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Me too: stop the blame, shame the victim game

Update: October, 19/2017 - 10:17
Illustrative Image. — thehindu

By Hồng Minh

I woke up yesterday morning to some shocking, saddening and, ultimately, heartening news.

Several Vietnamese friends had shared their experience of being sexually harassed or abused on Twitter and Facebook, using the hashtag  Me Too (#Metoo).

This hashtag began trending worldwide last week after people, particularly women, were asked to share their experiences in light of the sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Some 12 million people across the world – men and women – have responded to the call, which has achieved its purpose, of exposing the magnitude of the problem.

It seems that we’ve been ignoring a herd of elephants in the room.

In an interview last week, 79-year-old Hollywood veteran Jane Fonda, speaking about the Weinstein scandal, described sexual abuse as “hardly unique in Hollywood.”

“It’s very, very common, just as it is in every country of the world, in every aspect… in business, in government,” she told BBC’s HARD TALK.

Tracing back the posts and comments that my friends’ admissions elicited, I saw many more people had hashtagged the same over the last few days. Some told their stories, others did not. But the haunting hashtag was there, a brave declaration: I am (was) a victim of sexual abuse and harassment.

I do not use the word “brave” lightly. In Việt Nam, where talking about sex is still taboo, and patriarchal norms sweep all kinds of sexual harassment and abuse under the carpet, I am glad and proud that Vietnamese women are joining the fight against sexual abuse and harassment.

I bet there are more women here who have suffered this depressing and traumatising experience at least once in their lifetime. It is real and happens far more often than we think. But why is it that this has never been exposed and made big headlines?

Late last year, in announcing the results of a survey, the Department of Gender Equality under the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs and ActionAid Việt Nam (AAV) expressed concern that Vietnamese women were suffering physical and sexual abuse in public spaces and workplaces.

The survey, which was conducted in five cities and provinces – Hà Nội, HCM City, Quảng Ninh, Hải Phòng and Trà Vinh – found that 51.3 per cent of women admitted that they had experienced sexual harassment at least once, in all kinds of ways, including being whistled at, teased, having body parts stared at, touched intentionally, and being sent pornographic websites and photos.

AAV’s head Hoàng Phương Thảo said most victims of sexual harassment do not declare their experience because they feel ashamed and even discriminated against if their stories are exposed.

Sad, but true.

A young woman shared on my Facebook friend’s hashtagged post her story of being harassed by her boss when she entered his room for reporting. The boss locked the door and hugged her, and asked her to have sex with him. She had to beg to be released, and quit her job several days later. My friend, who only knew the part about quitting the job, asked why hadn’t denounced the boss. Her friend said she was afraid that no one would believe her. She was also afraid of being tagged as person who’s been harassed, the double whammy that victims of sexual harassment face very often in “traditional, conservative” societies.

First, blame the victim; if not, shame the victim.

Looking the other way

There is another important, unjustifiable reason for people not speaking out against sexual harassment. It happened to somebody else.

Jane Fonda, in her aforementioned interview, revealed she learnt of the allegations against Weinstein a year ago, but chose to keep quiet because it did not happen to her.

This can be seen in Việt Nam, too. It seems that people ignore and choose to stay out of the problem until it happens to them or someone close to them.

The most sickening response typically comes from men, in general. Somehow, they find reasons to blame the victims.

Two years ago, when the Hồ Tây Water Park in Hà Nội offered free entrance as a summer-opening promotion, hundreds of thousands of people thronged the place, making it so overcrowded that the gate had to be closed. Hundreds of people left outside tried to climb the fence to get in, and in the ensuing chaos at the entrance and inside the park many young girls were teased and molested. The next day, the media was flooded with photographs of the fence climbing and molested girls crying helplessly as detestable guys laughed.

I have a 10-year-old daughter. It is time I tell her my own story of being harassed that obsessed me for many years. Yes. Me too!

I was 12 years old and queuing up to get inside the mirror house in a park. And I was groped by several adult men from the back. Being raised in a traditional family, I’d internalised the notion that it was bad, very bad to talk about such thinks. So I kept silent and endured the shame and humiliation, wishing the show would end soon and I could escape a horrible situation.

For long, every time I sensed a man behind me, I relived those horrible moments. As I grew up, how I wished I had the strength and courage to yell in the faces of those men: “Take your filthy hands off!” And how I wished people around had supported me.

Sometimes, when the memory of that day comes back, I ask myself: Who could I have talked to? Who would have listened to me, believed me and helped me out?

We cannot be silent about this any longer, not for “traditional” reasons or any other reason. Sexual harassment should be a part of our school curriculum. Children should learn early that this is a bad, sick thing to do, and they are not responsible for what is done to them. There is no way that sexual harassment should be normalised and accepted.

Tomorrow, many women across Việt Nam will receive flowers and gifts on the occasion of the National Women’s Day. This year, let’s add this to our wish list for them: safety from all kinds of sexual harassment and courage and support in fighting it.      

I’ve told my daughter what happened to me, and I have told her that she should speak out against any unfair treatment. We will listen to her, and have her back, she knows.  

We should give all our children courage and confidence to speak out against all forms of sexual harassment and abuse. It can be dismissed as wishful thinking, but no progress can be made without a vision for the future. Mine is this: My daughter, and her peers all over the world, will never have to say: Me too! — VNS

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