The MeToo movement continues to open new cultural space, and to spawn exciting and confronting areas of discussion across the planet.
Time Magazine named ‘the silence breakers’ Person of the Year. The TimesUp campaign blazed through the awards season and into the mainstream, and Oprah Winfrey delivered a speech about a new dawn for women so commanding and forceful, it sparked mass speculation about a Winfrey bid for president in 2020.
There have been stirrings across the globe. In November 2017, beauty pageant contestants read out statistics of femicide and violence against women and girls instead of their body measurements, creating a stunning moment of truth in machismo Peru. January in Iran, one brave woman removed her white hijab, tied it to a stick and stood atop a pillar on a busy road crowded with men, alone, silently waving it like a peace flag, her hair flowing around her shoulders. She was arrested and later released after the video of her protest was reposted and liked on Twitter more than 200,000 times.
And the testimony keeps on coming. Vietnamese journalist Hồng Minh gives a personal account of a sexual assault that happened in her youth; “I was 12 years old and queuing up to get inside the mirror house in a park. And I was groped by several adult men from the back. Being raised in a traditional family, I’d internalised the notion that it was bad, very bad to talk about such things. So I kept silent and endured the shame and humiliation, wishing the show would end soon and I could escape a horrible situation.
For long, every time I sensed a man behind me, I relived those horrible moments. As I grew up, how I wished I had the strength and courage to yell in the faces of those men: “Take your filthy hands off!” And how I wished people around had supported me.”
How familiar. And how poignant, that a longing to assert ourselves lurks in female hearts across the planet.
In a juicy twist to the tale, Monica Lewinsky of Bill Clinton sex-scandal fame, has written an essay in Vanity Fair re-examining her relationship with the former POTUS, and the public perception of it. She says, “Until recently (thank you, Harvey Weinstein), historians hadn’t really had the perspective to fully process and acknowledge that year of shame and spectacle,” Lewinsky writes. “And as a culture, we still haven’t properly examined it. Re-framed it. Integrated it. And transformed it. My hope, given the two decades that have passed, is that we are now at a stage where we can untangle the complexities and context (maybe even with a little compassion), which may help lead to an eventual healing — and a systemic transformation.”
On the subject of sexual harassment and bullying, Harriet Harman recently wrote “…there’s no doubt that the mood has changed…In years past Weinstein would have been regarded as frisky, “a bit of a lad”, the young women judged as “asking for it” or frigid. Now it is acknowledged as wrong and it is the men who have to account for their actions rather than the women they prey on.”
The mood has changed indeed. But it’s not to say that things haven’t got complicated.
On January 10th, 100 French actresses wrote an open letter in La Monde “Rape is a crime, but trying to seduce someone, even persistently or cack-handedly, is not – nor is men being gentlemanly a macho attack,”.
On January 13th, as if to explore this point, came the unfortunate fate of comedian-actor Aziz Ansafari. In a 3000 word article, containing excruciating detail of a terrible date, his graceless and oblivious seduction attempts were exposed to the world, and sparked more argument about what is right and wrong, and who has responsibility for what. Some women said it’s time to demand better sex, some said it is time to start taking responsibility for our own dignity.
It seems to me that in the dating world, we are following strategies and reading off scripts that promise to work, but don’t. The script is certainly rigged the favour of men; but as the case of Aziz Anasfari demonstrates; men are not necessarily aware that women are not that into it.
These detailed conversations, between female groups and in the world community in general, are important and necessary. It is part of the process of change. But how long can it last if we are forging ahead whilst leaving major problems and injustices unexamined in the same light? Things like the four-year-old inquiry into mass child sexual abuse by U.K politicians and police falling at every hurdle, lead prosecutors quitting each year, in the face of seemingly untouchable defendants. The Jimmy Savell atrocity and its implications; namely, the failure of the BBC to recognise signs of abuse for several decades and of the staff in 34 hospitals failing to protect their helpless patients from a sex predator. The continuous reports of child sexual and spiritual abuse in the catholic church, the cover-ups, moving the paedophilic offender around and exposing more children to unimaginable suffering, and irreparable harm rather than hold the perpetrator and church to account. It may or may not be a gender issue, but it is an example of sexual violence still rife in our culture, and it has so far failed to provoke a resolute ‘no’ from us. Who is fighting for these children?
Meanwhile, in February, the United Nations reported that women are being left behind in the UN development goals; remaining poorer, less healthy and more vulnerable to violence than men. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women’s executive director commented; “Progress for women and girls remains unacceptably slow.” For example, in 18 countries, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working. One in five women and girls has experienced violence by an intimate partner within the last 12 months, but in 49 countries domestic violence is legal.
Prominent countries in the world, who enjoy lavish diplomatic relationships with the UK, are engaged in outright oppression and abuse against women and girls across all sectors of their societies. In a baby-step forward, in late 2017 Saudi Arabia granted women the right to drive and to attend sporting events. This month, in 2018, women are granted the right to start businesses without first having to get the permission of a male guardian. Still today, Saudi women are unable to open a bank account, travel or seek medical treatment without the permission of their male guardian. Let that sink in for a minute. For divorced women, custody of children beyond the age of seven for boys and nine for girls is forbidden in law, and in a court of law – be it for a civil matter or rape case; a women’s testimony is ‘worth’ half a man’s testimony. Just let all that sink in. Still, progress is progress. The House of Saud, forced into an economic corner by low oil prices, needs the labour and spending power of women and is consequently loosening its grip in the name of good old capitalism. Are we going to tolerate our Government cozying up to such a regime in the name of trade and industry?
In 2017 women came together to support each other in breaking their silence about sexual harassment and assault. Complicated and confronting discussions were had, and there is still a lot left to discuss. Let 2018 be the year we say a hard ‘no’ to all boundary-testing and outright trespasses against decency and basic human rights. In the end we are talking about the overall struggle for human dignity, and the right to live a life free from humiliation, exploitation and oppression. When we recognize the value of human life across-the-board, we go from the highly complex to the dead simple. And if we can raise our eyes to behold the value of life itself, well, then we are really talking.