I consider myself to be a relatively strong woman. Perhaps not physically strong, even though I totally just upped my weights at the gym. But mentally and emotionally, I do feel quite strong and secure. I hold myself with a good amount of confidence. I also feel that I could argue with almost anyone. I suppose that last one isn’t necessarily a good thing, but being passionate about world issues is really important to me and I rarely back down from a good debate. I believe in feminism and consider myself a feminist. I know that I can do anything I set my mind do, regardless of my sex. I am determined. However, no matter how strong my beliefs are or my thoughts on my strength, sometimes all it takes is one situation to have those ideals come crashing down and leave me a heaping mess on the floor.
Such a circumstance occurred just yesterday. I have seen this particular client at work before and we have had a few conversations. We mainly spoke of his home country and his expectations of Canada compared to the reality. After speaking with a co-worker I returned to my office only to see this client emerge out of the dark shadows of the computer lab. This area is directly across from my office. As soon as he came in and asked if he could close the door, I tensed up as I knew what was to come next. After a marriage proposal and an invitation to be a second wife, I can see these situations coming now and they always seem to start out the same way. Not to mention he emerged out of a dark room – never a good sign. Sure enough he began to divulge his feelings for me. He claimed he hadn’t slept in days because he had been thinking of me and how beautiful I was. He wanted to take me out for dinner. He followed this by, “do not say no, it is bad for your health.” I laughed at that statement, I suppose that’s one way of convincing someone to say yes. I declined his offer and explained that as a counsellor, I could not accept his invitation, not to mention that I had other interests, elsewhere. He looked somewhat agitated as he kept leaning back to be sure no one was coming to interrupt. He then said, “do not say no, that will make me angry and you don’t want to make me angry.” That’s when the red lights started flashing. I began to panic a little. I knew I had to get him out of my office. I put on my jacket and gathered my things, hoping he would catch on. I kept telling him that our professional relationship was the only relationship we would ever have. He followed to the reception area of my office where I snuck around a corner to tell a co-worker what had just happened. That’s when he was seen wandering the halls looking for me. I waited a good 20 minutes to be sure he had left the building and the vicinity as I would be walking home that night.
Upon walking home I felt as if everything was moving in slow motion. It was like every car seemed to slow down as they passed me and people stared more than usual. This was likely my brain playing tricks on me, but this was when my strength in myself took a huge hit. No matter how many self-defense classes, or how much conflict resolution training, gym visits, and cardio I did, I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t feel secure in my strength. I felt weak and vulnerable. It was in that moment that I realized I am a woman and that harassment can make you feel like you’re worthless as a woman. It takes that gender gap and it stretches it so wide that the opposite ends can’t even be seen anymore. It’s a feeling that only as a woman, you can understand.
I work with a really unique clientele. I am fortunate enough to experience cultures from all over the world within the confines of my office. Throughout my entire career I have worked with newcomers. With that comes a certain understanding of cultural differences, gender inequality being one of them. I have had men completely disregard me as if I’m invisible, question my education, question my marital status, physically hit me, and make advances on me all because of the drastic difference between their culture and Canadian culture with respect to gender roles. Most of the time, once these differences are explained and after a few weeks in Canada, the men come around and their behaviours completely change. It’s actually quite remarkable to watch men let go of their rigid ideals and start to accept and even celebrate equality between men and women. I have had male clients celebrate the idea of being a “real Canadian Dad” because he was able to stay at home with his children while his wife worked. I have to remind myself that many of these men don’t realize that their actions are unacceptable. Unlike Canadian born men, they are brought up in a society where this behaviour is the norm. So it’s important that I don’t punish them in the same way I would if a Canadian man were to make the same comments to me.
I try to always keep that in the back of my head during these really awkward and uncomfortable situations. But sometimes, it’s impossible. This was one of those times. When my co-worker spoke to this guy, he showed no signs of remorse, guilt, or regret for his actions. He said that I should have told him to left if I didn’t want him. But he didn’t necessarily give me that option, now did he? Do they ever? Do they think it’s easy to say no as they hover over you, looking directly into your eyes, telling you that because they like the way you look, you should be thrilled to go on a date with them? Or be attracted to them in return? No.
I feel strange now. I feel like a piece of my confidence has been stripped. I feel shitty about myself because a man looked at me, not as an equal human being, but as an object that should be flattered by his compliments. While I’m trying to convince myself that this can be attributed to a cultural difference, it doesn’t take away from how it made me feel as a woman in general.
I almost started to type that this situation isn’t as serious as others. But then I stopped. Yes, the situation could have escalated, yes there are many more terrible things that could have happened. But I think anytime your sense of “humanness” is taken away from you, it’s serious. Anytime someone makes you feel that you are less than them, it’s serious and it’s not okay.
I’m lucky to live in a country that affords me rights, as a woman, to protect myself. But that does not mean that these situations don’t happen every single day. It was interesting to see the reactions of the people who I shared this story with. Some made jokes about it, which made me feel sad that harassment is seen as a joke and something to laugh about. Others took it very seriously, which took me surprise and in turn also made me feel sad. I was sad that I didn’t take it that seriously. That I felt going to the police or pressing charges was “taking it too seriously”. This is the society we live in. This is the reality many women face. This is why these situations occur, because it’s either seen as a joke, we feel embarrassed for complaining, we downgrade the severity of the situation. Any and every case of harassment is serious. So why do I feel guilty about taking legal action? Because I fear the judgements and comments of others. I downplay the severity of the situation by comparing it to more serious situations. It was just International Women’s Day last Saturday, and I can see now that we still have a very long way to go.