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  • Patricia Wilcox

38. Global Women Rattle Their Cages

The #Me

Too Movement Spurring Global Change.

We live in remarkable times. It took approximately 2,000 years for the news of Christ’s message to reach around the world. Today news of significant national events can spread across the globe in mere minutes.

Take for example the White Wednesday campaign in which women in Iran wear white as a non-violent protest against strict dress codes requiring them to cover their hair and wear black hijabs.

Last December the case of a lone woman, standing for the right of women anywhere to choose,became the face of protests. Images of this woman in Teheran, quietly removing (a punishable offence) and defiantly waving her white headscarf, were shared thousands of times at the end of last year in the largest unrest since 2009, as part of the global Women’s March (see previous post 37).

Since January 17, the Persian hashtag asking #WhereIsShe, querying the fate of the protesting woman, has been used more than 28,000 times on Twitter and other Iranian social media channels.

An even greater global example of the power of rapidly moving social media can be seen in the western #Me Too movement which began last November with the primary purpose of enabling women to speak out about harassment from men, which they had previously found too intimidating to declare openly.

The success of these movements is the immediacy with which they are able to tap into the weight of mass popular attention, highlighting factors that have previously constrained them.

However, the sheer scale of movements that, thanks to social media, now have the ability to attract vast numbers, tends to uphold the erroneous principle that ‘might is right’. And the inherent rapidity of such movements does not allow for due process of justice.

There is a special relevance for the global Baha’i Community in these movements because of the importance we attach to both the elimination of prejudice towards women, and the great overriding principal of justice.

Women of today, and especially young women, are living in a society where many men are addicted to hardcore pornography, resulting in powerful effects on their expectations of how women should behave socially and in private. Within a relatively short time, and on almost every level, we have seen the mass commodification of sex. Many men have lost the sense of personal boundaries, and have no perception of due respect towards women and girls.

In this social climate many women find it difficult in the moment to refuse a man, especially one older and influential. This can often result in their acceptance, both sexually and professionally, of actions they don’t want, but which they feel obliged to accept.

Clearly this behaviour must be strenuously and thoughtfully addressed both in general society and also within the Baha’i community which is not immune to its influence.

However, we cannot condone the emphasis which it places on the public naming, shaming and humiliation of accused perpetrators, which seems akin to the methods of a previous age which resorted to constraining those assumed to be guilty in public stocks, to be pelted with rotten fruit by vindictive accusers.

Presently it seems women have little choice but to take the response into their own hands. If it were a traffic offence, a system is in place to address the issue. Similarly if it was one of public littering or jaywalking or loud music. In the absence of more appropriate outcomes, it seems the only resort is to expensive and humiliating legal action, but this is far from ideal; these offences don’t take place where there are witnesses. And then it is a usually influential man versus a weaker less wealthy woman.

Where is the opportunity for independent investigation of truth? Where is the opportunity for detached consideration and consultation of the situation, and for thoughtfully identifying an appropriate and enduring response? Or for the provision of recompense where appropriate, and of loving personal support? How is the perpetrator to be most effectively enabled to recognise the full consequences of his action, in such a way that it will result in deep and sustainable personal change?

Two actions seem necessary. The first is full, detached and prayerful consultation of the woman with trusted and wise confidants, friends, family members or counsellors.

Often the very process of knowing one is heard, respected and empathised with, will go a long way towards inner healing of her situation. If sufficiently serious, it may be necessary to take it to a local Spiritual Assembly, or other support institution in the case of other faiths.

Unlike fixing the offender in stocks, the Baha’i way is less focused on the temporary measure of punishment and more on the enduring process of education. The man must be helped to recognise the full consequences of his action.

Public information campaigns like #Me Too can certainly help. We have examples of this from the previous wartime century of “Loose lips sink ships” to more local situations.

New Zealand played a significant role in provoking the South African Government to redress its racist policies as it eventually bowed to public pressure, and made a proposed tour of the highly esteemed All Backs rugby team provisional on required race-based change. And let's not forget the hugely influencial action of those individuals who countered the intrusion of nuclear powered ships with an armada of protest dinghies, waka, and anything else to hand that might float. 

The performer and activist Bob Geldof raised international awareness of the Ethiopian famine of 1984, further endorsed in following years by the singer Bono, each advocating for equitable and sustainable change in Africa.

Recently performer Pink used her song to raise a cry for greater acceptance and celebration of personal diversity. However, today is more than 30 years since Bob Geldof’s campaign and we are again faced with famine in Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen and others. Whilst extremely valuable at the time, clearly there is a limit to the enduring influence of such popular campaigns.

What, then, must be our expectation? Is our aim to accept, punish, reform or recompense?

Abdu’l-Baha says: “The individual must be educated to such a high degree that he would rather have his throat cut than tell a lie, and would think it easier to be slashed with a sword or pierced with a spear than to utter calumny (denigration, depreciation) or be carried away by wrath.

So the process of education is foundational to creating enduring change. But where do our youth and children turn for education that will teach principles like the equality of woman and men, will uphold values like courtesy, consideration and respect for self and others, and will foster attitudes that effectively expose the current hollow and abusive focus on mere sexual and physical aspects? Again, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says: “The root cause of wrongdoing is ignorance, and we must therefore hold fast to the tools of perception and knowledge. Good character must be taught. Light must be spread afar, so that, in the school of humanity, all may acquire the heavenly characteristics of the spirit, and see for themselves beyond any doubt that there is no fiercer hell, no more fiery abyss, than to possess a character that is evil and unsound; no more darksome pit nor loathsome torment than to show forth qualities which deserve to be condemned.”

The Baha’i community places special attention on the recognition and attainment of human values and virtues, beginning at the first level of education; the home. It also provides and teaches effective strategies that will engage children and junior youth in this important process. These strategies enable mere hopes and wishes to be transformed into tangible action, and allow thoughts to become expressed in deeds, all embodied in projects of real personal growth and collective social benefit.