#Metoo: Sexual Harassment – It Happens Here Too

Hollywood actress Jane Fonda (second from right) with ROC-NY board members Desrie Dorival, Shanita Thomas and the writer of the article. (Photo credit: Matt Capowski)

By Darrel Sukhdeo
@darrel3000 @teachingPOTUS

Presently a national discussion is ongoing about sexual harassment. You’ve all seen the news. Many of you have said #metoo, while many others continue to stay quiet.

Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein has allegedly been a sexual predator for the last three decades. So many women (many #Hollywood actresses) have come forward with specific stories, that it has actually resulted in a compelling indictment on his behavior. The FBI is investigating, compiling evidence, and the board of Miramax Studios is meeting to throw him out. He has resigned, citing upcoming rehab.

Here in Little Guyana I’ve seen this sort of thing first hand. It also goes hand in hand with domestic violence, a plague in our community, resulting in many divorces. Organizations like Sakhi for South Asian women (sakhi.org), Caribbean American Domestic Violence Awareness (cadva.org), and women like the late Sukree Boodram and Dianne Madray from our community, have been on the forefront of combating sexual violence and harassment in our community for many years and have compelling stories of their own to tell. The Restaurant Opportunities Center United is working to help restaurant employees who face the most sexual harassment of any industry in the United States. And, in our local LGBTQI community, the Caribbean Equality Project (caribbeanequalityproject.org) has been on the forefront of providing a safe space for the local LGBTQI community to get help and counseling for both hate crimes and sexual violence. It’s also common in the restaurant industry nationwide and right here in Richmond HIll too.

This week I attended a talk by Jane Fonda and Saru Jayaraman at Roosevelt House of Hunter College. They addressed the issue of sexual harassment in the restaurant Industry. Jane said she wrote and produced the Movie 9 to 5 with Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin because a specific woman complained to her about sexual harassment in the workplace. And now she is volunteering with Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROCUNITED), to help end sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, particularly as it affects workers who depend on tips for their living. Seventy percent of restaurant workers are women and 40 percent are single mothers. They have to put up with groping, propositions and sexual language because they work for tips and often the sexual harassment comes from male managers and other co-workers. Next time you eat out, look around and notice how those eating out are treating the female wait staff. Jane Fonda said, “The national Restaurant Association, the other NRA, is doing nothing about sexual harassment, or wage theft, gender discrimination. Instead of protecting the employees with ironclad policies, companies like IHOP, Applebee’s and Olive Garden are part of the NRA and continue to let sexual harassment continue in their restaurants.”

Saru Jayaraman, the co-founder of ROCUNITED, which is a national organization representing the 12 million restaurant workers around the country, with 10 chapters nationwide, said, “This issue affects families, not just the women. In the US, the restaurant Industry is the second largest employer, but has the nation’s highest level of sexual harassment and wage theft! Restaurants are allowed by law to pay tipped workers as little as $2.13 per hour! After taxes many of those checks read zero. Restaurants workers rely on food stamps more than any other industry. The tips do not make up a living wage. This is a national tragedy.”

Later that night Fonda was the guest of Honor at a fundraising dinner party, where ROCUNITED raised over $43,000 to support their ongoing fight for restaurant workers. If you wish to make a donation, please visit the website, rocunited.org. Hollywood is certainly not the only place plagued with sexual harassment.

Sakhi for South Asian women was created about 30 years ago specifically to help Indian women (including Indo-Caribbean women) in a culturally sensitive manner. They help about 350 women annually, mostly married women who face domestic violence, but they do have a sexual assault division. They catalogue incidents of physical abuse, marital rape, incest and both physical and verbal sexual assault, providing counseling, medical assistance, job training and other education, temporary safe housing and local safe spaces where women can go when they have to run from their homes. Ms. Anusha Goossens, the Sexual Assault advocate at Sakhi, told me that in recent years, about 8-10% of their clients have been West Indian women.

One compelling Hollywood report I read about Harvey Weinstein was written by Lupita Nyong’o for the New York Times. She mentioned every single detail about his harassment over the course of several years during which he propositioned her many times. In one instance he invited her to dinner, sent a car for her, but during dinner he said, “Let’s cut to the chase. I have a private room upstairs where we can have the rest of our meal.” She said she was stunned and told him she preferred to eat in the restaurant. He told her to not be so naïve and that if she wanted to be an actress, then she had to be willing to do this sort of thing! He said he had dated famous actresses X and Y and look where that had gotten them. Most of her encounters with him during those years, while she was studying at Yale University and during the earliest part of her career, resulted in him propositioning her, and he was married all along, although on October 10th, 2017, his wife announced she was leaving him. So it seems that his punishment has only just begun, losing everything with the possibility of prison ahead would seem to many as just.

Here in Little Guyana, South Queens, New York City, over the years I’ve seen men cat-calling and being very insulting. On most occasions I would admonish them. However, for every incident I witnessed there were many more happening. These incidents were in the open, often near a rumshops; many more happen in private homes between spouses.
Alcoholism is a plague in our community and often results in sexual violence and domestic violence. Men need be smarter and do better. Unfortunately, many women don’t speak up. Some fear for economic reasons, some because of the kids, some for love. But in each case they are only continuing to hurt themselves, and the kids, by not speaking out.

For the women who speak out and seek help, they want a variety of results, many want divorce, some just want the abuse to end, and move on with a happy marriage, others want the abuser to be imprisoned. Some women contact the police, some contact Sakhi, or another organization or a relative. Many go to their priests However, i have found that Hindu pandits (and I presume all priests) are i’ll equipped to deal with this issue. The typical approach is a discourse, with both parties, where the abuser is admonished and then promises to stop, but in most instances this approach does not work, there is no long term counseling or attempt to go beyond the first and only discussion. Further, the Pandits and priests are not trained to deal with this complicated issue. They also are either fearful or simply egotistic about asking officials and experts for counseling help for their devotees. Unfortunately, this results in continued abuse and a disservice to the devotees. One organization is working the change things in Hindu temples, Sadhana: Coalition of progressive Hindus (Sashana.org), was founded about 5 years ago specifically to help bring Hindu temples into the modern age, and encourages Temples to add professional social services for the devotees who need it, either through partnering with a service provider, or seeking members who are full time professionals to help. This is one way all Houses of worship can help their communities, not just Hindu temples. If you see something, say something. Lets all be vigialnt and work together to ensure a healthy community.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m also a volunteer with ROCUNITED, SAKHI and SADHANA. I am a feminist and I agree and support the work being done by these organizations. I lobby for legislative changes for the restaurant industry that benefit the restaurant workers, both in Albany and Washington. I’m also a member of the ROC-New York board.


The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.