CONFESSIONS OF A UNICORN — A YEAR OF HELL (Parts 01, 02, 03 and 04)
01. This will be a continuing story where I will attempt to get at least one page down each day until this story gets told.
02. Mostly based on personal experiences, some jest, some by others, but very real problems at least one of you could relate to.
03. If you’ve already read Parts 01, 02 and 03, scroll down to Part 04.
The problem with being a Graduate in a field such as the likes of International Relations is that your scope of work is as wide, but also as limited as you believe. It’s a gold mine (for the large part), if you are an exceptional student — which I am not.
I enjoy learning new things, and have nothing but love for those who possess greater brain prowess than I. But when put in a hall of silence for three hours with a few hundred-frantic people around me, trying to condense years of knowledge in a manner befitting of convincing our colonial masters that we are smart and deserve a piece of paper making us ‘qualified experts’? Then I am most likely to fail. And I did. Which resulted in my 5-year plan going up in flames (An entirely different story which will most likely be addressed at a different point in time).
However, after much trial, error and tears, graduate I did with a 2.2. So how to make it in the world despite my (per many peers) barely-there educational qualifications? Land a job with the name and prestige, so that everyone who laughed at my apparent lack of brains, would be left to wonder how I did it.
And wonder they did. I can’t begin to count how many people asked me, “So whose dick did you have to suck?” or “Who did you have to sleep with to manage that?!”. This led to my being ashamed of having a job which I worked quite hard to get. It got to the point where I would hide it from people..
In the name of self-preservation, I have decided not to the name of this Organization, as it would leave me wide open (the way many imagined my legs were for me to get the job in the first place) to a lawsuit.
The post itself was magical at a glance, everything I could have imagined and more, and even stood up against my questioning nature. Regardless of the name of the position and the office, I wasn’t about to settle into some dingy role where I would be exploited (Been there. Done that).
And so, full of hope, I embarked on a yearlong journey to which I can only describe as Hell and regret.
These are not the ramblings of an entitled brat incapable of handling a little criticism or a hard day’s work. To the contrary, I know what I am capable of handling, and hard work, tough bosses and the like are well within my range of capabilities.
However, this was nothing like I could have ever imagined…
My first clue when I walked in should have been the lack of any other person identifying themselves as a female in my department. There were plenty of women in Organization in its entirety, but they were encountered whilst catching the lift, or if they needed to contact my immediate Supervisor — let’s call him Mr. D. Remember this guy — it’ll be important later. However, no matter I thought. I am after-all, a strong independent woman, and holding my own in a male-dominated department should be a breeze.
Most often than not, whenever someone meets me, they assume that my grasp of the language of the land is minimal if non-existent. And while I am the first to acknowledge that my communication skills in the language are not worthy of sonnets, I am still capable of doing a better-than-average job with it. But, Mr. D’s first question when he met me was, and I’m paraphrasing for clarities sake, “Do you understand Sinhala? Are you sure? Here — read this document”. One of the primary tasks assigned to me was translating posts into English. Therefore, the logic behind assuming I’m incapable of understanding Sinhala, after hiring me, escapes me.
However, I was willing to let that slide (the first of many things I would let slide) because I was there. I was present. I had beaten out several dozen applicants. And by the heavens, I swore that I would prove my worth to the organization and make myself indispensable. My professional priority has always been ensuring that I deliver quality work, and I assumed that if I did so, I would be accepted as a vital part in the Organizational culture.
How naïve that all seems looking back now..
Before getting into the inter-department drama I underwent, it’s important to understand the Organization I was going into and the mindsets that prevailed.
The Organization had a flexible dress code in my department and one other. The rest of the departments saw the ladies clad in sarees. However, and I checked and double checked, I wasn’t required to wrap myself up in 6 yards of stress. I wore shirts — never sleeveless — paired with knee-length skirts and trousers (like the other department I just mentioned). This seemed to attract a lot of attention from the saree-clad ladies, proving that women truly are your own worst critics. And this was never more evident than in that Organization.
