On social media on Monday, a growing tide of women have tagged themselves with the hashtag #MeToo. The trend appears to have started with actress Alyssa Milano, who posted on Twitter that if all women who had experienced sexually assault or harassment wrote “Me Too” as a status, it would “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”.
What followed was a catharsis on social media. Within hours, it went viral across platforms, trending on Twitter and Facebook, shared by thousands of women various countries, several celebrities among them. While some shared details of what they had been through, others simply stood up to be counted.
Already, the trend has raised tricky questions. Should male victims of sexual crime be left out because of their gender? When women wonder whether what they have gone through counts, is it part of the problem? Are those who choose not to share the status implicated by their silence?
The outpouring on social media comes shortly after #WomenBoycottTwitter, when several users went off the social media platform for a day on Friday to protest against online abuse. It is part of a new awareness and anger about sexual harassment after allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein came to light. A recent New York Times investigation found charges against Weinstein that stretched back decades, ranging from harassment to rape, with at least eight women paid off for their silence. After the allegations, several famous actresses also revealed that they had been harassed or assaulted by Weinstein.
The Hollywood producer is the latest in a line of powerful men to have been felled by charges of sexual crime. Earlier, comedian Bill Cosby faced trial for decades of assault charges. In 2012, a year after his death, Jimmy Savile of the BBC was investigated for child abuse charges dating back to the 1960s. Slowly and painfully, an old tolerance of sexually offensive behaviour, which often legitimised serious violations, is being questioned.
The Weinstein case and its aftermath has given rise to a new emphasis on speaking out, on calling out, on challenging the way traditional power structures function. In India, many women took to social media on Monday to share #MeToo as their status. It is particularly poignant in a country where victims of sexual crime are usually kept hidden out of sight as objects of shame. Even the law prescribes anonymity, shored up by successive court judgments which assume that the violated woman would be “embarrassed” if her identity were revealed.
By naming themselves as victims of sexual assault or harassment, Indian women on social media may have opened a tiny chink in this vast armour of silence. Much of the social media chatter is, of course, limited to the lettered, urban upper middle class, to women who might already feel empowered to speak out. It might never reach millions who must live with violence and humiliation every day, too fearful to use social media or with no access to it. The magnitude of the problem in India will be hard to reveal. But if the new trend is sustained, it could help make speaking out more acceptable.