On Sexual Harassment
It’s strange how a memory comes back to haunt you when you least expect it. Last month, I heard about the death of an independence activist and labor-rights advocate in Morocco, and, while everyone I knew was mourning his passing and praising his legacy, I could only think about my encounter with him in an office in Casablanca, years ago. At the time, I was working as a correspondent for a local newspaper and I had gone into the office to do some paperwork. I ran into a friend and we struck up a conversation; this famous man joined us, and eventually my friend left and I was left alone with him in the office.
He sat down on a chair by the open window. It was a bright day in July, and the air was already thick with heat and the smell of car exhaust from the street. He asked me whether the rumor he had heard was true, that I was leaving to go to grad school. “Yes,” I said, “I’m leaving next month.” Peering at me over the rim of his glasses, he said it would be a loss for the newspaper, that I should reconsider. He himself wrote for the newspaper frequently. “You can do your graduate thesis with me,” he said. I had completely forgotten he was a university professor; I knew him mostly through his writing and his activism. I said politely that I already had a project I wanted to work on with a professor I liked in California.
All of a sudden, he grabbed my wrist, and told me to sit on his lap. “No!” I said. “Come on, just for a minute. Sit on my lap.” “No,” I said and pulled my wrist out of his hand. I felt such a confusing mix of emotions: shock and fear, of course, but also horror that this man I admired so much could do such a thing. I was twenty-two; he was old enough to be my father. I walked out of the office and went home that day, but I don’t believe I ever told anyone, at work or at home, about this. Sexual harassment was so prevalent that complaining about it was like complaining about bad weather. Besides, even if I had spoken about this, I would have been the one blamed, not him.
I debated whether to write about this. The man is dead. What does it matter what I think of him? But this happened around the same time as the Herman Cain scandal, when the women who came forward were called “whores” and “sluts” by Cain’s supporters. And I realized that silence is what binds all these men together. Silence is what they count on, what allows them to continue.