Misogyny and gender roles have been internalized that women accept it as the norm and thereby enable harassment (in all its forms). Evidently wearing skirts and pants and acknowledging that I have limbs (gasp! the horror!) didn’t sit quite well, and blasphemy on me if I should expose my calves, while the midriff and belly-button were fair game. There was no logic to this madness. All these unabashed stares and pointed whispers shouldn’t have bothered me, but they did.
Going into this job, the gentleman who interviewed me (Not Mr. D), stated outright that he believed I had a task ahead of me in fitting into that Organizational culture. I was warned that my liberal beliefs on issues such as Gender equity and LGBTQ rights would seem alien to the rest. But again, I was ready to take up another challenge. What better way to address gender disparity and challenge societal mindsets firmly wedged in archaic notions, than to engage in a meaningful dialogue with people?
Small disclaimer before I proceed any further, and before the keyboard warriors who lurk at every corner of the digital space come at me, kindly understand that these are views based on personal experiences, from a personal perspective. In no way am I saying that these situations are true of everyone, but they are true for me and relevant to the story of my own personal Hades. But unlike Persephone, a six-month reprieve did not seem forthcoming. And if you don’t believe that the issues I address are a systemic problem, I urge you to take a long look at yourself and wonder if maybe you’re part of problem as well. And if your energies would not be better spent by being part of the solution.
Mr. D was probably in his mid-to-late 40’s — maybe even 50’s. I never asked as it had no direct impact on the work I was tasked with carrying out. After questioning my knowledge of the language, he proceeded to introduce me to the remainder of my male colleagues. They struggled quite a lot with my name — not uncommon as many people do — but they proceed to make fun of it. Rather than try to learn the proper pronunciation of my name the way Krum did Hermione’s, they decided to call me something entirely different with which they were comfortable, and which I was meant to respond to. I was renamed after a feline. Rest assured that I wasn’t consulted in this matter, nor were my protests acknowledged.
The work itself was dreary, dull and far from what was described to me. Meaningless work masked like the bright white elephants and golden palaces which dot the Sri Lankan landscape. Try as I would to make suggestions which would not only streamline the work process, but also make it more efficient and inclusive, these were listened to (if at all) and instantly dismissed. So, I kept to myself, did my utmost best on the work handed out to me, and even received praise from the higher-ups on my work.
** I did learn some cool skills though, such as video editing and the like. And for a person like I who is incompetent with any kind of technology, this was an important skill to add to my arsenal. And for that, I am thankful. **
However, these validations and reviews were so few and far between that I can count it on one hand. In any new role, it is vital to have your work evaluated and receive feedback in order to improve and do better. That fact didn’t seem to register at this Organization. I didn’t want to be a glorified typist for the rest of my life after all. But I can firmly say that after a year of working there, my brain turned into soup. Efficiency and personal-professional growth were non-existent, as were ownership and credit where it was due. Any queries and concerns raised were dismissed or outright ignored, and yet, I persisted, because I was determined to not let the system beat me.
But beat me it did, until I was a mere shell of a person at the end of it..
As I stated earlier, the work was mind-numbingly boring and not much to write home about. There were instances where I learned new stuff, which is always a good thing, but I was stagnant in my professional life, and try as I would, it wasn’t going anywhere.
My frustration and job satisfaction were closing in on zero. And whenever I would bring this up with those closest to me — such as family members — I was told to suck it up because “that’s how it is everywhere”, and to just keep my head down and “get on with it.”
Aside from the mindless and grossly misrepresented work which I was tasked with, there were far more pressing factors to contend with. And that’s what this story is about.
I can safely say that the percentage of Organizational work I performed in relation to the personal requests (I’ll elaborate shortly) made by Mr. D were 30% to 70%. Mr. D was a man who liked to flaunt his non-existent power around and scare people into submission. He would blatantly yell at people in Sinhala filth which would reduce a grown man to tears; something I viewed for myself on several occasions. He was hardly ever in the Department, and when he was, he was always on his phone, yelling at someone or the other. Other times, he played the classical music covered during your average bus ride. How do I know what kind of music he listened to? He played it via speaker. This resulted in my having to resort to actual migraine medication for my headaches, which I could usually curb with some Panadene.
Monotony and an unpleasant work environment — doesn’t do it for you? That’s where the personal requests of Mr. D come in. I’ll list them in points below.
