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International Women's Day
Celebrating #MeToo’s Global Impact
In countries around the world, progress defies the backlash.
First launched by the activist Tarana Burke in the United States a decade ago, the Me Too movement has now reached nearly every region of the world; the phrase itself, and the viral hashtag #MeToo, is in regular rotation in more than 85 nations. Comparable local campaigns exist in dozens more. Women who previously endured abuse, harassment, and discrimination in silence have raised their voices en masse, collaborating across borders to demand reform.
But for all that momentum, an Economist survey shows that skepticism of harassment claims has grown. And though a rising number of female candidates have run for political office in countries globally, women remain dramatically underrepresented at the highest levels. It’s all too easy to despair.
Fear not. A fundamental shift in women’s rights is underway. The #MeToo movement continues to achieve widespread—and tangible—progress on a global scale. Its influence can be measured in the courts, in changing legislation, and, paradoxically, in the growing backlash.
Take the story of Khadija Siddiqi, a law student in Pakistan who was stabbed 23 times in 2016 by a fellow classmate after spurning his advances. Her well-connected attacker was later acquitted by a court system that routinely excuses perpetrators of violence against women. But Khadija refused to remain silent—and more than 2 million supporters used the hashtag #JusticeforKhadija to champion her case on social media, ultimately helping her win her appeal. “Today is a day of victory for all women,” she defiantly told reporters in January from the steps of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, after more than two years of fighting. “A precedent has been set that if you raise your voice for truth, you will taste victory.”
Much like Khadija, women around the world are defying critics of the #MeToo movement and, armed with little more than social media campaigns and raw determination, joining in a rising call for justice. And like Khadija, more than ever before, they are winning.
Initial #MeToo accusations led to an avalanche of global resignations and oustings across the private and public sectors. As legal cases now wind their way through the court system, the rapid-fire pace of news has slowed, which some critics interpret as a sign of failure.
But in recent months, courts around the world have handed down sentences that definitively reinforce the cultural shifts driven by the #MeToo movement. In South Korea, Sweden, and Egypt, the landmark cases that first sparked a reckoning on sexual violence in these countries have all handed victories to the accusers.
In South Korea, the burgeoning #MeToo movement began with a televised interview of the lawyer Seo Ji-hyun, who took the unprecedented step of publicly accusing her former boss, the senior prosecutor Ahn Tae-geun, of sexual misconduct. Her courage inspired hundreds of others to step forward, leading to the sudden resignation of several Korean sports figures, literary elites, and politicians. This January, both Ahn and the actor Lee Myung-haeng—one of the first accused of harassment in South Korea’s entertainment sector—received prison sentences of two years and eight months, respectively. In another victory in February, former presidential hopeful Ahn Hee-jung—initially acquitted by a lower court on charges of sexual abuse—was sent to prison for three and a half years on appeal.
The #MeToo movement in Sweden ignited following the high-profile case of Jean-Claude Arnault, which led to the cancellation of the 2018 Nobel Prize in literature. After the first accusation against Arnault, 18 women came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct that had taken place over a period of 20 years. In October, he was found guilty of rape and sentenced to two years in prison. When he contested the decision in December, the appeals court actually increased his sentence.
And in Egypt, a viral video of Rania Fahmy, a young woman fighting back against her attacker, not only started a regional conversation on sexual harassment but also set a new legal precedent for all Egyptian women. Fahmy’s defiance—and deft use of her handbag to ward off her attacker—was captured by a store security camera in August 2017. She filed charges using the footage as evidence and, despite attempts to bribe her to drop the case, in February became one of the very first Egyptian women to win a court ruling on sexual harassment charges.
The #MeToo movement has also led to legislative reform.
