#MeToo: Break the Silence by Nouf Ajaji

A social activist, Tarana Burke began using the phrase “Me Too” on a social network called Myspace in 2006 as part of a campaign to empower women of color through empathy towards women who have experienced sexual abuse. The title was inspired after a 13 year old girl confided in her when she was sexually assaulted. When this happened, Tarana Burke was too speechless and unable to respond to her at the time. Later she wished she had just told the girl “Me Too”.

 

In 2017, American actress Alyssa Milano encouraged women who have been sexually harassed and assaulted to use the hashtag #MeToo on twitter as part of an awareness campaign to show the world the magnitude of the problem. Within one day the post received more than 38,000 comments, 13,000 retweets and 27,000 likes.

In February 2018, a Pakistani woman took to Facebook  to write about the repeated sexual harassment she encountered while in Mecca. Starting the hashtag #MosqueMeToo.

The Egyptian-American feminist Mona El Tahawy then set the hashtag in motion by sharing her own experience of sexual assault at the age of 15. Her tweet was shared more than 2000 times in 24 hours.

Now imagine this: You walk down the street, alone, passing a group of guys hanging out with no place to go to. Your guard instantly goes up in preparation to what’s about to take place. Many things could happen when you pass by them. It may be words like “hey beautiful” or “hey sexy” or being told to smile. It may be more intentional like standing in the way or blocking the path in hope of some interaction. It may get more aggressive, with hands reaching to inappropriate places. The blaming game then starts – Had she somehow asked for it? Could she have deflected it?  And you keep thinking to yourself, did I do something wrong? Or Did I look  a certain way to make them think its O.K.?

The spectrum is far and wide, with one end harboring the potential for things to become more violent with physical abuse or rape. The sad truth is that sexual harassment and abuse is part and parcel of our daily life particularly in public places. It’s used to curtail our freedom to keep us at home or in some countries out of school or jobs. The outpouring of such stories from women using #MeToo and #MosqueMeToo and its many iterations has showed the size and uniformity of the problem — irrespective of country and culture.

In Asia, especially South Asia, there is a massive male sexual entitlement where public spaces are run by men. Research done by an International charity ActionAid in 2016 found that 44% of women surveyed in India have been groped in public. In Bangladesh, the number is as high as 84% of women experiencing derogatory comments or sexual advances in public.

In Australia, with 87% of women surveyed by the Australia Institute reporting at least one form of verbal or physical street harassment and 40% do not feel safe walking in their own neighborhoods at night. In Papua New Guinea, the baseline is more violent, with 77% of women experiencing some form of sexual violence on buses or when waiting for buses.

In the Middle East and North Africa, the hashtag #MeToo has been quieter until the hashtag #MosqueMeToo started. The reason for the silence is that sexual harassment and abuse in this region is associated with shame and the woman risks losing her job and family by coming forward. The reason for this is that many men in this region have a feeling of entitlement and a feeling that “they have always done this” and that sexual harassment is not wrong. In Egypt, a 2013 report by UN Women found that 99% of women surveyed across seven regions in the country had experienced some form of sexual harassment.

Sadly, I was not shocked by these numbers, as a woman living in this area we were taught to stay quiet or be blamed for what we wore or how we looked when we speak up about getting harassed. Its normalized so much by both men and women that it’s not reported but when it is reported the woman will be blamed. I used to always ask people this question, why do we get blamed for the actions of men? They answer of course by saying it’s the society that we live in. But, Isn’t this society made up of us too and that we can change how people perceive things especially if it’s so wrong?

To many people this reckoning appears to have sprung up overnight. But it has been simmering for years, decades, centuries. We have had it with men who not only cross boundaries but don’t even seem to know that boundaries exist or how far is too far. We have had it with the fear of retaliation, of being blackballed, of being fired from a job for speaking up. We have had it with the code of going along to get along. We have had it with men who use their power to take what they want from women. These silence breakers have started a revolution of refusal, gathering strength by the day.

In 2017, the world has made two things clear: Sexual harassment is everywhere and for this to stop we need to break our silence and stand up for ourselves without fear and hopefully the day will come where nobody has to ever to say #MeToo again.

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