· I was told he had a personal business, from which whenever money was transferred to his account, it was instantaneously cut. He therefore needed access to my Bank Account so that his ‘Business Partner’ could transfer money to my account, which he would then ask me to withdraw. This went on for several months with my making multiple trips to the ATM — the entire deal seemed shady af — until I finally grew a spine and told him that I closed my account with that Bank.
· He knew things — probably through all the (often terrifying) calls he made, and contributed his writings to newspapers and other online news outlets regularly. He would dictate whatever topic he wanted to cover for the week to one of my coworkers, who would have to write it, type it out and make whatever changes deemed necessary. Suddenly, with my arrival, it was decided that I would translate all these weekly articles into English. At first I assumed that this work was directly linked to the goals of the Organization. I later came to the realization that these articles were part of Mr. D’s own personal agenda to boost his personality.
People are quick to say that my generation of Millennials are the ‘Like’ generation. That we place too much stock in the attention our online personas generate. Mr. D based his success on how much gossip and likes his articles and posts could generate, and if he didn’t achieve some personal target of his, we would be blamed. Again, none of this work had anything to do with the actual work of the Organization. And a Millennial he was not.
· Sometimes he would appoint himself as a counselor. On no fewer than 03 such instances over the course of my year there, he called me into his office and handed me a number with the instructions, “Call this person, say you’re my Secretary calling from my Office (I’ll get back to that in a minute), and ask her to call me back.” Turns out, I was calling the wife of his friend, who was refusing to answer his calls on account of his meddling in situations which were none of his concern.
** While there is nothing wrong with being a Secretary, that’s not what I was. I was hired to be a Social Media Coordinator in the Department, and bolstering his ego and making his personal calls to make him seem more important than he was, wasn’t part of my task. This wasn’t helping a colleague — which I would more than willingly do. This was him taking advantage of my not retaliating and using it to his advantage.
· For this point, it is important to remember that he was the Head of the Department. And not to put down anyone’s knowledge or lack thereof (like I said before, my Sinhala is substandard), but as a Department Head, I would expect a certain level of competency and fluency in at minimum, 2 languages. Else, how is he supposed to verify my work? Answer: He didn’t.
Anyway, Mr. D travelled regularly to a region in the Australasian continent. And to do this he had to fill out a significant amount of forms and submit numerous letters to get funding from relevant parties funding his trip. On 2 occasions, he had me print out visa documentation, not just for him, but his family as well, and obtain the supporting documentation, and fill them out for him. On one occasion, along with one of the dude-bros of the department, he had me come into his office and fill out his forms for him. And he kept saying, “මොලේ පාව්ච්චි කරලා form එක fill කරන්න. හැබැයි sex කරලා තියෙනවා කියළා අහාළා නම් yes ගහන්න” (Translation: Use your brain and fill the form out. But if they’ve asked if I’ve had sex, definitely say yes) This was then followed by raucous laughter. And despite my obvious embarrassment, he went on to say, “මොකද කියන්නේ? ඇත්ත නේද?”. I couldn’t finish filling out that form and get out soon enough.
· Due to his threatening nature, he had — I assume — valuable contacts who could do favours for him. His friends and acquaintances obviously knew of this influence he had and constantly frequented the department looking for a favour — which he would promise them, depending on what his cut, or benefit, would be. After these people, would leave, I would be tasked on writing these letters requesting whatever favour. Again, and I cannot stress this enough, none of this had remotely anything to do with any part of the organization. None. Even while I was on leave, in another country, he would call me and yell at me to send some letter across for a ‘friend’.
· And back to Mr. D. He had me write out multiple letters for his own gain an advantage. He himself admitted, that although he used to send out letters in Sinhala, now that I was there, he could do it in English because it boosted his image and made him seem like a ‘big-shot’.
· In addition to this, Mr. D spent over 50% of his time at work on his phone. During these, I would hear him share crude jokes about women with people on the other line (“Don’t make a woman’s eyes wet. Only make her pussy wet”, etc.).
Most of the above would be enough to send most people running out of there faster than Harry could cast an Expelliarmus spell. But I persisted. I was determined not to be defeated. But what followed, made every single situation above pale by comparison.
