Lawyer Dani Pereira experienced sexual harassment long before she even knew to call it that — as did every single woman she studied or lived with.
“I lived in a house with three girls who were all studying to be barristers when I went to work at a law firm in London for a year. By the end of the year, every one of us had been sexually harassed at work,” she says. “Maybe because we were so young, we all just kind of accepted that ‘this kind of thing just happens’. We talked about it and supported each other at the time, but we didn’t see it as something that could change, just as something we had to get used to.”
For her, the aggressor was a senior lawyer about 10 years older who asked her out repeatedly, got her number from the human resource (HR) department, and asked to take her out for coffee within her first week at the firm. He lived about 20 minutes away from her then, and would always find the opportunity to walk her home. She was only about 22 years old at the time.
Things did not get better when she returned to Singapore to continue her law school and training contract. That same lawyer moved to the island republic shortly after, and offered her a position at his company.
She took the job because it paid a lot more and offered a better work-life balance. “I think I was just that stereotypical naive, young lawyer, to be honest. I kept thinking that since he had a live-in girlfriend, and he knew I had a boyfriend, surely I had nothing to worry about,” she says.
After about a year, Ms Pereira started noticing a gradual shift in their work dynamics. From inappropriate comments about her appearance such as “haven’t you noticed how everyone is staring at you?”, to inviting himself to dinner with her father that in a way she felt she could not get out of.
She recalls that she was asked to bring him his files from the office after he just had an operation. “I don’t know if he was on painkillers or anything, but he started talking to me about his operation — which was on his genitals — and telling me about what his surgeons had said about the size of his penis. I was so uncomfortable, I basically just ran away,” she says.
This bizarre lack of boundary between their social and work lives reached its peak about two weeks later, when he confessed to her in a public cafe at the lobby of their office building.
“I thought it was definitely work-related and that I was getting fired. Or even that he was going to ask me to help him pick a ring for his girlfriend,” she says. But he ended up telling her that he had been in love with her for years, and had moved to Singapore for her.
“I think I went into shock. After about a couple of minutes of this ridiculous declaration, I told him that I had never, and would never see him in this light,” says Ms Pereira.
It should have ended there. But it became the first ten minutes of a two-hour conversation — one that she could not get out of because he was seated in a way that was blocking her exit. “He was convinced that we were in love with each other,” she adds.
For the lack of options
It took her a year to get herself out of this situation — a year ridden with repeated unwanted advances, gaslighting, and Stockholm syndrome tactics.
“While some of my friends were really supportive about it, a lot of people weren’t,” she says, adding that the only other woman in the office, another senior lawyer, just told her to “keep her head down”, or that would be the end of her career. Her own mother, out of good intent, told her to “get over it”.
No one suggested that she get another job. Being a junior lawyer who had never quit a job in her life, she didn’t think she could. Despite being Singaporean, she had an immigration issue where she needed to be on an Employment Pass (EP).
“Another reason was that every time I had a conversation with this man, he would say, ‘no one else is ever going to give you another job. This is the best you’re ever going to have; everything outside of this place is even worse’. And in my naivete, I genuinely thought this was the case,” she says.
He told her explicitly that if she were to move forward with the relationship, she would get more opportunities in the workplace, and that he had “all this money, and all I want to do is spend it on you”.
When it was clear that she was never going to reciprocate, the advances turned into anger and ugly abuses of power. From describing explicit sexual fantasies about her doing the most everyday things at the workplace to forcing her to work overtime alone with him. These daily attacks became the source of her daily panic attacks.
“When I told him I needed to go to a friend’s birthday party, he made me photocopy papers until one in the morning. He wanted to be the centre of my whole existence,” she says.
When she moved to a different team, moving away from her original seat which was two metres away from her perpetrator, it triggered a full-on tantrum on his part. He would scream over the top of her head to the other colleague, “How could you take her away from me? She is mine!”
Looking back now with a better understanding of how sexual violence and harassment operates, Ms Pereira says that it is really about control and power. “And as soon as I started to assert my own level of ability to get myself out of the situation, it made him even worse,” she says.
The beginnings of a revolution
Reporting these ongoings to the Human Resource (HR) department came to nought — which triggered a department-wide resignation out of protest. Back in London, the managing partners called her into the room and told her that there was nothing that “this man can do to you that would make us discipline him in any way, so you need to stop being so loud about this. At this point, you are bullying him”.
It wasn’t until she told a concerned male colleague that things finally took a turn for the better. From that point on, he was like her champion, ensuring that she made a formal complaint and a settlement agreement with her firm.
Finally, after threatening to go to the police, she received a settlement offer, and a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) to go along with it.
Her perpetrator was promoted the day after she filed the complaint, and she was later told explicitly that it was “to show you that you cannot scare him”.
“This is a very clear example of how easy it is for people to side with the person who makes them more money — the person who is male, white, and fits in with all your ideals — as opposed to a mixed-race Singaporean girl. They actually said to me, ‘he makes so much more money than you. Why would we support you?’,” she says.
After her resignation, Ms Pereira did not turn into an activist overnight. Her plan was to keep her head down and get another job — but the #MeToo movement had other plans for her.
“It was like a switch that went off inside me. I just couldn’t stop reading every single article about the women who came forward, why they came forward, what happened to them, and why others might not have come forward,” she says, adding that this was what eventually drove her to therapy, and activism.
Channelling the good
Ms Pereira is now actively involved in projects like Hear to Change: an anonymous site for people to voice their experiences with sexual harassment anonymously in a supportive community, without having to worry about the repercussions. People like Ms Pereira herself who are under an NDA can then talk freely about what happened to them on the platform.
“There might not be any legal or practical outcomes at this site, but for many, it is the first step in being able to verbalise something that can be so difficult to talk about,” she says.
Ms Pereira is the spokesperson for local women’s rights group, AWARE, and their Aim For Zero campaign. (Video source: AWARE.)
Her other interests have also helped her heal along the way. “I always say that yoga saved my life — it brought me the peace, meditation, and focus that I didn’t have after a whole year of being bullied and traumatised at my workplace,” she says. Now as a yoga teacher herself, she enjoys sharing her practice with others.
Ms Pereira also looks to poetry as an outlet for expression.
Most prominently, she took up martial arts during the time when she was being harassed in the workplace, and would go into the office with boxing gloves on her neck. “In my head, I thought this was going to show him that he couldn’t hurt me, and that I could fend for myself,” she says.
“I found that it has been incredibly therapeutic to know that I will never feel physically helpless again. Having said that, I am firmly of the view that women should bear the burden of skilling themselves in martial arts just to feel safe,” she adds.
Workplace harassment does exist in Singapore
From her personal experience, Ms Pereira says that as opposed to open predatory behaviour in more international work settings, workplaces in Singapore are more prone to subtle bullying or harassment.
She has, for instance, heard about senior partners ranking young associates by attractiveness in the elevators. Men and women alike were told that being in a relationship would reflect badly on their careers.
When asked how we can include men in the women’s rights movement, she warns against the discourse that feminism is about “hating men”. Instead, it’s about our patriarchal society creating a culture of toxic masculinity, harming both men and women.
“Who are the people who are suffering most from birth in the patriarch? Actually, I think it’s men. You are told you cannot show emotions or be vulnerable in any way. You have to live in this toxic, macho, ‘my d*ck’s the biggest’, and ‘boys will be boys’ culture — and that is so damaging,” she says, citing the glaring high rates of suicide among young men as opposed to women worldwide.
“Would I want to be born a man? No. All this is a direct result of us not being able to engage with men as a society, and I think it’s so important to explain that. It’s not just about women winning over men. We just want equality,” she says.