When you think of the #MeToo movement, you might immediately picture any one of the famous women in Hollywood who shared their stories of harassment, discrimination and assault. You might picture the powerful men finally held to account (or the ones who weren’t). You may think of the Women’s March or other brave women whose names we didn’t know before they spoke out about their abuse.
But if you live in Brazil, China, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sweden or many other countries, #MeToo may look and sound different. Over the last several years, we’ve seen an unprecedented surge in women’s movements around the world, building on the lifelong work of many dedicated activists.
The movement is known as #MeuPrimeiroAssedio in Brazil and #TystnadTagning in Sweden. When the Chinese government banned the phrase “MeToo” from social media, women replaced the characters for #MeToo with homophones and images, using an emoji version made up of pictures of a bowl of rice (pronounced “mi”) and a bunny (“tu”).
A new book, Awakening: #MeToo and the Global Fight for Women’s Rights by Rachel Vogelstein and Meighan Stone, looks at how women in more than 100 countries are fighting violence and discrimination. Vogelstein and Stone outline how #MeToo started as an online campaign against sexual harassment and became the most widespread cultural reckoning on women’s rights in history.
In Awakening, you’ll learn how young journalists and students in Nigeria helped expose “sex for grades” harassment at some of the country’s top universities. You’ll meet Kiki, an aspiring young doctor, who had to drop out of college when her professor withheld her exam grades after she refused to have sex with him. And you’ll learn how shared her story in the hopes that she could stop this from happening to other young women.
In another chapter, we read the harrowing tale of a young Tunisaian woman who was stalked and sexually harassed by a man in a car. She grabbed her phone, snapped a photo of him and ran. Later she – and people across the country — found out that he was a prominent human rights advocate and a member of Parliament.
You’ll be moved by the brave women in Awakening — just like #MeToo founder and activist Tarana Burke was when she read their stories. Today in Podium, we’re pleased to share an excerpt from Burke’s foreword to the book.
For me, reading the stories of the women in Awakening is an inspiring experience — and a humbling one. I’m stunned by the defiance of women like Mozn Hassan, a lawyer in Egypt who has been repeatedly targeted and surveilled by an authoritarian regime because of her outspoken feminist advocacy, including her support of #AnaKaman, or #MeToo. By the fortitude of survivors like Khadijah Adamu and Fakhrriyyah Hashim in Nigeria, who have broken with taboo and organized publicly with #ArewaMeToo, at enormous personal risk.
I’m awed by the determination of computer science graduate Luo Xixi, who was inspired by #MeToo’s viral moment in the United States to break her silence after thirteen years and name the professor who had harassed her. And the defiance of Swedish actress and writer Cissi Wallin, who decided to speak publicly and remains determined to help protect others, even after she was found guilty of defaming the man she accused.
I admire the resilience of Pakistani singer and actress Meesha Shafi, who came forward about a colleague in the entertainment industry, proclaiming, “It is not easy to speak out . . . but it is harder to stay silent.”
In parts of the globe where #MeToo is seen as a form of treason, where legal systems fail women over and over again, where “sex for grades” is accepted as part of life, where standing up for women’s rights is dangerous, where survivors face crushing stigma, and even in places the world views as feminist utopias, the activists in this book are expanding the definition of courage. I am honored to be in common cause with each of them — and with so many others whose names we might never know.
What this global movement has achieved is incredible — and so is its use of technology to empower women to work together across countries and cultures. As someone who came of age in the era when faxing flyers across the city was considered cutting-edge organizing, it’s extraordinary to witness the ways activists around the world are tapping into their collective power through social media. Through private Facebook groups, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp chats and Zoom, survivors are using every tool at their disposal and inventing new ones. Even with the challenges social media presents for issues around safety and privacy, it makes it possible to amplify voices that have been silenced for far too long. The result is a movement to end sexual violence that — as it must be — is intersectional and inclusive, centering the experiences of survivors of color.
Ask any organizer and they’ll tell you that one of the hardest things to do is to create lasting, meaningful culture change. This book covers years of efforts to do just that. Ikram Ben Said, a Tunisian activist and founder of Aswat Nissa, summed it up perfectly when she said, “This didn’t happen in a vacuum. This is the result of at least twenty, thirty years of the older generation of feminists who were really talking about gender-based violence and sexual harassment in public space, in private space.”
