#MeToo: The hashtag came last year, but the expression was already 10 years old

Over the last couple of weeks, India has seen a return of the #MeToo phenomenon, with women calling out sexual misconduct and harassment by scores of men from the worlds of film, television, journalism, business, art, writing, and stand-up comedy.

Written by Krishn Kaushik | New Delhi | Updated: October 17, 2018 9:29:43 am
#MeToo founder Tarana Burke arrives at Variety’s Power of Women event in Beverly Hills. (AP)

Exactly a year ago, on October 15, 2017, American actor Alyssa Milano posted a tweet that triggered what has since come to be known as the #MeToo wave — the standing-up and speaking-out by women who have suffered sexual harassment or assault at the hands of men around the world.

“If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” Milano posted on Twitter, adding, in a subsequent tweet, “Me Too”. Ten days before, The New York Times had published the explosive Harvey Weinstein report, detailing how the superstar Hollywood producer had for decades used his power and position to sexually harass women, and then bought the silence of a number of his accusers.

Milano’s invitation spread like wildfire on social media, and the #MeToo floodgates were thrown open across the world, including in India. Over the last couple of weeks, India has seen a return of the #MeToo phenomenon, with women calling out sexual misconduct and harassment by scores of men from the worlds of film, television, journalism, business, art, writing, and stand-up comedy.

What Milano was unaware of, however, was that “Me Too” as a tag to identify oneself as a survivor of sexual harassment or assault had been coined more than a decade earlier by Tarana Burke, an American civil rights activist. Back in 1997, Burke had been left “speechless” by the account of a 13-year-old girl survivor of sexual abuse. A report in The New York Times quoted Burke as saying she “didn’t have a response or a way to help her in that moment, and I couldn’t even say ‘me too’… It really bothered me, and it sat in my spirit for a long time”. It was at that moment of Burke’s encounter with the child that ‘Me Too’ was born, The NYT said. In 2007, she launched the formal campaign.

Milano’s tweet launching the movement had been retweeted more than 24,000 times and liked 52,754 times until Tuesday. On Facebook, the hashtag #MeToo was used more then 12 million times within the first 24 hours. Tens of millions of women across the world have used the hashtag to share their stories, some of which they had bottled up within themselves for decades, disclosing the utterly staggering range and frequency of harassment or assault by members of their families, their closest friends, their bosses, or their dates. The hashtag has underlined the crucial role played by social media in enabling these women to come out with their stories.

The ongoing phase of the #MeToo campaign in India began in the last week of September, when former actor Tanushree Dutta alleged she had been harassed by actor Nana Patekar on a film set in 2008. On October 3 emerged the story of 1,300 employees of an Indian gutkha company allegedly harassing co-passengers on an Australian cruise, over which comedian Utsav Chakraborty tweeted, “Oh to be Indian and not die a thousand deaths from second hand embarrassment every day” — only to be himself accused of harassment by several women. The wave has spread ever wider since then, with perhaps the biggest impact in journalism, where more than a dozen women journalists have accused Minister of State for External Affairs M J Akbar of sexual misconduct and assault during his time as an Editor.

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