OPINION: We need to look beyond #MeToo and learn from women’s activism globally

by Professor Mariz Tadros and Jenny Edwards | Institute of Development Studies (IDS)
Saturday, 10 October 2020 08:30 GMT

Women wearing protective face masks, following an outbreak of coronavirus, chant slogans as they protest during the International Women's Day in Baghdad, Iraq, March 8, 2020. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

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Focusing on the western-centric #MeToo movement risks overlooking women’s rights activists in the global south

Professor Mariz Tadros is a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, specialising in the Middle East.

Jenny Edwards is a Project Manager with over ten years’ experience of working on gender issues.

What happens if you’re a female seafarer sexually assaulted at sea, in international waters? Where do you turn if you’re a migrant domestic worker sexually harassed behind closed doors?  These are just some of the experiences and drivers behind collective women’s actions around the world, which unlike #MeToo are not well-known but need to be heard and learned from.

Long before the #MeToo campaign went viral three years ago this October, there have been powerful expressions of collective action by women around the world. Even the hashtag was originally founded a decade earlier by Tarana Burke.

The subsequent focus on the #MeToo movement risks overshadowing the range of women’s rights activism happening globally, particularly in countries in the global south. As Titilope Ajayi, a Ghanaian feminist scholar, writes: “Spotlighting movements like #MeToo has a way of obstructing our vision of longstanding mobilisations on the ground in other parts of the world against the same issues.”

Placing such a continued focus on a western-centric movement can also be problematic for women in countries who face greater backlash locally against their anti-sexual harassment activism, accused of acting out a ‘western agenda’.

Ajayi cites the mobilisation in response to the ban on miniskirts in Uganda in 2014 and the #MyDressMyChoice protests in support of her argument.  A new collection of articles we have edited examines the experiences of many others, from those that are well-defined and visible collective action against sexual harassment, such as women in politics in Pakistan and within universities in India and Egypt, to contexts where voices are still silenced, including girls at school in Burkino Faso and Benin.

In Pakistan, women are harassed and intimidated by a highly patriarchal society for just daring to enter politics. Women activists in Pakistan have also held a long struggle against the practise of local leaders banning women from voting in elections, and have filed cases with the Election Commission of Pakistan, petitioned the higher courts, and lobbied with political parties since the mid-1990s to put an end to this practice. Now, under the new 2017 electoral laws, if the women’s vote is less than 10 per cent of total votes polled in a constituency, the election is declared void.

In The Philippines, Filipino women working in the male-dominated world of seafaring - ‘Shefarers’ - face a range of verbal and physical sexual harassment.  With technical difficulties of filing complaints and pursuing legal cases, especially when the incidents happen on board international ships and by foreign nationals, the ‘Shefarers’ have started to organise via a women’s committee of the male-dominated seafarers union to raise awareness and confront the problem.

The impact of sexual harassment and gender-based violence is felt across all countries in the world, from verbal harassment on the streets – as mapped by HarassMap in Egypt, to physical attacks in the workplace and domestic violence.  How do we make further and faster progress for women?  How do we counter a culture where 56 percent of men believe ‘women who dress provocatively deserve to be harassed’, as is the case in Lebanon.  We need to hear and share the experiences of a much wider variety of women’s movements, and crucially, to learn from them and forge new alliances for change.

We also need to learn from these wide variety of experiences to better understand the power dimensions at play, the triggers to collective action and the time it can take to build the groundwork. Triggers ignite action like #MeToo and The List in Indian academia, but they do not happen spontaneously in isolation. They occur in the context of grass-roots work, like a firework display that bursts into life, but where the work to get there is hidden from view.

There is certainly a place for international movements like #MeToo to energise and galvanise. But at a time of Covid-19 when the global pandemic is putting even more pressure on women, increasing domestic violence and harassment in digital spaces, we also need to try and make more space to amplify a wider variety of voices from national and local movements globally, and make sure that they are heard.