Now, we’re seeing the beginnings of real justice in court systems around the globe. Perpetrators are starting to face consequences. Advocates have changed and strengthened laws against sexual assault. And in places like Brazil, Lebanon, Mexico, the United States, and Sri Lanka, women are running for public office in record-breaking numbers. Even the backlash to ‘me too.’ is a sign of just how much cultural standards have changed. – from Tarana Burke’s foreword to Awakening
In Awakening, you’ll find a chapter on my home country of Pakistan that covers the Aurat March, an annual demonstration by women’s rights activists, and more. To learn more about a range of issues confronting women in Pakistan, you can read another new book, Womensplaining: Navigating Activism, Politics and Modernity in Pakistan (published by Folio Books and Jinnah Institute).
Edited by Sherry Rehman, this collection of essays brings together the voices of veteran and younger women activists. This intergenerational conversation shows the remarkable potential of Pakistani women, even in a society that tries to limit their power.
Violence against women is high in Pakistan. Just in the last ten days, we've watched as the news reported eight women brutally killed by men across the country. Raising your voice against violence and injustice can be dangerous too.
Here’s an excerpt from a Womensplaining essay called “Field Notes from The Aurat March: the Millennial megaphone by Rimmel Mohydin."
I did not attend the Aurat March. My job keeps me away from my hometown, Lahore, but on that day I would have traded my job, all my money and a kidney to be back home. As a woman, I should be used to impossible choices.
This was not the first time that Pakistani women had taken to the streets. But this was a different march, and these were different women. They were changing the rules.
We were going to walk the streets without fear, in huge numbers, united by a notion still considered too dangerous by some—that we deserve equality. We were going to find the women who needed this reminder, who embodied this reminder, who shunned this reminder and bring them to the table. And we were going to listen just as much as we were going to raise our voices.
We were walking away from having our choices made for us. Everyone was invited into this new world, including men. We knew what it was like to be excluded because of our gender and we were going to lead by example. So, we held the door open.
Like the generation of women before us have done.The last time I participated in an event where women walked the streets without fear was Asma Jahangir’s funeral. When she passed away suddenly in February 2018, the grief was clouded by anxiety. Who would take her place? She was always the one we looked to in moments of crisis, when the consequenc-es of not acting quickly were dire.
Perhaps it was the crippling doubt that silenced the thousands of mourners at her funeral prayers. I remember how the men tried to push us out of the way one more time. They crowded around the cot carrying her body. It may not have been their intention but in the moment it felt like a taunt.
She wasn’t going to stand up and tell them to make space for us and they assumed we wouldn’t either.
Had all the progress Asma shepherded died with her, I wondered. But as I began to be pushed back, a woman next to me asked the women around her to make room for a line. She repeated her instructions a little louder. Soon she and the women around her were shouting over the men, demanding space.
People began to shuffle, stepping to their right, stepping to their left. Some moved forward, some stepped back. Slowly, rows began to form. We organised ourselves for a place to stand. And men and women prayed together.
Many women in the crowd sported bright yellow scarves with Urdu text printed on them. I asked the one closest to me what they meant.
She must have been in her early sixties. She smiled and said, “It’s for the members of the Women’s Action Forum. Have you heard of it?”
I blinked at her. I did not think there was a girl alive who did not know about WAF and what they had done for us. I wanted to be offended by her assumption of my ignorance. But then I realised that to live in a world where these hard-fought freedoms could be taken for granted was its own kind of privilege.
As the tributes to Asma poured in, a common theme was how she was the only woman lawyer girls knew about growing up. But at her funeral, swarms of women in black coats and shalwar-kameez, the court-mandated uniform for female lawyers, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with activists, journalists and writers. Each one of them able to choose their own path because women before them had paved the way. And taken the hits so we did not have to.
If we were worried that the silence at Asma’s funeral was in mourning for the death of women’s activism, then the noise at Aurat March should have reassured us that women will not be silenced.
I hope you’ll read Awakening and Womensplaining to learn more about challenges facing women in countries around the world – and the movements they are building to demand justice and equality. – Malala