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#MeToo in Asia: Possibilities and Challenges

21 months have passed since the fall of Harvey Weinstein ushered in a global era of #MeToo. As explosive stories from New York Times and New Yorker weaved decades of suppressed murmurs into a harrowing chronicle of the Hollywood tycoon’s sexual abuse against women, actress Alyssa Milano made the hashtag viral on Twitter by encouraging people to share their sexual trauma. Coined by activist Tarana Burke in 2006, #MeToo has become a universal symbol of support for victims of sexual abuse and rage against such depraved acts.

Today, the movement has spread to almost every region of the world. As of March, women in more than 85 countries have rallied behind the hashtag. In Singapore, the city-state’s own “MeToo” moment culminated in the fallout surrounding the NUS-Monica Baey case, where tens of thousands of Singaporeans lashed out online against the peeping tom and perceived leniency from the university and the police. Local support for Baey was further revealed in our YouKnowANot survey, where almost seven in ten (69%) felt she did the right thing to publicize the incident.

NUS-Monica Baey Saga and Singapore’s #MeToo at Its Peak

#MeToo had been leaving its mark on Singapore even before Baey’s headline-grabbing incident. The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), a Singapore-based gender equality advocacy group, saw a 79% increase in reported cases after #MeToo gained momentum in the U.S. As the movement flourished globally, case numbers at AWARE never abated. “#MeToo encouraged survivors to come forward and seek the help they needed,” Lim Xiu Xuan, case manager at AWARE, said.

Baey’s fiery posts, detailing her frustrations with her peeping tom’s punishments, led #MeToo to new heights. To Lim, the NUS student’s decision was “the clearest, most resonant example of #MeToo thus far” in the nation. Beyond garnering a groundswell of support, Baey’s revelations prodded substantial institutional changes. NUS overhauled its disciplinary policies on sexual offense in June with tougher penalties for perpetrators, better support for victims, and compulsory modules on respect and consent for all students and staff. NTU and Singapore Management University have followed suit.

Besides Baey, organizations like AWARE also led Singapore’s fight against sexual assaults. After the establishment of its Sexual Assault Care Centre in 2014, AWARE launched Aim For Zero last November, a campaign complete with workshops advising employers, educators and parents how to foster an environment safe from sexual abuse. The ultimate aim, said Lim, is to “build a society with zero tolerance for sexual violence in all spaces”.

Singapore’s fight against sexual abuse peaked at a time when countries across Asia are coming to terms with their own #MeToo movements. While the hashtag imparted strength and hope to victims of sexual abuse, the political and cultural contexts endemic in the continent induce concerns about the movement’s prospects.

Seo Ji-hyun and South Korea’s #MeToo

South Korea was among the first Asian countries where #MeToo resonated with the public. It started when public prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun appeared on national television to accuse her former boss of repeatedly groping her. The high-achieving prosecutor had filed an internal complaint months ago, but was subsequently relegated to subordinate tasks at a remote office outside of Seoul.

When Seo learned about the #MeToo movement in Hollywood, she was surprised by the universality of her experience and inspired by the tenacity of the victims. On January 29, in an unprecedented gesture in Korea, Seo revealed to the public about her sexual harassment and unfair treatment at work. In her interview with TIME, the prosecutor, who initially blamed herself for her abuse, confided that she shared her experience to spread the spirit of #MeToo and “to tell many people out there that it’s not their fault.”

Seo’s message struck a chord with a society where sexual offenses have long been tolerated. Her public denunciation of such culture mobilised Korean women to find solidarity in their shared trauma and demand reform. Their determination was on plain display during last year’s Women’s Day celebration, when thousands took to the streets in Seoul, holding placards of #MeToo in a fervent feminist protest.

Powerful men—CEOs, politicians, teachers, authors, actors and more—have since fallen from their positions amidst waves of allegations. The Korean government also spearheaded legal reforms. According to Lexology, 139 bills on sexual abuse have been brought in front of the parliament, with revisions made to existing laws. Employers are now required to provide preventive sexual harassment trainings at least once a year. The changes further mandate protection for victims and witnesses of sexual offenses and obligates employers to investigate all complaints.

Luo Xixi and China’s Unlikely #MeToo Fervor

Like South Korea, China’s #MeToo was also ignited by the courageous revelations of women who experienced sexual abuse. The heavily censored internet exploded on the first day of 2018 when Luo Xixi, former PhD student at Beihang University, went on Weibo to accuse her professor Chen Xiaowu of trying to rape her. Luo further encouraged others to voice their stories using the hashtag #我也是(#MeToo). Her online statement, viewed more than three million times in a day, kickstarted China’s #MeToo movement.

