Although #MeToo began in the United States and its high-profile American proponents have garnered the most attention, the movement is spreading to other parts of the world.
Less than a month after Alyssa Milano urged women in October to post the hashtag on social media in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, more than 2.3 million posts from 85 countries existed on Twitter, CNN reports. The most prolific #MeToo users reside in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, but the social media campaign had been noticeably less visible in Asia, Africa, and the Arab world.
For example, during the hashtag’s first month, 416 posts used #MeToo in China, a country with more than 1 billion people. The low number of posts isn’t because sexual harassment is nonexistent in China, as state media like to suggest.
Yet several recent, distinct episodes overseas show how the movement is making gains in conservative societies where talking about sexuality is still considered taboo.
In Pakistan, the rape and killing this month of 7-year-old Zainab Ansari sparked national outrage in a country where sexual assault against minors was criminalized only two years ago. Local and state police rarely intervene in sexual assault cases, and many rapists go unpunished. Victims, however, can be charged with adultery and imprisoned.
Ansari’s death has led to a wave of #MeToo-style declarations from sexual assault victims going public with their secrets. Among those who have spoken out are Frieha Altaf, a former model and public relations celebrity; and fashion designer Maheem Khan. Both shared stories of abuse as children and challenged the culture of shame and fear that keeps many Pakistanis silent about sexual assault.
Coverage of Ansari’s slaying and victims’ testimonies has prompted widespread discussion of sexual misconduct on daily talk shows across the country. The government, too, may have been jolted into action. Despite the absence of sex education in Pakistani schools, the minister of state for information and broadcasting, Marriyum Aurangzeb, has spoken in favor of bipartisan curriculum that would teach children how to protect themselves from abusers.
Progress has also been made in Africa, where the World Bank estimates that up to 80 percent of women in some countries believe domestic abuse is OK in certain circumstances. But the #MeToo movement has inspired a segment of the population that is denouncing attitudes that say women should accept sexual harassment and assault.
On Tuesday, hundreds of protesters marched in Nairobi, Kenya, demanding a criminal investigation into Kenyatta National Hospital staff who have been accused of assaulting new mothers. The march was organized after a popular Kenyan Facebook group posted the story of a new mother who said she was nearly raped while walking down a hallway to breastfeed her baby. Other members of the group responded with similar stories of misconduct.
And in China, the #MeToo campaign took a step forward when Beihang University officials removed a professor from his post as vice president of the graduate school after a former student now living in the United States posted her story online. A subsequent investigation found multiple instances of sexual misconduct against other students.
Many supporters cheered the initial victory, but the Chinese movement faces an uphill battle against the Communist Party, which has deleted posts and censored online discussion of sexual harassment to avoid social unrest. If the protests become too destabilizing, the party could suppress it through violent action—as it has in the past against citizen- and student-led demonstrations.
Although #MeToo has brought the swift downfall of high-profile offenders in the West, the movement will likely look much different in the rest of the world. Chinese advocates, to avoid a government crackdown on their speech, are calling for “mild and gentle” progress, but the party has already nixed seemingly harmless proposed changes, such as university seminars on improper conduct. Meanwhile, women in predominantly Muslim countries must grapple with accusations against men and religious leaders that could heighten anti-Islamic sentiment.
The #MeToo phenomenon has shown that sexual harassment crosses racial, cultural, and socio-economic barriers, but if it’s to be a truly global campaign, the voices of victims in fledgling movements must be amplified, and the international community must work to ensure that women have the freedom to speak against their abusers.