On most occasions, I could deal with the less-than-pleasant working environment, monotony, lack of ambition and personal requests. After all, what woman hasn’t undergone some, if not all the above, and chalked it down to “That’s just how it is.”
But once things go beyond the norm of harassment that you’ve come to accept, then you sit up and take notice. That moment for me was a combination of a few incidents occurring in quick succession.
1. When Mr. D said “Here’s some money for you” and threw a coin at me from across the room which hit my nose causing my eyes to well up. To say that I was flabbergasted to the point where I couldn’t even react would be an understatement. Even more so when he just laughed at my expression and strutted out.
2. In Part 01 I mentioned how I would wear knee-length skirts and pants coupled with shirts. I stopped wearing skirts early into my posting when Mr. D said, “Your legs look very nice in that skirt.”
On yet another occasion Mr. D said (regarding a shirt I was wearing), “ඔයා මෙහෙම අන්දින්න හොඳ නෑ. හොඳට body එක පේන්න tight එකට අන්දින්න ඕනේ” (Translation: “You shouldn’t dress like this. You should wear tight clothes so that your body can be seen well.”) This was done whilst gesturing to my chest.
I mentioned these incidents to a mentor, and the response was, “Is he mad or something” followed by laughter. If this was the reaction displayed by a close mentor, then perhaps I was overreacting?
I tried to push the incident aside and soldier on, but secretly, I was formulating my escape from this hell.
I decided to take a month off from work and travel to another country and volunteer at a school. My thinking was to recalibrate my system, get my priorities and head straightened out and do something truly fulfilling with my life. And after spending a month doing just that, I was ready to come back. I knew that I could no longer work in this hell, and planned to leave after completing a year.
Shortly after my arrival, Mr. D came up behind me — not unlike Trump stalking Clinton around the stage at the second Presidential debate — and started playing with my hair, followed by, “මොකො මෙච්චර කැත වෙලා තියෙන්නේ? කලු වෙලා, මහත් වෙලා. අපරාදේ අපේ department එක ලස්සන කරන්න තියාගෙන හිටපු කෙල්ල” (Translation: Why have you got so ugly — dark and fat now. What a shame. We kept you around to make our department pretty). Then he took the box of tic-tac off my table and went on his merry way.
A few weeks after this, I was filling out yet another visa form for him when he came up behind me once more, this time squeezing my arms and asking me how I was.
To those saying I’m overreacting, that it’s like this everywhere, and that I should be more patient and stop being so sensitive and reacting to everything (all of which was said to me) I present you with this:
Article 12 (2) of the Sri Lankan Constitution:
Discriminating against a person based on his or her sex is a violation of such person’s fundamental right to equality.
Sexual harassment is criminally punishable under Section 345 of the Penal Code (Amendment) Act, No. 22 of 1995.
Sexual harassment constitutes “Harassment of a sexual nature using assault, criminal force, or words or actions which causes annoyance to the person being harassed.”
Unwelcome sexual advances by words or action used by a person in authority (eg. Police, armed service personnel, school officials, medical officials etc.).
Unwelcome sexual advances in the work place.
Sexual harassment in the Penal Code may cover misuse of internet and emails that are obscene or make allegations of a sexual nature in order to harass, intimidate or embarrass.
Encouraging or condoning sexual harassment is also a crime under the law.
Therefore, for anyone to claim that I wasn’t being sexually harassed and exploited in this Organization would be a steaming pile of bs.
As for the dude-bro’s in the Organization; they were complicit in all this. From passing their own lewd comments, to attempting to touch my arms or hair, to asking me if I was a homosexual when I started posting messages and images in support of the LGBT community in Sri Lanka.
Mr. D made my skin crawl, but I stuck to my guns. I wanted to engage in a dialogue with my colleagues. But try as I would to present both sides of the conversation to them, all they wanted to so was laugh at me and think of me as a lesbian. And you know what? I much rather be a lesbian than have to propagate the human race with the likes of individuals like them.
My escape plan was in place and would be enacted within three months. And although all the above occurred upon my return to the country, I couldn’t imagine that it would go beyond that point.
Oh by Apollo, how wrong I was..