From hashtags to action: what next for #MeToo?

For the most part, powerful women. For the most part, influential women. For the most part, white women. #MeToo is the hashtag that rocked the world. For all the progress it has made in shedding a light and exposing sexual harassment and abuse, it has also managed to erase the voices who first sung its verse. Awakening questions of inclusivity and political effectiveness, the movement is unsure how to convert itself from stories into action.

This reckoning appears to have sprung up overnight, but it has actually been simmering for years, decades, centuries.  In 2006, the female activist Tarana Burke coined the tsunami that is “Me Too”, as a way to help women and young girls who had survived sexual assault. Fast-forward more than a decade, and the phrase has been reignited as the slogan of the anti-sexual harassment movement. However, not all women are included. When Time magazine earlier this year recognized the #MeToo movement as its Person of the Year, it solidified not only how much of a watershed moment this is, when it comes to sexual harassment, it also showed just how whitewashed it is.

As a result, the stories that have formed #MeToo’s emerging portrait—all those splashes of color and light—have been all the stories that have remained in the darkness: the long shadows cast by all the people who lack the privileges of publicity. This moment is the result of the collective labour of women of different colors and walks of life, who turned private agonies into public battles on behalf of social justice. As overdue and welcome as this reckoning is, there’s also the unsettling reality that a movement built largely on the labour of women of colour has been co-opted by a discussion that prioritizes the experiences of victims who are influential, white, wealthy, and privileged over those who are not.

At the same time the #MeToo moment has become something larger than itself: a lens through which we view the world, a sense of blinders being taken off. This is demonstrated in the power of social media. Allowing women around the world to immediately see how their sisters are battling to make progress. The women’s movement which, in decades gone by, flourished around kitchen tables and at school gates is now international.  The sisterhood is now global, and there’s no doubt that the mood has changed. Assaults on women which were commonplace, but not acknowledged, are now put in the public domain and challenged.

By contrast, many believe that in order for this movement to thrive and go from a movement in the moment, to a movement of change, we have to learn the right lessons from these moments. Acknowledging the fact that the movement needs leaders, to find its direction and become more inclusive. That might be Tamaran Burke, a panel of provocative female leaders from all political affiliations, from all sections of society, or organizations that can coordinate resistance.

All this being said, supporters of #MeToo claim the fact that the movement does not have a leader is its strength. By using people on the ground the movement is affecting real change, because real people are involved in making that change, without the need to answer to someone.

Trana Burke didn’t start the #MeToo movement for it to be hijacked by affluent and powerful white women on Capitol Hill and in Hollywood whose voices often have the most influence. Burke sought to draw attention to the pervasiveness of sexual assault in all racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.  The point of the movement is to show the “magnitude” of a problem that is deeply rooted in society. But now that #MeToo’s virality has peaked on social media, what comes after this awareness-raising effort? The #MeToo chorus isn’t going to stop the problem. Talking about it online is not going to end the wider silence. The powers behind this movement have to figure out how to move beyond the slogans and debates to affect cultural and legislative change, by realizing that there are not enough systems in place in any industry to prevent sexual harassments. There is a need to recognize the difficulties in coming forward as a survivor of sexual assault.

Workplace harassment is most prevalent in sectors which rarely make headlines in this context – particularly in male-dominated areas, like engineering and construction, the military, finance, transport, and in areas of minimum wage work where women are in public facing roles, such as care-workers cleaning staff in hotels and waitresses.

It is clear that #MeToo is a movement that is unsure of how to convert itself from stories into action and become more systemized and politically effective. The movement highlights a common problem: feminist movements are often whitewashed when they’re brought to the table. Women of color are often overlooked and left out of the very conversations they create. One thing is for certain: this grassroots organization turned into a movement is in need of a body if it is not to be a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow.

Nasra Mahat

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