Written by Zahra Aljabri’s Reflection
I believe 2018 will be remembered as the year of women’s power as a collective. For too long, women and girls have been taught that to advance our causes we need to each work harder and smarter, becoming individual heros a la: Marie Curie, Oprah, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. However, this hero approach has only led to a handful of individual victories, while collectively women remain victims of significant inequities.
For the past two years, however, we have begun to harness the power of our collective voices against systemic abuse– with the most visible use of our collective power being taking on sexual harassment. For several decades, women were pushed aside when they reported sexual harassment or assault individually, but collectively, we are finally able to hold offenders accountable.
Why did it take so long for us to stop lewd and abusive behavior that was so pervasive with some offenders mistreating dozens of women? It took so long because the offenders’ found a way to divide us, and made us believe that each woman had to face the abuser, their cronies, and the systems that enabled them alone — one woman against “the man” (which usually comprises dozens of men.) This tactic was extremely effective; as very few women came forward, and those who did faced strong retaliation, an invasive investigation and an unfair stigma that scared other victims into silence.
One way that our division weakens us is in the justice system. Although the vast majority of sexual harassment and assault goes unreported there have been a significant number of women reporting misconduct to their human resource departments, unions and filing lawsuits. These individual investigations and proceedings always demand the victimized women prove that the conduct was a) intentional, b) unwanted and c) that they were harmed. Proving these elements end up scrutinizing the victims behavior, demeanor, personality, relationships and character. It’s one of the few types of cases where the victim faces similar, if not more scrutiny, than the accused.
The underlying assumption is that the woman is not actually a victim; that it was consensual; that she benefited from the attention or relationship; that she has some other ulterior motive to want to ruin the offender’s reputation. And for the few exceptions that end up winning in court, their experiences and strength is robbed from the collective women’s movement by having them sign confidentiality agreements upon settling, so their story and voice is lost.
One of the common defenses against sexual harassment allegations is that the accused never had any other women complain that his behavior crossed any line, therefore he must be behaving within the normal limits and it is the victim who is overly sensitive. However, there usually are other victims too wary to come forward, since men who engage in this behavior once tend to repeat.
What we’ve seen is obtaining the three elements of proof becomes much easier when multiple victims come forward. Intent is shown through repeated and deliberate advances on women – and this consistent behavior indicates that it’s purposeful.
Consent is strengthened by multiple women stating they had encounters they didn’t want, turning “he said, she said” arguments into “he said, they said.” Finally, harm, which in these cases will always include long lived emotional distress, is established when intent and lack of consent are clear. Multiple accusations shifts the heavy scrutiny off of women and onto the offender where it belongs.
For too long, women could not appreciate our collective power because we’d internalized that we may be partly to blame for our abuse and we were terrified by the scrutiny that could expose our fault. Thankfully, this way of thinking is coming to an end. Women are beginning to trust each other and rely on each other as a source of strength. The first women to step forward and accuse powerful men of sexual misconduct in New York Times did so believing that this time things would be different. They were right. We recognized that together would be the only way to hold perpetual offenders (and unjust systems) accountable. They cannot use the usual defenses against 10, 50 or 100 victims.
Inherent in sexual assault is a power imbalance. Men prey on women when they have power over on them via their status or in the circumstances of the situation. Our collective action has shown that, together, our power combines to restores the balance. This has allowed us to demand that even powerful men be held accountable, proving that supporting each other is our best weapon.
Further proof of this power is the rise of Trump. After the Access Hollywood tapes came out, women were divided on their support of victims along political lines. Because his misconduct was so blatant and proven that even many men acknowledged it most of us believed that he would face consequences. However, women’s lack of unity around his offenses allowed him to benefit from the system that has allowed, up until now, so many others like him to thrive and prosper. The implication is clear when women all come together and support the victims, no offender is safe; when we are divided we allow offenders to rule over us.
The only thing we women have to decide is if we are going to continue to use our collective power.
Women have seen and tasted the power that comes when we rely on one another – and I believe it will only embolden us further. Now we know together we can demand change.