#MeToo, a rallying cry on Twitter against sexual assault and harassment, is all over my social media pages. This is not the first time women have spoken out globally in digital space. In 2014, in the wake of the Isla Vista shootings in which a 22-year-old man killed six university students in California and blamed his actions on the “cruelness of women”, #YesAllWomen, employed to speak about violence against women and misogyny, was tweeted more than 1.2 million times.
But what could literally thousands of women possibly have in common with Gwyneth Paltrow or Angelina Jolie? Both actors, along with numerous others, have spoken out about being sexually harassed by American film producer Harvey Weinstein. The reports of multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Weinstein in the past fortnight have set off an avalanche of similar and different stories from women across the world. Closer home we have the cases of Tarun Tejpal, RK Pachauri and AK Ganguly who have been called out as sexual harassers and assaulters.
Far too many women have been harassed or assaulted by men who had some power over their careers.
Some are simply writing “Me Too” in their posts but many are recounting detailed, painful stories of harassment and assault. Some write that they feel lucky to have escaped with harassment by strangers rather than assault by people known to them. “Is violence so normalised that one should feel grateful that one was only ‘just harassed’ and not assaulted?”, they ask. Some are calling out uncles, cousins, other family, friends and even boyfriends, fracturing squarely the myth of the safe haven of the family. One is reminded sharply of the “Me Too” moment of rupture in the film Monsoon Wedding, when an uncle is called out on his sexual abuse of a child, who is now an adult, an act he seems set to enact once again.
Some of the finest novels of resistance are novels that travel back in time to revisit old wounds of being violated. The narratives of Celie and Pecola Breedlove in Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye are premised on acts of violation by people familiar or familial.
The current hashtag began with American actor Alyssa Milano calling on Twitter users to write “Me too” if they had been sexually harassed or assaulted.
However, one article reminds us that in fact a black woman, Tarana Burke, is the original founder of the “Me Too” movement but has received little acknowledgement in the current campaign.
When speech replaces silence
#MeToo harnesses the power of strategic essentialism, a term introduced by scholar Gayatri Spivak, to build symbolic solidarity. Strategic essentialism is the harnessing of one marginalised identity to make universal claims even as one acknowledges that there are differences and hierarchies. We know well that only some women have access to the internet and that access to varied privileges and resources depends on our geographical location, citizenship status, class, caste, race, community, educational status, among other variables. And yet for this moment, the power of #MeToo confronts a problem that is global in scale, mounting a powerful digital feminist challenge.
Despite the fact that the magnitude of the problem is fairly well known, there is a power in speaking and being heard, in saying #MeToo and having your voice validated, your story believed. For, what many women are reporting is that they did not speak then and their silence ate into them as much as the memories and now some, though by no means all, can speak truth to power. Silence is being replaced by speech. Several posts acknowledge that people’s silences cannot be taken to mean they were not harassed or assaulted. Women are rejecting the shame that we are often conditioned into feeling when we are harassed or assaulted, the victim blaming we have internalised that suggests we must have done something to invite this. When rage replaces shame, there is something important happening and it would be shortsighted to dismiss it. Hashtag activism demonstrates the value of amplification, the possibilities of speaking to large audiences over vast geographical distances and building alliances, or even just saying very loudly “You are not alone”.
A much needed reminder
However, some have argued, and with good reason, that women have spoken enough and now it is time for the perpetrators to identify themselves and speak out, that it is too much to expect that women over and over again out themselves as survivors, especially when some might not want to. Perpetrators are often protected by the generalness of the narratives. Some have argued that we need a hashtag to point at perpetrators and to call out our fathers, brothers, friends, or bosses who have harassed or assaulted women. What kind of upheaval and transformation could be created by calling out men rather than placing a disproportionate burden on survivors to address the magnitude of the problem? What would change if instead men were asked to say “Me Too”, owning up to acts of harassment and assault?
Many men have said how disturbed they have been to see the chorus of “Me Toos” on their social media feeds. One man actually posted #IDidIt, confessing to his own acts of sexual harassment aimed at women and apologising for them. Some have posted apologies for their complicity, for not believing women, for trusting their male friends who turned out to be assaulters.
We hear far too much in the mainstream of the dangers of public space and not enough of the dangers of the private. #MeToo makes a contribution towards puncturing that narrative, reminding us squarely that our workplaces (as varied as film studios, corporate offices and academic institutions) and our homes are no safer than the streets. Me Too is an unfortunately needed reminder that despite its particularities for different women, the problem is universal. If even for a short time women are speaking the often unspeakable, and though there is a long way to go, every single enraged voice counts.