Work & Wellbeing

A Muslim woman’s experience of sexual harassment in adland

By Sufia Hussain Parkar | Inclusion, equity & diversity director EMEA

February 16, 2022 | 6 min read

During the pandemic, reported cases of sexual harassment in the ad industry reduced significantly, but research from TimeTo found that half (49%) of all people in advertising think it will flare up upon a mass return to offices. Sufia Hussain Parkar, inclusion, equity & diversity director EMEA at Wunderman Thompson and a TimeTo trustee, weighs in on her experience as a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf in adland.

When I saw the recent TimeTo film showing the statistic that 49% of people were worried about going back to the office because of the threat of sexual harassment, I couldn’t help but agree. Then, when I heard the harrowing real-life stories, it made me think back to one of my own experiences.

Because I wear a headscarf, many just assume that this sort of behavior doesn’t impact me – but it does. I have to deal with this on a regular basis. Or people assume that the clothing I wear, which covers my hair and body, would keep me safe, but it doesn’t.

Hijabi

Sufia Hussain Parkar says ‘there is no such thing as a tolerable level of sexual harassment’

There is no such thing as a tolerable level of sexual harassment. There are no ‘ifs and buts’ when we remember what the term means: ‘unwanted behavior of a sexual nature, which violates dignity and makes someone feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated.’

There can only ever be zero tolerance – especially in the workplace, where all actions open to interpretation should be avoided. This also includes ‘clumsy behavior.’ In a modern inclusive workplace, heightened emotional intelligence is a prerequisite.

I also think it’s important that we remind ourselves (and have solidarity for) everyone who experiences and has experienced sexual harassment – this can happen to anyone. But we shouldn’t feel like this should hold us back.

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Just to provide some context, women like myself who wear the hijab (which includes a headscarf but is not limited to it) do so as an act of worship and testament of our faith. Most of us in modern Britain know someone who wears a hijab, be they work colleagues, healthcare workers, teachers, neighbors or otherwise. We are part of the furniture – we are not ‘exotic.’

Yet I, and women like myself, have this term used upon us frequently. This is a simple example of a micro-aggression. When we consider what is ‘exotic’ we think of objects that are not native, such as birds or animals perhaps. To have it used in the workplace is an example of ‘othering’ and it dehumanizes.

Othering is essentially when a person is specifically excluded or not seen as an individual, and it works against everything we are doing within our businesses to help make people feel valued, seen and heard.

Yet this mindset manifests itself even more darkly. When people compliment me, with a rather intrusive eye on the clothing I wear, it again seeks to reduce and other me. It is one thing for work friends to comment on each other’s clothing, but in a professional context, complimenting someone on their appearance rather than on what they bring to the workplace reduces the role of women at work to decorative ornaments. This is unacceptable behavior.

Probably one of times I have felt most threatened was when a man, a foot taller than me, decided to compliment me on my appearance while we were in a lift together at work. He infringed upon my personal space and eventually ‘accidentally’ touched/rubbed my shoulder. These moments are meant to be open to ambiguity – we are meant to doubt ourselves – but to be frank, plausible deniability is pure nonsense. I know what he did, he knows what he did.

Instantly it made me feel unsafe. But it was the emotional turmoil afterward that really got me. It took me a while to process because I began to question myself. To question whether what I went through was actually real. He acted so normally I questioned whether I was being too sensitive. I asked myself why I didn’t listen to my gut feeling.

And then I felt annoyed at compromising my own safety. But this whole process took weeks.

But I now firmly believe that we should all recognize that in moments like this, we should trust ourselves and trust our gut instincts. Our bodies and minds have a million ways to tell when something is wrong, so we shouldn’t doubt ourselves and we should have enough courage that we can make the right choices.

I decided then that I needed to trust my gut, notify my manager (for others it could be NABS or HR) and remind myself that it’s never about me – it’s about them.

We are not to blame for sexual harassment. It’s time to come together and time to put an end to sexual harassment for everyone. It’s time to draw the line.

Sufia Hussain Parkar is inclusion, equity & diversity director EMEA at Wunderman Thompson and a TimeTo trustee.

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