In 2006 #MeToo was launched by American activist Tarana Burke as a form of solidarity for victims of sexual assaults. It went viral overnight in the wake of Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s misconduct last October which prompted women around the globe to break all the silence ‘wall’ around the issue of sexual assault and harassment. The movement reached its peak when Oprah Winfrey presented a speech at the Golden Globes stage on January 7. Another notable figure who ‘helped’ launch the movement is gymnast McKayla Maroney who spoke openly about what Larry Nassar (a former USA gymnastics team doctor) had done to her when she was 13. Nassar was arrested last November after being accused of sexually harassing not only Maroney but also many other female. Ever since, the movement has been snowballing.
Asia is not immune to the movement, impacting at various levels on Asian women. In some Asian countries, we have seen some achievement in women empowerment. In China, for example, the battle against gender-based violence has reached some new heights as thousands women showed support for the initiative. Despite government censors, the movement has been fruitful especially on academic circles. Beihang University alumnae Luo Qianqian bravely accused her professor on the campus, Chen Xiaowu, of sexual assault in 2005 when the man served as her academic advisor. Luo was not alone as half of the female students at 15 Chinese universities stated they had been subjected to sexual misconduct on campus, according to a study released in 2014 by the All-China Women’s Federation. The pursuit of justice ended happily. Chen was removed from his position and sanctioned by the Ministry of Education.
In India, according to Ranjana Kumari (Chairperson of Women Power Connect) the movement has been responded widely and positively. Though most of these Indian women do not detail who their perpretators were and what really happened to them but they confessed that the same thing had happened to them at work and on campus. “They find the space on social media and could say ‘this is what happened to me, too!’” she elaborated. She also noted that the majority of women who work in the informal sector and are very marginalized in the society have no such privilege to speak up even on social media and need assistance in some way.
In the Arab world, the movement was responded to differently. As stated by Egypt-born feminist author Mona Eltahawy, the importance of the hashtag is not about women speaking out or does the community blame the woman or not. “It has allowed women to see each other as all being victims of patriarchy. This is an institutionalized form of discrimination that regardless of where you’re from,” the author of Headscarves and Hymen remarked.
For the Asian women context, according to Indonesian journalist behind feminist news portal Magdalene.co Devi Asmarani, cultural factors prove to remain strong in preventing them from speaking up about sexual harassment. The main cultural factor playing here is the strong patriarchy culture prevalent in most part of Asia. “Patriarchy plays a strong role in intergender relations, which consequently belittles sexual violence and harassment. This ends up undermining the urgency of issue among society members and stakeholders. Public knowledge on sexual violence also needs improvement. They assume only rapes or assaults can fit the definition of sexual violence; while harassment, catcalling and many other forms of such misconducts do not qualify. Most offenses like these are left unpunished, forgiven or considered trivial,” Devi commented via email. This fact, she added, brings so much burden on the shoulders of victims, both ones of rape and harassment as they are required to be able to provide convincing evidence.
She also pointed out that when the legal system and law enforcement do not sympathize with victims, there is more reluctance to file reports or speak openly about violence they had to endure. As the stigma lingers among sexually-harassed women, they grow more reluctant to report or open talk about what they had gone though publicly. Often women are seen as ones who desire such treatment.
So what can be done about it? “Keep talking,” Devi asserted herself. The more stay silent, the longer the problem keeps amounting. Both survivors and non-survivors must unite and cooperate to speak up and show their support of the me-too movement as well as educate the public in general on how prevalent and massive this issue has become in Asia, too.
These days, Asian women encounter a tremendous amount of challenges amidst the increasingly conservative society and more prevalent religious fundamentalism that aim to reposition women back to domestic realm. “But I’m convinced that eventually gender equality is something inevitable. So it’s either you’re with us or against us,” she concluded.
The #MeToo movement certainly puts women in Asia in an uncomfortable moment and discomfort but it is the inconvenience that empowers them to enable a major social change especially in Asian communities. This is the best momentum to give more emphasis on the issue urgency, waking up us all to start a very honest conversation about gender relations, sex and all the taboos that we badly need to address. (*/)