacting when you report them. And, yes, most of these have happened to me here in Afghanistan: The creeps come in a variety of nationalities. And many of them claim to be devoutly religious, and like to make a fuss over their food or time off to practice their religion. It's almost like, "See, I'm not a bad person - look how religious I am!" Said with a leer.

Go to a supervisor, HR or a fellow-employee about creepy guy and these gray areas? First off, in the developing world, all those people are going to be men, and it's very hard for most women, including me, to talk with men about this subject. Secondly, for the gray areas, you will often get comments from the aforementioned like, "oh, that's just him. He doesn't mean anything by that. He's just really friendly." (already got that one from a male co-worker I thought could help). Or, "Just avoid him as best you can." Worse, you can get branded as "overly-sensitive" or a trouble-maker, and YOU can end up ostracized by co-workers, passed-over for opportunities and advancement, and with a reputation that makes other men not want to talk to you, let alone hire you. I'm NOT saying that a woman shouldn't report that "gray area" behavior; I am saying that it's not easy, given the reactions that can result, and that most women fear their careers being derailed to report such.

You can also get branded as a hypocrite. There are certain creepy men I work with I would NEVER even have lunch with. There are other men that I had a standing Friday breakfast date with when I lived at my old place. The creeps and their sympathizers can say, "Oh, see, she's a hypocrite. She was picking on poor so-and-so, but just look at her with those other men."

If you try to report the gray area behavior, it's oh-so-easy for creeps to deny they meant anything "bad" by engaging in any of those gray areas, and to then turn the blame entirely on you.

Once a guy here has an image of you as a possible score, sexually speaking, it's impossible to get rid of them without being completely cold and rude (getting up and leaving the room when he comes in, giving obviously clipped responses to questions, etc.) or resorting to a direct, clear-cut, cold confrontation... which, however calmly put, is seen as a profound insult to the guy. Either way, you get branded as a b*tch, and he'll start degrading your work to your co-workers.

Damned if you say something, damned if you don't.

Western aid workers are told again and again that we're the "bad" guys, that our values shouldn't be the world's values, that we need to be culturally sensitive, be respectful, remember that people think differently than you, don't try to correct their behavior and on and on... and it conditions you to think twice before expressing yourself about something you are experiencing, and even to tolerate things you would NEVER tolerate somewhere else. Which is probably why I've been a wimp and chosen the first route in response to the creepy co-workers: I now no longer speak to creeps in anything but a cold, professional manner, I don't go to their offices under any circumstances, I get up and leave if they come in to a room and I don't absolutely have to be there, and if they are coming to lunch with the usual group, I find a reason to stay behind and have lunch at my desk. I am so much colder now than when I came here. I don't smile as much at work, I don't linger in the hall to chat with non-Afghani men I work with, and I get up and walk out of the room if one of the creeps comes in and I absolutely don't have to be there. Even at my guest house, I'm cautious about the kinds of conversations I have with male international staff, and double-check everything I say before I say it. I do my best now to socialize with at least one or two other women present. I should have chosen the direct confrontation route... and I would have, had I ever felt threatened or had any of the obvious stuff happened, like an overt sexual comment. And I'm not saying there isn't a very direct, LOUD confrontation coming before I leave...

Men aid workers, I have a plea to you: First off, STOP LEERING in the workplace! Don't look at a woman at the office in a way that you wouldn't want someone looking at your wife, sister or mother.

Secondly, remember that women in the field are in incredibly vulnerable positions. We'd like to be able to smile and laugh at work and have lunch with you regularly without it being seen as flirting. Yes, people hook-up in the field -- but not *every* woman is looking for that. Most of us came here to WORK. Never assume a woman is looking to be your field mate because she's smiled at you or doesn't wear a head scarf or is a different religion than you. And just as importantly, if you hear one of your male co-workers talking about how hot one of your female co-workers is and how he's trying to put the moves on her, please stop him: tell him it's inappropriate to talk about *co-workers* that way. Ask him how he would feel if you talked about his mother, sister or daughter in that way, and tell him that, at work, his female co-workers should be just as respected. Take a stand. Remember that silence means approval.

If you want to hook up in the field, don't be a creep about it. Believe me, if a woman is interested in you, she'll let you know by something *much* more obvious than a smile or creating a web page for your project. If you want to make a gentlemanly invitation, fine, but if she declines, DROP IT for Pete's sake and get back to work. Geesh.

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