The Forever Virus
A Strategy for the Long Fight Against COVID-19
On October 15, 2017, American actress Alyssa Milano posted a tweet urging women to speak up and out about their experiences with sexual assault or harassment using the phrase “me too.” Overnight, social media erupted, as #MeToo took hold in every corner of the world. By the end of the day, there were similar movements in multiple languages, including Arabic, Farsi, French, Hindi, and Spanish. Today, women in 85 different countries are using the hashtag to bring attention to the violence and harassment they face in daily life and to demand change.
Even though the civil rights activist Tarana Burke started the “Me Too” movement over a decade ago, the global response to Milano’s tweet took many, including Burke, by surprise. What accounts for #MeToo’s overwhelming success in 2017 and beyond? Many point to social media, but that is only part of the story. Existing women’s movements all over the world have spent decades laying the groundwork for what is happening today. By mobilizing communities, establishing strategies of resistance, raising awareness, and breaking down the taboos that have traditionally silenced conversations about women’s rights, these earlier movements allowed #MeToo to become a global phenomenon.
SETTING THE STAGE
Over the last several years, women’s movements around the world have achieved landmark victories on issues such as voting rights, sexual and reproductive health, and equality under the law. To be sure, there is more work to be done: women in Saudi Arabia still live under the repressive male guardianship system, unmarried women in Iran cannot easily access reproductive health services, and women throughout the world are still fighting for equal pay. But recent developments have encouraged women across the globe to be more optimistic about the prospects of change.
Success inspires success. In a networked world, women can quickly and easily learn about the progress made by other women, both at home and abroad. Inspiration becomes contagious—the success of one movement leads to another. It is important to consider #MeToo in its global context and to acknowledge the sources from which it is drawing momentum.
Consider Nigeria—after the extremist group Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls in April 2014, Nigerian activists took to social media, launching the #BringBackOurGirls campaign to bring worldwide attention to the plight of these girls and push for their release. The campaign was so successful in raising awareness that people across the globe, including then U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama and the pope, spoke out against the kidnappings.
The movement also mobilized women in Nigeria. Since Boko Haram opposes female education, women’s groups created safe spaces for girls to study. They also organized protests outside embassies to keep up the pressure on the Nigerian government to ensure the return of all who had been kidnapped. As of January 2018, roughly 140 of the girls have escaped or been exchanged through mediation. While a significant number are still held captive, this movement was a major catalyst for global organizing on women’s issues. The activists involved with #BringBackOurGirls started a global conversation and brought partners from all corners of the world to speak out about violence against women and human trafficking. The movement also was a watershed moment in demonstrating how social media could be used to raise awareness on women’s issues.
Across the Atlantic, women’s movements in Guatemala and Chile have also achieved major milestones in the last two years. In February 2016, a Guatemalan court prosecuted two former members of the military for harrowing acts of sexual violence committed during the civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996. In a historic ruling for rape survivors in Guatemala, these men were found guilty of crimes against humanity for sexually abusing 15 indigenous women and they were sentenced to a combined 360 years in prison. This victory encouraged more women to come forward and denounce their abusers. Today, numerous women’s groups are working together to break the silence around sexual violence and to promote legislative change.
In August 2017, a Chilean women’s movement known as Mujeres en Marcha Chile helped drive the passage of a new law that legalizes abortion under certain circumstances. In a country where women have been calling for abortion rights for decades, this was a major victory that signaled that the door may now be open for further reform.
Inspired by their successes at home, some women’s groups are also tackling transnational problems. For example, after U.S. President Donald Trump reinstated the so-called “global gag rule,” which prevents foreign organizations that receive U.S. family-planning funds from providing information, referrals, or services for legal abortion or advocating for access to abortion services, Mujeres en Marcha Chile began working to undo the harm of this policy and ensure that women have access to sexual and reproductive health services.
The Women’s March, which began as an American response to the election of Trump, has also been inspired by and inspiring to transnational women’s movements. In January 2017, millions of women marched in major cities on every continent. This January, the anniversary once again drew millions to the streets. These marches engaged women who previously had not felt willing or able to participate in political processes, and they increased the visibility of women’s activism.
THE #METOO MOMENT
In a number of places, the #MeToo movement is building directly on top of preexisting conversations about women’s rights. In Iran, for example, the women’s movement has been a significant presence since the constitutional revolution of 1905–11, when women organized to push for access to education and political rights. During the Iranian Revolution of 1979, women were active in denouncing the corruption of the shah. Although they were subsequently silenced by the new regime, they still fought back through the press and politics. And in 2009, women were again at the forefront of the Green Movement, demanding the removal of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The iconic image of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman who was gunned down during the protests, served as a rallying call for women across the Middle East. Then, in 2014, the “My Stealthy Freedom” movement took hold, as Iranian women took photographs of themselves in public places without the hijab to subversively question the fabric of morality through which the regime seeks to govern. Many credit this movement with laying the foundation for the antigovernment protests that rocked the country in December and January. It has certainly helped the women’s movement successfully negotiate more lax rules about the hijab.
#MeToo tapped into a conversation that was already happening in Iran through #MyStealthyFreedom and other forms of organizing. Responding to Milano’s call in October, Iranian actresses, activists, and allies began to talk about #MeToo on social media, speaking out against their harassers and posting photographs of themselves wearing white hijabs, which represent a call for peace. This has sent a strong message to the regime about the determination of young Iranian women.
In Egypt, many women experienced physical and sexual assault, arrest, and even exile, because of their prominent role in the Arab Spring. Still, they persisted and opened a new dialogue on women's rights. In 2011, for example, young women started the #NudePhotoRevolutionary movement, posting photographs of themselves to make a political statement about agency, morality, and autonomy. Today, #MeToo is serving as a powerful call to action for the women who were on the frontlines in Tahrir Square as they continue to push for sexual and reproductive rights.
The #MeToo movement has also taken off in India, a country still reeling from the horrific gang rape and murder of a young woman on a New Delhi bus in 2012. Immediately after this incident, numerous protests broke out as women’s groups organized to demand legal reforms around sexual violence. These groups were successful in fast-tracking legislative change in the courts, but women still felt that it was not enough. Under the banner of #MeToo, activists are calling for further legal reforms that will protect those who speak up and impose harsher punishments on perpetrators. As activists in India note, the hashtag’s widespread use has revealed the painful extent of sexual violence in their country. A number of Indian women’s groups are also using the hashtag to expose politicians, actors, and other power brokers who have long histories of sexual violence.
VOICES FOR CHANGE
As many commentators have pointed out, #MeToo is tied to events happening in the United States. Equally important, however, are the movements that paved the way and are carrying the message forward.
Movements build over time and across borders. Thanks to the concerted efforts of activists around the world, lasting change is possible. The discourse is already shifting, as young people speak out against oppression and embrace new norms around gender and sexuality. The global success of the #MeToo movement has demonstrated that women’s groups are organized, networked, and building on one another’s efforts and achievements. As women raise their voices together, their harrowing stories, drowned out for so long, are becoming a coherent and determined voice of change.