#MeToo, Africa and the politics of transnational activism
Would white women in the US have supported #MeToo in the same way if it had been started by women elsewhere in the world?
When #MeToo first broke on Twitter in October 2017, it focused on workplace sexual harassment in the United States, particularly against white women in the entertainment industry. As the campaign spread, some African women also joined in, particularly in Nigeria and South Africa (where it was picked up by progressive, leftist social movements). But not all African countries joined in, as the BBC showed in this report on #MeToo in Mali. To date there has been little detailed analysis of #MeToo’s impact on the African continent or how Africans relate to it.
A number of articles in international media and other publications have labelled #MeToo a “global” movement capable of freeing women from sexual violence. For example, in the UK’s conservative Telegraph, reporter Louise Burke wrote that #MeToo “exposed an epidemic of sexual assault and harassment across every corner of the world and unbottled a collective fury which can no longer be contained. Any notion that it is a short-lived Western fad can safely be dismissed.” Burke referenced the case of Jennifer Ferguson, a former ANC MP and also a singer, who had accused ANC politician and South African Football Association (SAFA) president, Danny Jordaan, of raping her 24 years earlier.
Separately, a piece in Time.com noted that #MeToo had brought hope to women in other countries. “In far-off places, thousands of miles from Hollywood or Washington, D.C., expectations are rising among millions of forgotten women that today’s scandals might effect positive change in their workplaces. From Vietnam to India, women want this galvanizing moment to spark a global movement.” The piece, by Michelle Nunn of CARE USA, a humanitarian NGO, proposed that more men be involved in campaigns against harassment. “In Egypt, Tuk Tuk taxi drivers notoriously harass women passengers and those they pass on the street. We recruit these young men drivers to send a different message: that abusing and harassing their country’s sisters, wives and mothers isn’t just wrong, but a violation of their own values. Today, increasing numbers of drivers are becoming champions for women — a key to change.”
But the majority of international media coverage of #MeToo has been dominated by major news outlets like CNN whose framing of the word “global” has centred on the involvement of certain countries—notably the US, the UK, France and to some extent India and China, with scarcely a mention of Africa and the Middle East. In its early coverage, CNN did not cite a single African #MeToo champion in a piece in which it sought to show how the movement was traveling globally. The Washington Post committed a similar faux pas by highlighting women change agents from all major regions of the world except Africa in an article on the “global wave” of #MeToo. Africa has tended to feature in global media coverage either in vague references or via stereotyped images of poor, helpless women whereas the reality is complicated. The question thus begs, how global is a Western-derived movement that purports to save women everywhere without understanding fully the intersections and narratives that embody their diverse experiences and positionalities, both within and across countries?
Cormac Smith, in a post on this site, has suggested the sexual harassment crisis is more acute on the African continent than anywhere else: “… The prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence in Africa has been deeply troubling with significantly higher rates of prevalence compared to Western countries.” Smith pointed to lack of access to internet facilities (and by extension social media) or essential health services, as reason for the absence of continental movements on sexual harassment.
Another, larger, problem is that movements that start in the “West” take it upon themselves to speak for and set free oppressed people in other parts of the world. These Western movements have the capacity and capital to shape debates. Humanitarian and environmental campaigns are good case studies. Many of these campaigns that begin in African countries are later co-opted in the process of transnationalisation; ie they are taken over by Westerners. The Blood Diamonds campaign, written about here by Liberian journalist and media scholar, Lansana Gberie, is a clear example. The writer Teju Cole has been more direct. He referred to this phenomenon as the “white savior (industrial) complex” (at the time of the Kony 2002 campaign). In the case of #MeToo, tagging it as the vanguard in the global fight against sexual harassment implies that the problem didn’t come into sight until “the West” named it.
