#MeToo. Year two.

By Sudha Kumar

The Panel: Tina Tchen (second left) , Lawyer, Ex Chief of Staff to Michelle Obama and assistant to Barack Obama; Emily Steel (extreme right) , Reporter, New York Times; and Sohaila Abdulali (third from left) – author and activist.

The #MeToo movement in 2017. Finally, there was a worldwide platform to address the widespread sexual assault and harassment experienced by women.

What it revealed cut across every difference of every kind. The universality of the issue was spectacularly staggering. 

On 10 March 2019 the ”˜All about women’ festival at the Sydney Opera House brought together women and some men of all ages and from all walks, from across the globe in one space. It was riveting to listen to the experiences, explanations analysis and the plethora of issues that were addressed. One of them was #Me too. Year two”¦

The panel ”“ Tina Tchen, Lawyer, Ex Chief of Staff to Michelle Obama and assistant to Barack Obama; Emily Steel, Reporter, New York Times; and Sohaila Abdulali- author and activist. The auditorium was packed. Lots of women and some men.

In the year 1991 Anita Hill, American attorney and academic, accused a US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment when he was her supervisor at the Department of Education. She testified in a Senate hearing. Would have taken extreme courage and conviction. After a lot of debate, the US Senate confirmed Thomas to the Supreme Court albeit by a very narrow margin.

Twenty seven years later in 2018 the world saw the same with Professor Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Social media exploded with the hashtag #WhyIDidn’tReport.  It was all at once galvanising evidence of how much had changed and a poignant reminder that so much was still the same. These are the experiences of women who had access, to support systems, to networks. This is also the story of the common woman, nay man. # MeToo bridged the gap.

The pain and the repercussions of reporting sexual harassment are myriad.

Movements are important, because they have the power and momentum to get public attention and bring to the fore issues in spite of.  But how to sustain and carry out the legacy of such movements.     The efforts required to enshrine the ideals that inspire them require the diligence and perseverance of not just a few, especially in the face of public backlash. The panel discussed how women must move beyond celebration and conversations on social media to inspire others and produce sustainable change.

It was strangely not very surprising when Emily Steel explained how in the process of working on the case of former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, it was evident that the work place systems and policies have entrenched in them processes that obstruct the revelation of any unjust practice.  It is called a ”˜Non-Disclosure Agreement’. Ms. Steel uncovered a series of settlements totalling $45 million related to sexual harassment allegations. The reporting laid the foundation for an international reckoning over issues of sexual misconduct. It was evident that the NDA was tantamount to a ”˜gag’. And was used very effectively to silence victims and protect the perpetrators.

Though #MeToo started off in the USA, it is nothing new, as author and activist Sohaila Abdulali said. Pan to a country like India or Indonesia or Mexico, and women in their own ingenious ways have developed ways and means of protecting themselves and each other. May not have been always successful but it existed. Messages on toilet walls, accompanying another, avoiding a certain route, a certain relative, a certain teacher/professor. Sadly there was no escape from the abusive husband. These were coping mechanisms that have existed for millennia. Sohaila herself is a survivor of rape. And the author of ”˜What do we talk when we talk of Rape’.  

# MeToo has been phenomenal in normalising ”˜the calling out’ of sexual harassment. But what happens after #Me too? Because the systems and practices that allowed the harassment to flourish are still intact and in place. When we as individuals rebuke and dismiss a person who comes out with a revelation of harassment, we perpetuate that very system.  It is important that we take pause and get some insight into the how and the why. That’s something that we could do at our level. Easily.

So what is happening at the higher levels? According to Tina Tchen it has to do with Workplace culture.  Following the # Me too there was a deluge of cases of reporting of sexual harassment.  But the victims/ survivors got slapped with defamation law suits as a result of signing of NDAs. An advocate for work place diversity and gender equity, Tchen is convinced that there needs to be empathy for trauma. Reporting styles will shift if there is more diversity- gender and cultural, at decision-making levels. Lack of inclusion draws lines, between races, cultures, genders and even age.

The onus of Work place harassment today sits with the victim /survivor. This should shift. Exactly like the Workplace Health and Safety policy, it should be responsibility of the workplace to provide a safe workplace for every one of its employees. They should be the one to ask the question, rather than the victim/survivor report the issue.  

What #MeToo has done is crumbled the walls that made sexual harassment of all kinds taboo. Today it is acceptable to talk about it. You are listened to. There is engagement. Colleagues and CEOs alike engage in the conversation. And that is thanks to #MeToo.

We’ve made such great strides with regard to the fact that women coming forward now are given a platform to tell their story.  That would have never happened before.

This was evident when at the session, during question time a young lady working in a tertiary education institution revealed that she was sexually harassed by her present boss.  A thousand something people present there listened. And one of them offered her  legal representation.

Yes we have arrived.  

And yet, we are strangely mired in the ”˜he said, she said.’”

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