One of the actresses to join the list of women harassed by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein is actress Lupita Nyong’o.
In a piece that she penned for the New York Times, she revealed that when she was first introduced to ‘the most powerful producer in the world’, a female producer advised her to keep Harvey in her corner because he was a good man to know in the business.
However, that tip was followed by a warning: “Just be careful around him. He can be a bully".
And with that conversation, Lupita became a part of Hollywood’s women’s whisper network.
Research reveals that whisper networks emerged among professional women as a way to band together and find ways to deal with workplace difficulties, ranging from lower salaries (compared to men) to balancing work and home life and of course, dealing with issues related to sexism and sexual harassment.
By warning each other on who to be wary of, these networks have proven to protect women from the Weinsteins of the world.
However, others argue that their secretive nature not only perpetuates the problem but also lays the burden of correction on the victim.
WORD ON THE STREET IS THAT…
Diana*, a 28-year-old communications officer, was recently tasked with interviewing one of Kenya’s top businessmen famed for his ability to turn all his investments into billion-shilling enterprises.
But when she walked into his swanky office for that interview, she made sure to also remember what she had heard about him in Nairobi’s whisper networks: Word on the street was that he had a reputation for preying on young women.
“You always hear these loud whispers,” she says, “but you are never sure how true the allegations are since nobody ever comes out publicly and says ‘he did this to me’.”
Nevertheless, all the talk she had heard about him over after-hours cocktails meant that she stepped into their interview with her guard up.
“Even if what I had heard about him was more of industry gossip, the adage that where there’s smoke there is fire comes to mind. I went in thinking, if he makes an inappropriate proposition, I am simply going to be diplomatic and say we can talk about it after the interview, after which I will receive a fake phone call and bolt from his office.” Luckily for her, she says, he stayed in his business lane, leaving her with no tangible proof of his alter reputation.
Unlike Diana, Priscilla* has had her share of real life experience in the clutches of rampant harassment. But in her workplace, the warnings are not whispered; they are spelt out as a form of work place orientation. Priscilla, 30, is a medical practitioner in a public hospital, and she and her female colleagues know precisely who the predators are, what they have done, and to whom. “Here it’s not even an open secret,” she says.
“It is the culture. You don’t even have to be warned because it happens openly, especially when you are new on the job. When I started, both my boss and my supervisor were aggressively hitting on me. I was told that they did the same thing to women before me. It is something like how first years in university are bombarded with advances, you know?”
In one of the incidences, the mentioned supervisor hugged her and then patted her butt. “He and I had never hugged before so he was crossing boundaries,” she says.
“I pulled back and slapped him. I told him to never touch me like that again.” Priscilla immediately called her boss and told him what had happened. She reckons the boss must have had a word with the supervisor because the sexual advances stopped, “but don’t forget the boss also wanted to have an affair with me. So it’s like whichever way I turned, there they were. With the boss however, I was told to just be patient and say no many times until, just like it eventually happened, he moved on to someone else.”
YOUR SISTERS’ KEEPER
These are just two of the predators with whom she has had personal experience. Their names occasionally come up in casual banter among female staff with whom she is close to.
“We talk about it more as a way to ventilate. Sometimes that’s the best you can do because even when you complain to the administrator they get away with ridiculous warnings. Imagine one guy was told to stop harassing a nurse (not because it is wrong but) because she is married! How do you even begin to fight that mentality?”
Instead of fighting an unbeatable system, Priscilla and her female colleagues rant about their predicaments and in the process, compare notes on who’s who on the bad-boy Richter Scale. “From then on, you exercise your prudence, you learn when to avoid them, when to walk away, or when to stand up for yourself and risk their (often verbally abusive) reaction.”
On the day of this interview, Priscilla witnessed a male colleague forcibly hug a new female colleague.
“I saw her resist it but he insisted. I felt the need to step in, asking him why he would not respect her wishes not to be hugged. He said he knew she likes it, she is just pretending. The poor girl was almost in tears.
I told her if she wanted to file a complaint I would be a witness. But I doubt that she will complain. I can’t complain on her behalf because if I do and she gets cold feet or changes her story, it’ll be my reputation (as a serial trouble maker) on the line.”
FROM WHISPERS TO TWITTER
Whisper networks form more easily amongst a close-knit group of work-mates, primarily to confide in people one trusts when one feels as if the information would not be safe in public “Sometimes women confide in each other just as a form of catharsis,” says Priscilla. “We are just looking to share experiences even if there is no forthcoming solution.”
But technology is changing these dynamics. Conversations have moved to closed online spaces such as women-only Facebook and WhatsApp groups. “This has also widened the cross-section of women privy to the under-chatter,” says Irene Wachira, a marketing executive in Nairobi. “This is a good thing. It is only through this kind of leakages in public spaces that the discussion will gather momentum and, as happened in Hollywood, yield positive results.”
This past weekend, a Twitter thread alleging that a well-known Kenyan actor, Nick Mutuma, harasses women began with a screenshot of a private Whatsapp conversation posted by a third party. In the screenshot, the second party (a friend of the alleged victim) explains that the actor’s would-be victim isn’t ready to talk. The third party then prompts that second party to expose the accused actor without mentioning the victim’s name.
This WhatsApp screenshot prompted another Twitter user, Koome Gitobu, to also Tweet his own accusation against the actor.
“I showed this screenshot to my girlfriend,” Gitobu tweeted, “and it turns out he has also sexually harassed her before, to the point of trying to force himself on her.”
Mutuma denied all allegations. Those who emerged to support him maintained that the allegations against him are malicious gossip spread by ‘feminists who want to destroy the boy child’.
Even as women argue that sexual harassment allegations on the grapevine should not be dismissed, others question where the public court should draw the line between fact and speculation. “Even without proof, these things have the tendency to spread so quickly,” says Jared, a 40-year-old computer technician who thinks that women are ‘taking this harassment thing too far.’
“It is like now you have the power to destroy someone’s reputation even before they have a chance to defend themselves. All you have to do is spread the word in those private groups of yours, then leak it online and the guy is done. That’s not fair.”
In turn, Diana argues that these unregulated street chatter trends have emerged because of a lack of effective channels to deal with the nuances of sexual harassment. “If I go to my HR and say someone attempted to rape me, maybe my accusation will be taken seriously.
But if I say that someone keeps hitting on me and I don’t like it, or that they hugged and rubbed my back in a way that made me uncomfortable, I’ll not be taken seriously. My only solution is avoid the man and to warn other women against him.”
Feminists also point out that whisper networks are not a solution, but a function of a dangerous environment. “Yes, we are attempting to keep each other safe.
But why is it the victim’s responsibility not to get assaulted and not the perpetrator’s responsibility not to assault?”
Proposing a solution in the concluding paragraph of her NY Times article, Lupita writes, “I hope we can form a community where a woman can speak up about abuse and not suffer another abuse by not being believed.
That’s why we don’t speak up. (But) I speak up to contribute to the end of the conspiracy of silence.”