From the euphoria of the Women’s March, which saw nearly 5 million people participate in 673 simultaneous marches across the world, to the beginning of the #MeToo movement, which proved a catalyst for millions of women to expose their experiences of sexual assault and harassment, it is clear that 2017 was a game changer. However, if the legacy of 2017 and the #MeToo movement is to manifest itself into something more, 2018 needs to bring real, concrete change.
Despite last year’s protests and hashtags, “a decade of slow but steady progress on improving parity between the sexes came to a halt,” the World Economic Forum reported in its the Global Gender Gap 2017 Report. The global gender gap, in fact — widened — in 2017. The first time since it was first published in 2006.
And while, the women who have dominated the media and our attention, have come from privileged backgrounds, and elite workplaces, they aren't the only ones in need for change. There are women, from Myanmar to South Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo, who want soldiers to stop using rape as a systemic weapon of war. There are 15 million girls below the age of 18 set to be married off this year, who would like to go to school instead, and 3 million others who would rather not be cut in 2018. And millions more who want to see the use of so-called honor killings, acid attacks, domestic violence, stop. The fight for equality and justice still has to be won on practically every front, in every country. It has to be in the workplace as the last few months have shown— sure — but in battlefields, homes, schools, hospitals and cabinets, too.
For this to happen, the energy of the marches, the furious hashtags and the winces, need to be harnessed to connect the struggles of women and girls internationally.
In a three-part series VICE Impact will speak to the local journalists, activists and doctors, fighting for change outside of Hollywood, whose voices are often unheard, to discuss how we can make movements, like #MeToo, more inclusive and impactful in 2018, because one hashtag does not fit all.
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“In Afghanistan, women can’t say they faced sexual harassment. If a woman shares someone’s identity, he will kill her or kill her family. We can never accuse men, especially high-ranking men, without great risk,” Shaharzad Akbar, 30, who works as an adviser to President Ashraf Ghani told The New York Times.
This is because rape or sexually assaulted victims in Afghanistan are often deemed to have brought shame on their family – even though they are the victims, and often have to face or fear ‘honor killings’.
And women in the media have been especially vulnerable to this, in part because of their active public social media profiles. “When I was a child, I had some experiences of sexual harassment which still bother me. #MeToo,” Maryam Mehtar tweeted on October 18. Mahtar, a 24-year-old freelance journalist, based in Kabul, was one of the first and last Afghani women to say #MeToo. What followed was a spate of hate mail and sexually abusive comments on Facebook and Twitter messages.
VICE Impact spoke to Maryam Mehtar about how one hashtag doesn't necessarily fit all and what she would like to see in 2018.
VICE Impact: A 2016 study found that 90 percent of the 346 women and girls interviewed in Afghanistan said they had experienced sexual harassment in public places 91 percent in educational environments, and 87 percent at work. Yet, only a small handful of Afghani women said #MeToo?
Maryam Mehtar: I am sure that no woman in Afghanistan has been safe from sexual harassment. Yet, most women are afraid or embarrassed to speak of their ordeals.
But it’s not their fault. They fear that they will be accused or punished by their families, or community members if they confess to having been sexually harassed. And their fears have been proven right so far. Women who have opened up have faced hate and anger. They haven't received any sympathy.
In Afghanistan, if a woman talks about sexual harassment, people will think that she is the bad girl. No one blames men. When you have institutes of shame, people blame the victims.
Why did you decide to speak out?
I am a journalist. Two years ago I made a decision to write about sexual harassment, but I couldn't find a girl that was willing to talk to me about the issue. Once, I spoke about it with a few women who seemed to me to be bright and literate, but they attacked me and did not support me. One of them even told me that I was a prostitute. So I promised myself that if anyone ever asked me for an interview about sexual harassment, I would give them an interview and speak about harassment.
So when the media approached me recently to ask me to talk about sexual harassment in Afghanistan, I agreed to speak out. I took the opportunity to say that a positive change in the minds of Afghani women was needed. Women need to know that seeking justice and protesting against injustices is never a shameful act.
How was #MeToo perceived in Afghanistan?
The #MeToo campaign has not been very popular in Afghanistan for a number of reasons. The majority of Afghan women are afraid to talk about their experiences of harassment. Because, in most cases, instead of being supported by people and society, they are more likely to get attacked.
I first saw the #MeToo campaign on Twitter. Some Afghan women wrote about their experiences of sexual harassment on the platform. Just on Twitter though. The platform isn't used so much in Afghanistan, so it wasn't as dangerous as speaking about it on Facebook for example, which a lot more people use.
What reaction did you personally receive?
Once I’d spoken about sexual harassment and own personal experiences, almost everyone who has access to the internet became aware of my conversations.
Most people encouraged me. Most of my friends appreciated my interview. Some didn’t and told me that I’d only spoken about this issue to make a name for myself, or escape Afghanistan.
But thankfully my family has stood beside me and has always appreciated my work. They’ve told me that I should continue to express myself, without fear.
What next? What change do you want to see in 2018 when it comes to stopping sexual assault and harassment against women (worldwide and in Afghanistan)?
Unfortunately, women all over the world have and are always being abused. From the largest and most advanced countries to the most war-torn countries, such as Afghanistan. What I hope for in 2018 is that we no longer differentiate between men and women in society and just speak about human beings instead.
To protect journalists like Maryam Mehtar, Reporters Without Borders have just launched the ‘ Center for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists .’ To ensure that voices like Mahtar continue to be heard, you can support their work .
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.