Year 2017 saw the birth of a new movement called #MeToo. Right on the heels of the sexual misconduct charges against Weinstein, a feeling of kinship and a need to tell their own stories led to the emergence of this hashtag. #MeToo spoke for women who had buried, suppressed, hidden and suffered their own indignities at the hands of men over the years. A sisterhood that had been bound in chains of silence because of the shame associated with their experiences or the powers that muffled their voices. Not any more.
As #MeToo gained momentum, more stories emerged. Stories of workplace sexual harassment. Stories of sexual assault on women too young to fight back, too scared to speak up, too powerless to defend themselves. Stories of careers sabotaged of those who refused to succumb. From celebrity origins it spread like wildfire with the quotidian accounts of the everywoman. It made news because it shone a light on a disease that a largely patriarchal society had accepted and condoned. ‘Boys will be boys’ no longer washed, and women were fighting their corner with every ounce of outrage they possessed. Hashtag after hashtag proclaimed ‘Me too’. Some simply whispered it, while others detailed the hows, the whens and the ignominy of their experiences being repeatedly ignored.
From someone who has suffered sexual harassment at the hands of men starting from the tender age of eight, I added my voice to the hashtag. It has been many years since the last incident occurred, but I cannot forget the feelings of shame, helplessness and disgust that I felt back then. Why did it stop? Because I moved continents, and started a career path that had women on an equal platform as men. Yet those early incidents left an indelible mark on my psyche.
Being propositioned by a roadside hawker when I was young enough to be his grand daughter. A passerby stopping his vehicle and exposing his genitals as I walked home from school. Being groped in a temple by a stranger. Heavy breathing and threats of rape over the phone by a male classmate. A forty year old friend of my father asking an eighteen year old me to call him directly on his ‘bedroom line’. A superior at work taking advantage of my naiveté and planting an uncalled for kiss on me. Incident after incident that left me feeling violated in a billion different ways.
Each time I wondered why? Had I done something to lead them on? Had I dressed provocatively? Did I come across as sexually uninhibited? Little did I know back then, that women the world over were facing these humiliations and asking themselves the same questions.
Sexual assault or sexual harassment has very little to do with sexual gratification. It is power play, pure and simple. Men, whether they are superior in rank, age, strength or because society deems it so, wield that power over women in every arena, including the sexual one. Not all men, but I’ll come to that later. If a sexual encounter is to be a pleasurable one, it needs to be consensual. Yet consent is something that these men trample all over. They get their kicks through the fear and vulnerability of their victims.
How does one fight back? After all, not only is sexism institutionalised, it is practically an institution in itself. If #MeToo is anything to go by, then joining hands, exposing the perpetrators and standing up for what is right, can be a start. Easier said than done however. Education is the foundation of everything. Education that begins at home and is carried on throughout life. Education that portrays women as equals not to be preyed upon or ill used. Education that is subliminal, ideological, conscious and subconscious. Education in the messages that are given and received from various platforms, be it entertainment or media. Education that emphasises that women aren’t just baby machines or primary caregivers, Madonnas or whores. Education.
Criticisms of #MeToo have been that its ubiquity diluted its message, or that the LGBTQ communities found little or no representation, or that minor misdemeanours were categorised alongside major assaults, and that all men were tarred with the same brush. While there is merit in these accusations, it is important to recognise the spirit behind the movement. For the first time, in a long time, perhaps even since the Suffragette movement of the 1900’s or the feminist movement hitting its stride in 1960’s, were women banding together and calling attention to their respective stories. Change has to begin somewhere and in 2017, it began with one woman saying to another, “Me too”.
Nearing the end of the second decade of the 21st century, one can only hope that more voices chime in to stamp out behaviour that is absolutely abhorrent and unacceptable. Men, good men, who were equally horrified to see the extent of the problem, become a part of the solution. Shut down the locker room talk, stop viewing the female sex as commodities, take responsibility for your actions, and speak up when you see an injustice. Not too much to ask for.
As a mother to two teenage girls, I hope I have planted the seeds of self worth and self respect in them. They have watched the dynamic between my husband and I all their lives. Our roles have been fluid, flexible even, with each of us happy to take on traditional and non traditional parts. We are equals, we are partners and we are immensely lucky to think the same way about gender and equality. Moving forward, I hope my girls and countless others step into a world that is less skewed in favour of men. I hope they never have to encounter abuse or power play, and if they do, they are equipped to fight back and stand their ground.
#MeToo may not be a perfect movement, but it is an important one. By highlighting the extent of the problem, it has called attention to the behaviours that support and perpetrate abuse of power. Important people have lost their jobs and livelihoods because zero tolerance has kicked in. Companies are recognising that this sort of behaviour is unsupportable. Individuals who thought they were above the law, are finding themselves out in the cold.
Just as we take our voting rights or birth control rights for granted today, I hope a day in the not-too-distant future, will see us take our safety in the workplace, our rights over our bodies and swift and immediate punishment for anyone who violates us, for granted as well. Then and only then, can #MeToo die a quiet, acceptable death.
Until then, keep chiming in, keep telling your stories, keep supporting one another. For in numbers lies our strength, and in unity lies our success.
For those who are willing to go a step further to ensure that all voices are heard and there is accountability for all perpetrators, read and contribute to the #TIMESUP movement:
In solidarity and with respect, #MeToo.