Spotlighting movements like #MeToo has a way of obstructing our vision of longstanding mobilisations on the ground in other parts of the world against the same issues. As much as transnational activism agendas are set in the “West,” a lot of significant movements tackling the same issues—even long before #Metoo—went on or are going on elsewhere. A ban on miniskirts in Uganda in 2014 led to men assaulting women in public for being ‘indecently dressed’ and the subsequent #MyDressMyChoice protests, including in Kenya, against the sexualisation of women’s bodies and sexual violence.
In Nigeria in 2015, #BeingFemaleinNigeria galvanised conversation among Nigerian women (including in the diaspora) about everyday experiences of sexism. It inspired the creation of the Facebook group Female IN (originally Female in Nigeria) by Lola Omolola, a US-based Nigerian woman, where women in at least 17 countries (as of mid-2017) shared experiences of sexual harassment and violence, among other things, and began to stand up individually and collectively take action against it in real life.
Also in 2015, South Africa’s #NakedProtests by mainly Black women confronted university authorities’ inaction on campus rapes within a broader frame of resistance against high rates of sexual violence in the country. And in July 2018 in Uganda, women marched under the hashtag #WomenMarchUG.
In their own ways, each of these actions framed the same issues around violations of the female body that go to the core of #MeToo but did not receive the same international support or attention. Global media coverage has an undisputable influence on what gets people’s attention, but beyond that, global protest audiences should not take this disparity for granted. Digital activism can make it easier to spot and synchronise parallel debates on similar topics. It may also help locate the origins of activism and prevent agency appropriation.
As a survivor of sexual abuse and a Black African feminist activist and intellectual, my own reactions to #MeToo and the journalism around it on Africa and #MeToo were mixed. I felt some shock that a successful Hollywood career did not shield women from abuse, particularly in a context where women appear to have more liberties than most and on the surface appeared more powerful. But on another level I was also not surprised, knowing as I do that Nigerian women have resisted oppression and violence both publicly and privately for many decades.
#Metoo doesn’t seem to have created the same breadth of space for public debate across Africa as it did in the “West.” Although national media outlets across Africa picked up the stories, the depth of public conversations seemed to vary according to the scope of the sexual violence problem per country. Thus coverage seemed more diffuse and intense in South Africa compared to Ghana, for example. Other factors that came up in a public dialogue at Webster University-Ghana in mid-April 2018, include cultural practices that normalize sexual aggression toward women and girls, a lack of effective structures and redress, and some level of ignorance or indifference to everyday sexism by women themselves. Of equal weight are the vicious backlash and victim-blaming and shaming that can derail women’s quest for justice. This is what forced 19-year-old Ewuraffe Orleans Thompson to withdraw rape allegations against Ghanaian entertainer Kwasi Kyei Darkwah in January 2015.
It is also difficult to establish #MeToo as a catalyst for national-level debates about sexual violence in some contexts. In Ghana, for example, young feminist group Pepper Dem Ministries has been leading conversation around signs of gender inequality since September 2017—at least one month before #MeToo was first tweeted. The group picked up on the debates surrounding #MeToo numerous times on Facebook and Twitter. In one instance, it used #MeToo as a prompt for Ghanaian women to share their own stories (it didn’t get many responses). However, the group is largely a continuation of a long history of gender activism and feminist politics in Ghana that stretches back to postcolonial times.
Since we don’t yet know enough about how digital activism influences state policy and action, expectations that #MeToo will catalyse global change are at best tenuous. As South African activist Makganwana Mokgalong writes in a reflection on #MeToo in her country, revelation alone doesn’t bring change – persistent on-the-ground confrontations of misogyny does.
I’m also left with another question about reciprocity in transnational activism. Would white women in the US have supported #MeToo in the same way if it had been started by women elsewhere in the world? Why was international support for #BringBackOurGirls poised on the West saving girls and women living under Muslim law and not as the making of a global movement around sexual violence in conflict? Is it enough to translate hashtags like #MeToo into local languages? Or do we need we need a better language – not a hashtag – to discuss effecting real change?