I was astounded at the audacity of Ocasio- Cortez. Is it that she can dare to walk the hallowed halls that no other person of her background has ever walked? Or the alarm that she is now powerful enough to have a voice ? Wasn’t she the one not allowed to have one? So let us just point out all that we can to belittle her, spin our little stories, question ger validity, shall we? Her clothes, her demeanor? Her attitude? Her everything. It is exhausting. They just don’t believe she deserves to be there. She reminds me so much of how it was for me.
Is this not how we get slaughtered every time we dare to have an opinion. We are the women of color. We are the ones who dare not have an opinion. Because for some reason we must not. We are supposed to be inferior.
The first time I let myself feel it was when I sat on the couch of the law enforcement offices in Doha, Qatar. I had no idea why I had received a phone call to be there. But for some reason I was the reason for the heated debate happening in the high octaves of Arabic in the room next doors. Should an Indian woman ever have the right to an owner of a company? How did she get this right? Who gave it to her ? Aren’t Indians drivers and accountants? How did she become a company owner?
I looked away from their faces. I had never asked myself those questions. I had not been brought up to. I knew I had to shatter many such myths, break many such barriers every day. The part of the journey where I had to walk with a sense on danger under my skin had just begun.
I don’t know if many know but a lot of middle eastern countries work on the primitive concept of owning the lives of the people who work for you. So when you employ someone; you own them. You sponsor their visa, you hold their freedom, you own their passport, you sponsor their family, you also determine whether they leave the country, or they do not, or how.
You also control if they leave the job or you can send them packing back home.
Winning the Asian Games Contract in Qatar in 2005 was a double-edged sword. The prestige of running a world class operation, which could literally scale the work I was doing , versus the risk of being in a country called Qatar.
I am an entrepreneur. I took the risk. My joint venture partners were respected Royals and it gave me quiet comfort that they knew my extended family well enough that I need not spend sleepless nights worrying about the partnership.
But single Indian Women had never been ever given owner visas in that country. Single Indian Women owners were unheard of. Single Indian women were in fact not even allowed to enter the country.
Only dependent women were allowed. You know the ones who could verify that they had a father or a brother or a husband who could take care of them and their character.
I was an anomaly. My biggest fear for the two and a half years I built the Asian Games Infrastructure and my company there was the fact that though as a business owner, I held the power to hold passports of thousands of my own employees, but as a woman my own freedom was controlled by a Qatari gentleman who held the power to let me out or keep me inside the country at his own whims and fancies. And of late, he seemed to have, at age 60 ,started to gain some significant amorous feelings towards me.
Walking the fine line everyday, between keeping a very huge international contract on time, a growing fear for my own safety and the effort to keep civility towards the most egregious circumstances at work was a task.
I had luckily, managed to get a yearly exit permit on the visa , however, that did not prevent a cold sweat from breaking out down my spine every time I exited the country for the weekend or for work. What if he changed his mind ?The fact that someone could control my life so easily, or my destiny, was a nagging worry.
I knew that all eyes were on me, my behavior and my movements. Doha was a small place. I was held under a microscope for my choice of clothes or my choice of drinks. I was news of the day whether I was talking to a colleague or chatting with a customer. Yet, this sexism was the least dangerous. It was irritating but it was not perilous.
To escape a meeting and not be molested. To win a contract and not be touched inappropriately. These were not even issues I would be worried about. I was embattled. I was potentially facing $60K of fines of every minute of downtime from the Olympic Association.
I was out of patience for these crass unromantic approaches. I was giving it back by now. Loudly and clearly. As you may imagine, that made me very popular. At this time, I did not care a lot about the congeniality bit.
I was fighting for my life on the other hand. My sleepless nights were not because I might mess up the biggest contract of my life, but because I might die doing that. But it was important for me to execute my work. Not because I was lucky to have it. But because I was excited by it. I had worked hard for this day and not many entrepreneurs are as lucky as I was with the opportunities coming my way. I was not going to let my fear get in the way of my focus.
The fine line that I crossed every moment between getting my job done and not crossing the line was a thousand deaths. To be able to stand my ground, do the right thing and look that man in the eye and tell him that he cannot win by threatening me was all I focused on all the time.
I had picked up a fight with the very man who held my passport and represented the majority stake in my company. This was a perfect situation.
The love he showered on me continued to grow. I mean I had to deal with tones of harissa during the Ramadan days and endless Iftar invites but if that was not enough, I was not sure why this specific joint venture was the apple of everyone’s eye and I needed to be presented to all other joint venture partners from Lebanon to Paris, whether they understood what we did or not.
Our board meetings became longer and often pre-board meetings became longer than longer. One such day. Mr 60 year old walked from across his big white desk in his white dress towards me as I was preparing to leave and planted a kiss on my lips.
I stood there dumbfounded. Unable to respond. Or do anything. Including slap him.
I just left the building. Sat in my car. Cried for an hour. Drove back home.
I don’t know if it was relief or it was the end of suspense. He probably was not going to kill me after all. I may have just demonized him because of the complicity of his dress. In my head, he belittled himself from a demon to a pathetic puppy.
I come from a world where women do not have a choice. If we have to chose to engage in a livelihood, we have to be brave. Which mostly means that we have to put our lives at peril. We have to take chances. We antagonize people and we do not have a lot of fans. Our men are not sure what to make of us. And at times, we lose the support of those who are the closest to us.
We do not come from the comfort of being text book normal. Being average is a downward spiral. We have to step out of our comfort zone to stand out or we will be crushed and deemed inconsequential.
Yes, we are women of color. We are not the ones that will build personal brands like those of the rich white women even when we have in our achievements and experiences achieved and succeeded far more than they ever will. You see if we talk about our achievements and our credentials, you may not believe us.
We will never be viewed in terms of individual success. Infact, we are more likely to be doubted than believed. When we are climbing the corporate ladder, we will be questioned for our motivation and when we are successful, we will be attributed to chance.
Many women of color all of over the world put their lives at risk to be able to get a chance at being able to work. Think about that for a moment.
Each one of us , of whatever color, has our own reality.