Source: China Global Television Network. Click on image to watch the video

At least a dozen professors have since been enmeshed in sexual harassment allegations. #MeToo empowered women to protect their rights in the workplace as well, with many levelling complaints at high-profile figures from NGOs, corporates and the media. The most notorious case is the molestation accusation against popular state TV presenter Zhu Jun. Xian Zi, who made the allegation through Weibo, is set to become one of the first in the country's #MeToo movement to face their alleged offenders in court. The case marks a significant step forward for a country where the concept of sexual harassment remains fuzzy, and almost three in four college students and graduates reported to have been sexually abused in their lifetime.

#MeToo has further led to promises of legislative reform. On 27 August last year, China’s parliament announced its plan to redress the lack of specific legal prohibition of sexual offenses. Besides providing formal avenues for victims to seek justice, the changes will also demand employers to prevent, stop and tackle reports of sexual misdeeds.

Challenges Ahead for #MeToo in Asia

While #MeToo has emboldened many Asian women in their pursuit of protection and equal rights, challenges remain on a continent steeped in patriarchy, with many nations mired in autocracy.

That the latter can be an obstacle is evident in China, where the state highly disapproves of activism, with organised campaigns out of the question. Xian Zi’s post on Weibo was censored within two hours, while her other contents could not be shared for more than two weeks. Besides harsh online policing, China’s #MeToo also suffered authoritarian crackdown on the ground. College feminists for example, face pressure from university officials to tone down their insistence on reform. Under a system more invested in the façade of stability than actual dialogue with its disgruntled citizens, it is difficult for #MeToo to garner the level of attention, support and influence seen in the U.S.

Yet the freedom of expression alone is not enough for the movement to achieve the success it deserves. Traditional attitudes towards sexual abuse constitute an obstinate obstacle. In Singapore, Lim considers deeply-rooted biases (from a culture of silence and shame surrounding sexual violence to sexist stereotypes and victim-blaming attitudes) “major barriers” to #MeToo’s progress. “When survivors are met with judgment from friends, family and officials, they can be re-traumatised by the very experience of talking about their assault,” Lim explained. The fear of judgment and disbelief is so debilitating that only one in three victims at SACC reports their experiences to the police.

The prejudices that Lim perceives unveil a larger problem in Asia—patriarchy, an entrenched system that meets women’s rights with swift skepticism. This is seen in South Korea, where feminist movements including #MeToo are witnessing pushback from men who consider them a threat. The award-winning rapper San E, for example, lashed out against what he perceived as the hypocrisy among women in his song Feminist. The rapper dishes out lines such as “Hey if you want those rights so bad why aren’t you going to the military?” and “Oh girls don’t need a prince/ Then pay half for the house when we marry.” Underlain with patriarchal assumptions of women (as weak and economically dependent on men), San’s incendiary rhetoric dismisses all the real struggles Korean women like Seo face and invalidates their fight for gender equality.

#MeToo’s challenge also comes from within: the fierce speed of the movement has left little time for those involved to agree on what constitutes sexual offense. In Gwangju, the charge of 11 teachers and a principal with sexual abuse prompted a local newspaper editor to question if #MeToo has gone too far by allowing students to condemn teachers for commenting on their skirt lengths. Many critics in the region share this concern. As early as November 2017, Chip Tsao, a Hong Kong opinion leader, accused his female kindergarten teacher on Facebook because she once touched his face without consent. Tsao’s critique sparked reactions from more than 11,000 people. While many reprimanded him for his wry humor, others echoed his message, lamenting a movement out of control in the absence of a comprehensive definition of unacceptable sexual behavior.

Pause and Ponder

Just two years ago, hardly anyone in this part of the world could have imagined a phrase as mundane as “me too” to become the iconic rallying cry for women in this decade. The phrase’s renewed depth, urgency and energy have empowered numerous women in the region to defy the silence and shame around sexual assault and demand change. While the movement made strides in Asia, autocracy and patriarchy pose challenges to its development. Ambiguity surrounding the definition of sexual harassment and abuse further complicate #MeToo’s prospect.

To further its success, activists must think of meaningful ways to work around the constraints of #MeToo’s local contexts. Perhaps a little pause and ponder would work too, as the movement needs to draw the parameters of its battle, lest it degenerates into a fight that polarizes more than it unites.

Written by Xavier Xin