In France, the minister for gender equality, Marlène Schiappa, struck by the overwhelming response to the hashtag #BalanceTonPorc (“Expose Your Pig”)—the French hashtag encouraging women to name their harassers—wrote a comprehensive bill on sexual harassment. Her bill, passed in August 2018, extends the statute of limitations for sex crimes, creates new sanctions for cyberstalking, street harassment, and “upskirting”—taking nonconsensual photographs underneath a woman’s skirt—and imposes fines for street harassment. The law saw its first test in September, when a man was found guilty and fined 300 euros (about $350) for making lewd and insulting comments.
Last August, China—a country that lacks any legal prohibition against sexual harassment—announced proposed legislation that would ban the offense and require that employers “take reasonable measures” to prevent it. The new workplace protections are part of a wide-ranging civil code reform that will be completed in 2020. And in September, an online petition initiated in Japan—which also lacks a legal prohibition on sexual harassment—prompted the Labor Policy Council, an advisory body of the labor ministry, to convene public discussions on harassment in the workplace. In a win for activists, the labor ministry announced during these discussions that it would submit legislation to address workplace harassment this year.
Further, following countrywide protests in April 2018 over the light sentencing of rapists, the Spanish government promised to change the penal code to make rape convictions easier. The conversation about #MeToo in Morocco re-energized support for comprehensive new legislation on violence against women that criminalized sexual harassment as well as forced marriage and domestic violence. The bill had been debated for years, but a series of high-profile assaults that went viral in 2017 helped spur definitive action.
#MeToo is also changing how parliaments themselves do business. Government ministers around the world have resigned in the wake of accusations, including a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, the British defense secretary, and nine members of the U.S. Congress. Within months of the first wave of #MeToo actions, the U.K. and Australian parliaments passed new codes of conduct for members. And U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres created an overdue task force on sexual harassment to ramp up institutional responses to abuse.
Furthermore, at a global level, the International Labour Organization plans to vote this summer on a proposed convention that would create an international standard prohibiting harassment in the workplace for the first time. Its passage would set a new international precedent, calling on countries that ratify it to adopt legislation and policies to address harassment.
Even in nations where women haven’t yet won legal or legislative victories, the online #MeToo movement continues to fuel real-time protest marches, civil society programs, and unprecedented disruption of the silence and stigma surrounding sexual assault and harassment.
In Senegal, for example, two women in Dakar started the hashtag #Nopiwouma (Wolof for “I Will Not Shut Up”) to encourage women to speak out about harassment and assault. Though the public campaign has been slow to spread due to a lack of internet penetration and entrenched cultural shame, its founders have received a flood of private messages from women around the country. They started a Google survey for anonymous reports, and 90 percent of the women who have responded say it’s the first time they’ve ever spoken about their experience.
A continent away in Central Asia, women also report a shift from silence to empowerment. “For the first time in Kazakhstan, we started talking openly about the issue,” said the activist Dina Smailova after posting on Facebook her own story of the gang rape she had endured and then kept secret for 25 years. The outpouring of responses inspired her to support other survivors of violence in taking their attackers to court.
In some cases, perpetrators are experiencing consequences for the harassment of women for the very first time, from public shaming to resignations. Take Nigeria, which as of 2015 had only 18 recorded rape convictions in its entire legal history since independence, which reflects serious underreporting, underenforcement, or likely both. So, in April 2018, when the 23-year-old Nigerian student Monica Osagie was given an ultimatum by her professor—sleep with him or fail the course—it was unlikely that she would have seen a victory in court. But Osagie defied history by recording the professor’s threat and presenting hard evidence to the university. Ultimately, the professor was suspended, and the recording went viral, sparking a nationwide conversation about academic harassment and laying groundwork for future court cases.
In India, the lawyer and activist Vrinda Grover has likened #MeToo to a wave. “Until now, we have seen consequences only on the women who complained. This time, the consequences are for those who have committed the misconduct,” she told the New York Times. Though India’s court system is notoriously slow in processing rape and sexual harassment claims, the online pressure led to resignations from several high-profile cultural figures, including a senior editor at the Hindustan Times, partners at a major Bollywood production house Phantom Films, and the founders of the popular comedy troupe All India Bakchod. And it was overwhelmingly young Indian women—from journalists at new media outlets like BuzzFeed to social media users—who provided fuel for the fire.
