Updated: Oct 3, 2018
You have to have been under a rock to not have been rocked by news of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which broke on an international scale nearly one year ago. The emergence of allegations against one of Hollywood's most powerful producers gave rise to innumerable stories, from both famous and unknown women, of sexual assault and exploitation. As such, rather than fade and give way to other scandalous events, the Weinstein scandal has in fact gained momentum over the last 12 months and has been credited with the birth of the #MeToo movement. On the face of it, this movement has been a good thing. It has liberated countless women who for many years were unable to free themselves from the secret shame of assault. But sadly, not everyone has benefited from this liberation. The most high profile victims of #MeToo have been Caucasian; there has been little ethnic representation in the movement. And this is particularly shocking given the fact the #MeToo hashtag and campaign was actually launched in 2006 by Tarana Burke (pictured), an African-American social activist.
Burke's work in supporting black girls victimised by sexual violence dates back to the early 2000s. As these young girls opened up to her about what they endured, she found herself being reminded of her own experiences with sexual assault. Over time, she realised that she was most effective in her interactions with them by sharing that she, too, had also been a victim, hence the phrase 'Me, too.' From this, Burke developed a movement to build awareness about sexual violence against girls and women in ethnic communities. And whilst she successfully developed solidarity amongst those she worked with, her work was not internationally-recognised. It wasn't even acknowledged nationally. Because the experiences of black and ethnic women are not, and have never been, deemed as important as their Caucasian counterparts. This reality has been highlighted by many others and has recently been poignantly illustrated in the searing award-winning documentary 'I Am Evidence', released in April 2017.
'I Am Evidence' sheds unflinching light on the epidemic of untested rape kits dumped in abandoned storage facilities across America. Rape kits contain key DNA evidence taken from victims' bodies when they attend hospital or the police department to report a rape. Why where these kits untested? Because in many instances, the victims who reported the crime were not deemed credible by the police officer recording the report. It cannot be ignored that while some of the women featured in the documentary were white, the majority of victims who weren't considered credible where disturbingly and without coincidence women of colour. Subsequently, the police department would decide that their cases were not worth the attention or resources to be followed through. And so, these women sat, for years, silenced and without justice. When Kym Worthy, African-American county prosecutor of Wayne County, Michigan became aware of over 10,000 untested kits in her state, she began a campaign to have them tested and pushed for the testing of kits across the United States. In doing so, they have begun to identify serial rapists across the country and obtain justice for some victims which they should have received years before. There should have been an international outcry about this. There should have at least been a national one. There wasn't either. When Mariska Hartigay, white, American, famed actress from 'Law & Order: Special Victims Unit', courageously produced the 'I Am Evidence' documentary, international attention was brought to the issue. But before she spoke, it didn't matter.
Right here in Waltham Forest, we have our own battle on the #MeToo front to fight. For example, female genital mutilation (FGM) is a pervasive problem amongst ethnic, migrant communities. Local campaigners Hibo Wardere and Leyla Hussain are at the forefront of this cause, bringing attention to the devastating psychological, emotional and physical impact of this procedure. Most victims of FGM are girls and thus in this country FGM is seen as an act of child abuse. Yet, this issue is not widely discussed or openly acknowledged as a women's issue. It is seen as a cultural matter and has therefore not been integrated into the #MeToo discussion, either locally or nationally.
One of the complexities of the #MeToo movement is the issue of sexuality and choice. While contemporary actresses have largely chosen to ignore or decry this aspect of the discussion, some actresses of yesteryear have openly admitted that it has always been the norm for women to use their sexuality to propel their careers, not just onscreen but with directors and producers. For many, this has blurred the lines between female sexual liberation and exploitation, causing them to denounce the #MeToo movement as hypocritical. But for the purposes of this blog, the real issue is of socioeconomic advantage. Many of the women who interacted with Weinstein came from good socioeconomic backgrounds and had a variety of career options readily available to them. Entering Hollywood was a choice and for some this involved willingly using their sexuality to promote themselves. This fact, by absolutely no means, entitled Weinstein and predators like him to rape and assault women, especially those who wanted to succeed purely on the basis of talent. However, we must question why the voices of advantaged women (in an environment where sexuality for promotion is a regular choice) are valued more than the voices of socioeconomically disadvantaged women of colour (often with little status or economic recourse), who are sexually exploited regularly in silence. The #MeToo movement was originally launched to amplify these voices. In the current discussion of gender equality in the UK, we must acknowledge this inequality amongst women. The #MeToo movement will not truly be effective until it ensures that all women who can sadly say 'me, too', regardless of race and/or socioeconomic background, are equally heard.