Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi
I was having a conversation with a group of male and female middle-aged
professionals recently. One of the men in the group said that feminists like
me are always quick to jump to the defence of women, even when they are in
the wrong. He said that while he is against any kind of sexual harassment, he
is afraid to talk to his female colleagues in the office for fear of getting into
trouble. He is too scared to pay them a compliment when they wear
something nice.
As he was recounting his experiences, my mind went back to many years ago
when I was doing my National Youth Service at Nbawsi Girls High School,
Nbawsi in the old Imo State before it became Abia State. There was a male
teacher who used to go round the staff room flirting with the female teachers.
He would slap them playfully on the back and pull the straps of their bras.
They would all giggle at this and probably found it quite harmless. One day
as he was doing his rounds of the backs and the bras he came to me, and just
as his hand was about to touch my back, I swung around and tried to block
his hand but I ended up hitting him in the face. He was startled and he
jumped back. I said, ‘I didn’t mean to hit you, I just wanted to deter you from
touching me the way you touch the others. Don’t try it with me’. He said, ‘Oh,
I am only trying to be friendly’, and I said, ‘Well, that’s fine, but don’t ever
come near me again’.( And he never did. He also stopped pulling the bras of
the other women in the staff room. I did not know that I had become
something of a heroine as far as the others were concerned, because I learnt
later that they had been putting up with his behaviour not because they liked
it, but because they did not know how to stop him without sounding
unpleasant. So that is when I probably learnt that it is more important to be
respected than to be liked.
Listening to this gentleman talk about how he was afraid to offend women at
his workplace, I felt very pleased that women have at last earned some
respect in the workplace. Our daughters who work in offices still have to deal
with sexism but it is not likely that their male colleagues will attempt to pull
their bra straps. Considering the high levels of gender based violence in our
society right now, it is a small victory, but one all the same.

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