Old power structures do not fall easily, writes Rashmee Roshan Lall, and there is a danger the ongoing American revolution of manners might fail
Will the Weinstein effect go global?
Almost every day of every week now, some man somewhere in the world – from Hollywood to Bollywood, Florida to France – is accused of sexual harassment or assault. Many of the accused are famous and very important people, others are not. Some of the alleged misbehaviour constitutes serious crimes. But often enough it is relatively minor and from fairly long ago. In the US, UK, France, the accused men are generally named and shamed. In India thus far, they remain anonymous.
Is this really a watershed moment then? Can this be described as a great re-balancing of the gender equation and of women’s rights? Is the world being remade using a better, more moral mould?
Don’t bet on it. Not just yet. The word that may sum up the fever of the past two months is partial, as in limited or sectional. The so-called “Weinstein effect” that began to roll across the powerful and consequential worlds of American cinema, politics, journalism and technology from early October is overwhelmingly centred in and on the United States. It is mostly to do with American cultural habits and expectations and American women’s apparent need to force an update of social norms and professional practices. It is partial, in terms of geography, the gender driver and the alleged abuse of great power by prominent people.
Even this much is welcome, of course. No one can deny the simple logic and enormous power of an upsurge in calls for decency, good manners and acceptable behaviour. From the US, as with many other cultural exports, the new mood of intolerance towards harassment will probably spread to other countries.
But this is not yet a mass movement across the world with women and men standing together against male lewdness and female degradation. Other than urban social media flashes – mainly the #MeToo hashtag on Twitter and Facebook – from Lagos or Mumbai, the culture of male impunity and misbehavior remains largely unchallenged in South Asia, East Asia, Africa and the Middle East. This, despite a startling statistic from the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women. It says 35 per cent of women around the world have experienced physical or sexual violence. We have not heard from them yet.
Moral turpitude is not the preserve of American men for all that this particular season of outrage began in earnest with Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein. He was simultaneously accused by more than a dozen women of sexual harassment and assault. With the number of his accusers growing by the day, other American women started to out other Weinsteins in other workplaces. Mostly, they did it by banding together, adding personal testimony to someone else’s account, thereby building up an anecdotal case, brick-by-brick, against the accused man.
Read more from Opinion
Thus far, the movement has largely been an American story. Some even say it is an American political story, the radioactive residue from the polarizing 2016 presidential election. On Sunday, senior Democratic Party politician Nancy Pelosi insisted “the election of President Trump evoked what happened to Harvey (Weinstein) and now everybody is served notice.” Mr Trump, who has been accused by at least 24 women of sexual harassment and/or assault, won the election despite audiotape of his own statements.
Ms Pelosi’s diagnosis chimes with an inescapable sense that many American female voters felt disrespected by the electoral validation of Mr Trump’s behaviour and wanted to take a stand. As with most hypothetical situations, it is hard to predict the strength of the “Weinstein effect” had Mr Trump lost to his female opponent. But this much at least can be said with certainty. Had there been a president Hillary Clinton, her election would have embodied the supposed progress of American women, their continued onward march towards parity with men. There would have been little, if any, re-examination of the iniquitous power equation that governs gender relationships in American institutions.
How fast and far will such a re-examination go worldwide? Can it spawn local variants in disparate geographies and conditions? Will low-paid garment factory workers in Bangladesh, for instance be empowered to reject inappropriate demands from male managers? Will maids in India ever be able to speak up against lascivious sahibs and be supported by society? When a Bollywood actor’s maid accused him of rape some years ago, she retracted the charge and was prosecuted for perjury.
Old power structures do not fall easily and there is a danger the ongoing American revolution of manners might fail if it becomes both too big and too trivial. All sorts of male behaviour, some criminal, some just slightly rude, are currently being bundled together. No proper distinction is being made between a compliment (even if unwelcome or inappropriate), a proposition, physical assault, mental harassment and a consensual entanglement.
Revolutions are marked by early excesses. To succeed, they need passion and a sense of proportion.