Singapore’s leading gender rights advocacy group AWARE on Sunday (7 Feb) called on National University of Singapore Society (NUSS)’s Inconvenient Questions host Viswa Sadasivan to “categorically denounce these attacks on women who are coming forward to share their harassment experiences”.
AWARE made its statement following two stories that came to light of women who experienced workplace harassment by Mr Viswa, a former Nominated Member of Parliament.
Comedian Sharul Channa has come forth with her story on 6 February, sharing details of the incident which happened over zoom when Mr Viswa made an inappropriate comment about what she was wearing before they recorded an interview for the IQ show.
She did not address it at the moment but later called the show’s producer to make it clear how she felt and ask for an apology from Mr Viswa.
Following that, doctoral researcher Kiran Kandade shared a series of screenshots of an exchange between her and Mr Viswa over WhatsApp in 2016, during which he propositioned her for a kiss. When she politely declined and tried to steer the conversation back to work, he persisted.
In their Facebook post, AWARE noted that the recent stories of workplace sexual harassment highlights how “stressful and discomforting the more subtle forms for workplace harassment can be and how difficult it is to identify them for what they are”.
They went on to say that these cases raise important points about women’s experiences of workplace sexual harassment, highlighting that there are misconceptions about such incidents, including the idea that the victim or survivor should indicate their displeasure when the incident occurs for it to count as sexual harassment.
“This kind of thinking deters people from reporting their case at all, as they feel that their inadequate response at the time weakens their case,” said AWARE.
They went on to explain, “Often, the harassment happens quickly, and the recipient is taken aback, unsure about what they heard or so offended that they are at a loss for words.”
Citing a survey the organisation did with research firm Ipsos, AWARE noted that only 3 in 10 victims report their cases, and that many who choose not to report “just wanted to forget about it” or “believed they didn’t have enough evidence”.
AWARE commended Ms Sharul for speaking out to those involved about the incident and for sharing her experience on social media. The organisation stressed that in speaking out, “she was empowering and encouraging other women to do the same.”
The organisation went on to explore Ms Kiran’s situation, described as “unenviable”, as she wanted to work with Mr Viswa who is a “well-known and respected figure”.
“There was clearly an imbalance of power in their interaction,” AWARE pointed out, adding, “Viswa’s sexual advances put her in a position where she had to negotiate a way to reject his advances, without closing the professional door. To do so, Kiran chose a strategy of avoidance and deflection.”
AWARE went on to emphasise that rejecting an advance without triggering resentment or penalties is an emotional and cognitive burden which women carry constantly but should not have to, especially in the workplace.
“Sharul and Kiran’s experiences show clearly how stressful and discomforting the more subtle forms of workplace harassment can be and how difficult it is to identify them for what they are,” said AWARE.
The organisation went on to raise several “lessons” that these incidents raised, starting with: “Harassment is not evaluated by the subject’s conscious intentions, but by its impact on the victim.”
The organisation notes that depicting harassment as an error of judgement with no bearing on a person’s character “glosses over the misogyny at its roots”.
This led to the next lesson which is that there is no simple binary between “good, honourable people” and “bad, misogynist harassers”.
This is in relation to the commenters who have come to Mr Viswa’s defence, noting that he is a good person and a “gentleman”.
AWARE also noted Mr Viswa’s response to the issue, in which he highlighted his support for women’s rights and his work with AWARE.
The organisation said, “While he may have behaved honourably with other people, we note that these two seemingly contradictory things—a belief in gender equality, and harassing behaviour—can and do co-exist in many people,” adding that “beliefs and behaviours do not negate each other”.
The next lesson AWARE highlighted was the “hostile and menacing” victim-blaming directed at Ms Sharul and Kiran since they shared their stories, some from profiles that the organisation said “seem to have been created for the sole purpose of intimidating women”.
“This has to stop,” AWARE stressed, and invited Mr Viswa to “categorically denounce” the attacks on women who are coming forward to their share their experiences with harassment.
“For society to progress beyond a state where the sexual harassment of women is commonplace, we need to be able to call this out when it occurs, talk about it openly, and hold people accountable for their actions,” said AWARE.
Acknowledging the sensitivity of the issue and the difficulty in having a calm discussion about it online, AWARE noted its hope that lessons can be learned from these two cases so as to “work towards a better and more nuanced understanding of the issue”.
In the comments of AWARE’s Facebook post, Mr Viswa responded to say that he thinks what AWARE is asking for is “reasonable”.
He went on to say, “I do urge we desist from using extreme language in putting down views expressed by Ms Channa, Ms Kandade and others on this FB page”.
“In fact, I urge that we all use this opportunity to hear each other without the need to suspend civility.”
He ended by saying that this entire incident has been a “learning experience.”