To be sure, as the #MeToo movement achieves concrete victories, a backlash has also grown. Defamation suits, targeted harassment, and even arrests are all part of concerted efforts to disparage and silence women.
There have been personal countersuits, as alleged perpetrators take their accusers to court for reputational damages. The journalist Sandra Muller—who launched France’s #MeToo movement and was honored as a “silence breaker” by Time magazine—is being sued for slander by the senior television producer she accused, even after he publicly admitted to making the comments she posted about on Twitter. The case is expected to go to court later this spring.
In India, Priya Ramani, the first of 20 women to accuse Indian Junior Minister M.J. Akbar of sexual harassment, is currently being sued for defamation and faces criminal charges at an upcoming April hearing. In China, Xianzi, a young intern who took on one of her country’s biggest television stars after he allegedly molested her, will face the newscaster in court over charges that she damaged his reputation and mental wellbeing.
Advocates globally wait anxiously to see how they will be decided; the fear is that the high cost of defending against these cases could scare off potential future victims from coming forward. In countries such as Austria, where the legal system heavily favors perpetrators, experts report that lawsuits, or even the threat of legal action, has had a chilling effect on the #MeToo movement, inhibiting the open dialogue that has flourished in neighboring countries. “This really is a big issue for many women,” the lawyer Maria Windhager told CNN in January. In one example of the country’s severe laws, a former member of Parliament, Sigrid Maurer, was convicted of libel after publishing obscene messages she received on her Facebook page from a shop owner. The man prevailed in a lawsuit against Maurer, arguing she could not prove that he himself had written the harassing messages, since others in his shop could have had access to his computer and Facebook profile.
In other cases, governments have driven the backlash, with sinister consequences. In Egypt, at least two women have been arrested for social media posts about sexual harassment. Part of a widespread crackdown on dissent, the government casts the #MeToo movement as a form of sedition: May El Shamy, the first Egyptian to file a police report against her supervisor, has been the target of a smear campaign falsely linking her to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. After criticizing the government for not protecting women from harassment, the activist Amal Fathy was sentenced to two years in prison in September 2018, with authorities claiming that she was undermining the country’s image. In June, a Lebanese tourist who posted a video complaining about sexual harassment in Egypt was arrested at the Cairo airport for spreading false rumors. Although these women have since been released and had their sentences commuted, others are not so lucky.
In China, feminist organizers face constant surveillance and arrest for their advocacy, and the government deletes any #MeToo posts from the Chinese social media platform Weibo within minutes. Students at Peking University who first galvanized the #MeToo movement have faced consequences after demanding the school release information about a decades-old case where a student had committed suicide after being assaulted by a professor. Yue Xin, one of the students, and a 2019 Foreign Policy Global Thinker, was threatened with expulsion, inspiring widespread outrage. But in August, police raided an apartment where Yue and fellow student activists were staying. She has not been heard from since.
Extreme action against leaders of the #MeToo movement is not a sign of its weakness but rather an indication of its revolutionary potential.
Like other protest movements throughout history—from the U.S. civil rights movement to the nonviolent struggle for Indian independence—early victories that threaten the status quo draw ire from entrenched elites. In the case of #MeToo, these elites have marshaled legal, financial, and government resources to try to suppress women’s rising voices—but, as history teaches, these efforts rarely succeed over the long term.
It will be a long journey. More time is required to achieve substantive change to entrenched policy and bureaucracy. It won’t be an easy path to erode the male privilege encoded in laws and tradition throughout much of human history.
But drawing conclusions about the movement’s strength based on the continued underrepresentation of women in power, or individual instances in which perpetrators escape consequences, misses the historic shift in courts, legislatures, and social norms taking place globally. The broader trend is unmistakable: Women are defying precedent, making change, and shaping a new future around the world.
Meighan Stone is a senior fellow for women and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.