Over Here, #MeToo!

Last year’s kick off of the #MeToo movement represents a fine example of grassroots international relations. On Twitter, actress Alyssa Milano invited followers who have experienced sexual assault and harassment to reply #MeToo to her tweet – and the barrage of replies suggests that she poked at something in the morass of patriarchy.

Her tweet, more than any chart could, showed that machismo inflicts suffering and humiliation daily on citizens across the globe, including in supposedly free and enlightened societies. Women in rather privileged positions, like in the movie industry, have also spoken up about how sexual violence operates behind the curtain, and even served to involve an unwitting audience in powerful figures’ perversion. The momentum then contributed to the fall of hitherto untouchables like Harvey Weinstein, indicating #MeToo has changed something, for the moment at least.

Although, according to feminist theorist Susan Watkins, the movement’s US version is less radical – focused on individual rights, not structures that facilitate abuse by sustaining exploitative work conditions or criminalizing migration – it still had the deepest impact as it encouraged women all over the world, most recently in China, to speak up.

Such reach is only possible through instant communication.

In the den of machismo, Latin America, #MeToo tore into struggles over abortion rights and macho violence. In Chile, for example, a female rights movement was about to fizzle out amid the relaxing of the country’s draconian no-abortion law into a violent abortion law, after Michelle Bachelet broke a taboo early in her second government and started a debate on abortion. The resulting ‘3-causes law’ legalizes abortion after women can prove to have endured unspeakable violence in the form of rape; or suffer psychologically because the fetus is unable to live outside the womb; or, even more cynical, they must prove that pregnancy endangers their life before time runs out. Nevertheless, this law is still a small step into the right direction, and the fact that men don’t have to deal with anything like it, emphasizes the structural and legally entrenched power imbalances between the sexes.

But with easy access to information about abortion laws elsewhere and inspired by #MeToo, Chilean feminist activism surged again, denouncing machismo more forcefully and pushing for a more liberal abortion law. Helped by social media campaigns and provocative public performances, feminists created a discourse that so far took down darling director Nicolás López and prominent media figures, has led to fines for public verbal harassment, and several suspensions of university professors who exploited their power.

Feminist campaigns have gone together with university occupations, turn them from theoretical into practical places of resistance by shutting them down and prevent lectures from taking place. These occupations are not too popular with the citizenry, as many see them resembling 1970s unrest that challenged power structures and led to a dictatorship, and partly because Chile’s commercialized education costs a fortune regardless of classes taking place. Moreover, general reverence to elite figures like professors creates skepticism toward accusers.

In Chile, higher education – who knows for how much longer – still serves as ticket to middle-class wealth. A university degree vastly increases the chances of finding decently paid work, perhaps even overseas. So far, upwards mobility is real. But classes canceled due to problems that many see as secondary to material survival in an economy where in addition to education the relationships formed at university count, occupations also generate anxiety and conservative resistance.

Yet feminists have a strong case too: Why should they remain silent while sexual predators prey on the student body? After all, everybody, not just feminists, could become a victim. So #MeToo feminists seek to abolish the university as a safe space for rapists and given that university leaders have clearly been unable or unwilling to tackle the threat, more forceful methods come to the fore.

This struggle represents a chance to update international relations teaching. In the 1990s feminist theorists shook up Anglo-Saxon International Relations departments by pointing out that the major IR theories – often the blueprints for Cold War world politics, no less – were developed by older, relatively wealthy white men, who inevitably have a particular view of the world. And many of these theories, like realism and liberalism, have been wholeheartedly accepted and therefore grown stale in the country’s universities. Bureaucrats and commentators largely ignore feminist-liberal links and the sparks digital capitalism transports via Silicon Valley around the world.

Ignoring or deriding these movements and stick to cozy state-centered and economistic views of international relations is not only anti-intellectual, it also shuts out an important part of the country’s foreign and domestic affairs. Just like the suffragettes’ democracy-saving struggle for the female vote, today’s feminism should be embrace as fighting for much more than abstract rights.

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