It’s been almost two years since millions of women across the world used the simple, yet powerful, hashtag #MeToo. During this time, women have exposed, in various ways, the everyday nature of gender-based violence, harassment and discrimination. Drawing from the origins of the term Me Too, the movement has also drawn attention to other forms of structural inequality, involving race and class, and the persistence of multiple discrimination.
#MeToo’s impact has, to be sure, varied between one country to the next; in some, it has been minimal, in others, massive. Politics, the arts, businesses and NGOs were upended. Increasingly, women who spoke out weren’t automatically met with disbelief, with some perpetrators even having been held to account.
While public opinion has shifted, questions remain about the direction and sustainability of #MeToo. Does it represent a permanent change for the better or a small window of opportunity that will shut again, resulting in a backlash? How can we make sure the efforts lead to enduring societal change?
These are among the many problems explored at a three-day conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, which is starting Tuesday and is partly live streamed. The conference — which is organized as a part of Iceland’s presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers — gathers over 80 thinkers along with more than 800 participants to discuss the causes, manifestations and effects of the #MeToo movement.
As for my own country, Iceland, #MeToo has been characterized by organized groups of women who shared their stories of violence and abuse, anonymously, as a way to underpin collective demands for structural change. This act of testimonial story-telling was extremely powerful. As more women spoke out, the more marginal realities were exposed, forcing us to urgently examine places where a culture of impunity had manifested.
For many of us, the testimonies of migrant and ethnic minority women marked a turning point. They described levels of multiple discrimination that most of us had hoped didn’t exist in Iceland. They revealed that while Iceland has made internationally recognized progress on gender equality, we have not sufficiently confronted the intersections of gender, racial and class injustices. In this regard, Iceland, as well as the other Nordic countries, have lessons to learn from more diverse societies. Notably, this is one of the key themes at the conference. Simultaneously, we strive to seek out the voices that were not heard during the noisiest waves of #MeToo. In Iceland, women with disabilities didn’t, for example, speak out in an organized way. And neither did women in various low-pay sectors or those who have been victimized by the sex trade. Gender equality struggles cannot be fought selectively; they have to involve all social groups.
As Prime Minister, I am determined to make sure that my government plays its part. We have reviewed laws and processes, sped up our prevention work against sexual and gender-based violence and abuse, and undertaken a thorough review of the government’s role as an employer. Yet, we need to do more. What #MeToo requires is a radical, cultural change. Revised structures will certainly help, but no single policy or toolbox offers a silver bullet.
As we examined the scope and impact of harassment and abuse in our government offices, the conclusion was that institutionally, they were prepared to respond to individual incidents until they happened. Processes were in place as well as important structures. But as is so often the case, not least in small societies, it all became “more complicated” when the victim and the perpetrator had a name and a face.
Within the global context, progressive policies on gender equality are now being tested and hampered by a hostile political climate. Women’s bodies are being re-politicized in countries where the debate over women’s reproductive rights and bodily autonomy should have been concluded decades ago. We are witnessing a return to aggressive nationalism and social regression and a systematic undermining of universal human rights, where women and minorities are usually the first in the firing line.
As we take stock of the #MeToo movement and explore the potential for improvement, there is an urgent need to ground it firmly in the continued battle for the protection and promotion of human rights.
Social and cultural changes never come about without a struggle. #MeToo demands that we keep asking painful and provocative questions because of gender inequality, which intersects with other injustices, is one of the most persistent evils of our times. Only by maintaining an active dialogue and by pushing for transformative change, will we be able to move forward toward a more egalitarian society.