This post was originally published by Eurozine and was accompanied by three other posts that Public Seminar has reposted this week.  

Following the first wave of the #MeToo movement, a new phase of reflection has set in. Here, four authors and journal editors from the US and Europe assess #MeToo’s achievements and potential, but also its limitations in changing a culture of sexual harassment.

The #MeToo campaign, having started in the US, has swept Europe and created a new social situation in which women feel inspired to speak out against sexual harassment and violence. But, curiously enough, some parts of Europe have remained almost untouched by the campaign. Indeed, as we travel from north to south, and from west to east, women’s voices are heard less and less. When we reach the Balkans, they turn into a mere whisper. As if no harassment happens there. While the campaigns will always have a local color – in France, men have been called ‘pigs’, which is not the case in, say, Germany – one wonders about the countries where the campaign has barely registered. In Bulgaria, for example, the effects are nothing compared to the tectonic shifts in Sweden, where a new law about consent has recently been proposed (see Anne Ighe’s contribution). This is important: changing public attitudes is essential, but every revolution should also aim to change institutions.

Differing levels of sexual harassment between countries were demonstrated by a major study in 2014, including 42,000 women from all 28 EU member states. The results were striking. In Scandinavian countries, more than two-thirds of women had been harassed, while in Poland and Romania the figure was 32 percent. Bulgaria ranked lowest, with 24 per cent. Overall, however, only 6 per cent of women had reported serious sexual harassment to colleagues, only 4 per cent had contacted the police, and fewer than 1 per cent had spoken to a lawyer. Again, the figures were highest in Denmark, Sweden and France.

Even between western countries, understandings of what constitutes sexual harassment vary greatly. A recent poll of women and men in Germany, Britain, France, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway revealed that, when it comes to sexual jokes, German women are more tolerant than British, while Danish women barely react. Only 37 percent of British women object when a man puts his arm around a woman’s waist, while 72 percent of French women take offense. Even a look at their breasts upsets half of them.

If such differences exist between western countries, then what about the differences between western countries and former communist countries, where the response to #MeToo campaign has been comparatively weak? In Hungary, the campaign has had some impact, though remains limited to the cultural sphere and to liberal circles (see Réka Kinga Papp’s contribution). In Poland, nearly 35,000 posts with the tags #MeToo and #JaTeż appeared in social media between 15 and 22 October, including by celebrities. In the following months, however, the campaign lost momentum – perhaps not surprising when, according to the Eurobarometer’s ‘Gender-based violence’ report, as many as 30 percent of Poles think that sex without the consent of the other person might be justified depending on the circumstances (the figure is 27 percent across Europe as a whole).

Czech Radio reported that, according to statistics, every tenth woman in the Czech Republic has been raped, but only about eight percent ever report the crime to the police, while just two percent of perpetrators are ever convicted. In response to the #MeToo campaign, the European commissioner for gender equality, the Czech politician Věra Jourová, revealed that she too had been a victim of sexual violence and called on women to join the movement.

Although Romania has one of the highest rates of violence against women in Europe, the police said that only 34 cases were filed in 2017. In Romania, hundreds of stories were shared on social media in reaction to the #MeToo campaign. Among them, the MP Florina Presada revealed that she herself had been harassed. However, the campaign died out before bearing any further fruit.

The same happened in Slovakia. The few stories about sexual harassment that did appear there concerned men who were deceased. ‘In Slovakia, we often react in a bizarre way when a woman reveals she has been abused or experienced sexual harassment,’ said Ľubica Rozborová of the Department of Gender Equality and Equal Opportunities of the Ministry of Labour. ‘We tend to distrust her, question her words or blame her for having caused the incident.’

While there has at least been some reaction in these countries, in Estonia or Croatia, for example, there has been almost nothing. All that appeared in the latter were a few sensationalist articles in the media, to the dismay of feminists there.

All in all, the #MeToo campaign in eastern Europe cannot be compared to that in the West, either in intensity and duration, or in terms of real-life consequences, be it demoting men in powerful positions or widespread public support. The question is why women in eastern Europe, who are probably harassed as much as, if not more than, women in the West, do not perceive it as a harassment? Are they more tolerant? Or is their perception of what is permitted and what isn’t formed by a different political regime?

Describing how she was sexually harassed as a child and then as an adolescent in Romania, Maria Bucur writes in Public Seminar that, ‘I never felt free to discuss my fear of being sexually assaulted, because there was no precedent, no language, no acknowledgement of its pervasiveness.’ Differences in reactions to the campaign are a matter of history and conditioning. Communism as an ideology and political practice included the emancipation of women. In many countries, communism meant that women got equal rights as men for the first time – the right to vote, education, work, divorce, inheritance, abortion, maternity leave, child support, etc. The truth is that this legislation transformed their lives for the better. However, emancipation came from the top down and in most cases was only formal. Communist governments made clear that there was no reason for women to demand more and that their ‘question’ was solved. There was no need and no opportunity for an organized feminist movement. Generations after 1989 were left with inherited laws, but also with less awareness of the need to guard their rights, a lack of self-respect and insufficient determination and strength to demand further changes.

Today, standing in their way of joining the #MeToo campaign is not only social stigma, fear of exposing one’s self to ridicule, hostility and possible consequences at work, but also the absence of a tradition of voicing one’s problems. Awareness among women seems to be stronger if achieved through grass-root movements than by having or inheriting laws imposed ‘from above’. Laws protecting women’s interests do not automatically change a patriarchal society into one that values women in the private sphere, even over decades. Indeed, the discrepancy between their public and private positions is what most eastern European women had to fight against daily. In order to grasp the response of women in former communist countries now, we have to grasp what happened to them then.

Many have hurried to proclaim the #MeToo campaign a movement, a revolutionary moment. Though it’s too early to tell, one can see that it hasn’t had the same impact for all women. Not in Europe, and much less in the rest of the world. Such a movement would have to have a much broader scope. According to the World Economic Forum, the ‘global gender gap’ has widened for the first time in over a decade and will now take a century to close.

Slavenka Drakulić is a novelist and journalist. Her many books include the novel S.: A Novel about the Balkans(1999), dealing with rape during the Bosnian war.

Leave a Reply