THE growing worldwide momentum of the #MeToo movement through which women who were sexually harrassed are speaking out after remaining silent for many years, echoes two erstwhile women’s movements of equal passion: the Suffragettes in the late-19th and early-20th centuries demanding women’s right to vote in public elections; and the 1950s feminists campaigning for equal pay for doing comparable jobs as men, and similar issues.
Social media, a key platform for #MeToo, is a powerful vehicle. But in the social media environment, #MeToo competes with numerous other movements, many of which reach thousands of people and then fade away as trending stories move on. Some are serious, others, trivial or mischievous, all clamouring for attention. Will the #MeToo movement fade like others, or have a lasting impact on men accustomed to using their power for sexual favours from women?
The growing list of accused men includes ordinary people, but also many high-profile names such as Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and actor Kevin Spacey in the United States. There too, Israeli actress Gal Gadot, star of the box office hit “Wonder Woman” refused to sign onto a sequel unless distributor Warner Bros cut financing with producer Brett Ratner, who has been accused, among other things, of masturbating in front of actress Olivia Munn.
An upsetting inclusion in the list is the late Holocaust survivor, Nobel Laureate and icon of moral standing Elie Wiesel, who has been accused of groping the buttocks of a 19-year old woman in 1989 during a group photograph at a charity event. Important Jewish papers such as the New York Jewish Week wrote pain-filled editorials about the dilemma in how to cover the story.
In Israel, Haaretz journalist Neri Livneh has accused Alex Gilady, president of Keshet Broadcasting group and Israel’s representative on the International Olympic Committee, of sexual ‘indecency’ towards her 18 years ago. She said she chose to speak up now to support another journalist, Channel 10 anchor Oshrat Kotler, who told viewers she received an ‘indecent’ advance 25 years ago from Gilady, when he was CEO of Keshet. She said she did not speak up earlier because she worried about the possible negative impact on her career.
And so it goes, revelation after revelation, many concerning incidents purported to have happened decades ago. In South Africa, former singer and ANC MP Jennifer Ferguson has accused former national soccer boss and anti-apartheid activist Danny Jordaan of raping her 24 years ago in a hotel room. And a former freedom fighter in exile during apartheid, Sibongile “Promise” Khumalo, has accused former Pan Africanist Congress leader Potlako Leballo of raping her in the 1970s.
There are arguments among supporters and opponents of #MeToo about whether “social media vigilantism” is the appropriate way, where accused men are not given the chance to pursue formal legal processes to defend themselves, before being publically named. But in the absence of effective legal channels for redress, “vigilantism” is going to flourish. Sadly, the formal legal channels in most countries have been notoriously unsympathetic to women on this issue, leaving the field to the social media.
#MeToo should be taken seriously. Even though many accusations are about things that happened long ago, exposing them now may set a new tone for the future. To succeed, it must beware of all kinds of people jumping on the bandwagon, clouding the issues with their own agendas, and creating a witchhunt mentality. It is easier for a woman to log into facebook than call a lawyer to lodge a complaint.
It would be gratifying if #MeToo made a lasting impact, as did the Suffragettes and the feminists. To do this, the wheat must be carefully distinguished from the chaff.
(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: email@example.com )