Feminism is having a moment. Whether that moment is good or bad depends on who you ask. ‘Female empowerment’, ‘girl power’ - the means to achieve feminism’s goals, though you could argue that they’re somewhat condescending terms when the goal is simply equality - are terms that have been in and out of fashion and ‘buzzy’ discourse for years. Now, it feels as if #MeToo - and the many heads that have rolled as a result of it - is triggering a seismic shift in gender relations, or at least how we talk about them.
For Soraya Post, the first member of Sweden’s Feminism Initiative ever to be elected to the European Parliament, this watershed moment has been a long time coming. “Women are now sharing their individual stories on such a scale that the statistics on violence against women are finally being taken seriously. This is what feminists have been informing and advocating for decades. It is outrageous that it took so long for our societies to recognise sexual harassment and sexual violence against women,” she says.
About those statistics: more than half of all women - 55 per cent - have experienced sexual harassment while 33 per cent have experienced physical or sexual violence since the age of 15. Yes, you read that right, and no, I didn’t make them up for dramatic effect - the data comes straight from the EU agency for fundamental rights.
#MeToo has millions of supporters around the world, but it hasn’t been immune to criticism, with some accusing the movement of overlooking due process and overreacting to baseless accusations.
A collective of 100 French women, including actress Catherine Deneuve, published an open letter defending men’s “right to pester” - after all, who cares about women’s right to live in peace and without fear, right? - and denouncing what they called a “new Puritanism”.
Post, a member of Parliament’s S&D group, thinks “the discussion on #MeToo going too far is absurd. What has gone too far is the sexual abuse and harassment of women in our societies.”
Feminism and issues related to women’s rights in general have always tended to be on shaky ground when it comes to public opinion, so the backlash against #MeToo is perhaps not so surprising. Post underlines that “women’s rights are human rights and we still have not achieved their full realisation for everyone. Women cannot enjoy their basic human rights fully. Violence against women cannot be seen as a marginal issue that touches only on some women’s lives.”
Those who claim the #MeToo discourse has gone too far, she argues, “are the people that are afraid to lose the power. It is all about power, men’s power over women, what we feminists call the existing power structures - the patriarchy. The ancient idea that men are worth more than women and that men should have the power and control, which is often expressed through violence, in particular sexual violence. The culture of silencing and shaming victims is also part of this.”
Clearly, the culture needs to change, but is this easier done by changing people’s mindsets, or is cultural change more likely to occur when new rules are in place? “I think we need both,” says Post, “Some mindsets have already changed; feminists are a good example of this.
“It is also politicians’ role to advance normative legislation, with the greater good in mind. We are not only here to represent people, we are also here to represent new ideas. New policies, legislation or rules will show a baseline and give people an indication of what is acceptable and what isn’t. However, true change must come from within, and here discussions and awareness raising are crucial.”
The Swedish deputy adds, “Educating future generations is essential. This is an aspect I have raised in my latest report on implementing the directive on the European protection order. In the report, I call on member states - given the increasing exposure of children and teenagers to violence online - to consider including education on gender equality and nonviolence in school curricula.”
While #MeToo has fostered an important conversation, actual, concrete, widespread legislation has yet to follow - though you could argue it’s still early days, and policymaking, particularly at EU level, isn’t exactly known for its speed.
And, as Post says, “Unfortunately, these things will not change overnight; this is a societal pattern of abuse and a structural problem of power.” However, some countries are taking heed of the movement; “In Sweden, the government is finally pushing ahead with a new law on sexual consent, for example.”
Post says, “I want the EU and the world to change its security agenda. In the European agenda on security, there is not a single line that says that interpersonal violence such as intimate or domestic violence, harassment, stalking or sexual assault has to be a priority. Instead, there is only a focus on external threats that demand efforts around national borders.
“The ultimate goal of all security policies is the protection of the personal integrity, safety and the personal freedom of every individual. The current xenophobic and militaristic discourse that is being used is distracting us from the issue of internal security and violence against women that has been a reality in our societies for centuries.”
A tangible legal instrument in the fight against sexual harassment and violence is the Council of Europe’s Istanbul convention, “the most far-reaching international treaty and the first legally-binding instrument to fight violence against women. Signatories commit to implement measures to protect victims, persecute perpetrators and prevent these crimes.”
It was opened for signature back in May 2011 - a time that was seems much less complicated than today; so much so that it’s now confusing to think about it. Donald Trump was just your typical businessman-cum-reality star, and no one had heard of the insufferable Ed Sheeran.
2011 was indeed a long, long time ago, and yet, many countries, including the UK and Bulgaria, have yet to ratify the convention. Many of those that oppose it bizarrely claim ratification would lead to the legalisation of same-sex marriage or encourage people to identify as transgender.
For Post, those governments still holding back on ratification “simply do not care about violence against women and equality. We have many right-wing governments in Europe that still do not want to accept that men and women are equal and should have equal rights and obligations.”
Post explains that the convention “will help mostly, but not only, EU countries to find definitions and ways to implement policies to put an end to violence against women. The convention raises that violence is not simply physical, but can have many forms of expression, this is very important for awareness.”
Still, it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. The Swedish MEP notes that, “The most important aspect to work against violence are of course proactive measures. Violence should not happen at all. We must strive to have no victims nor perpetrators of violence of any kind. This is why we need to change the focus of the EU’s and the global security agenda. The overarching goal with all our efforts must be that every person can live their life without fear.”
This last sentence encompasses the common thread of Soraya Post’s career and convictions. “I personally have more than 30 years of experience in fighting against discrimination and working for minority rights,” she says, adding that the Feminist Initiative “is not a single-issue party. There are so many challenges that we are face in Europe today: physical violence against women, the gender pay gap, discrimination and violence against LGBTIQ people and the rise of fascist and right-wing parties.
“The mainstream parties are not able to tackle these challenges. We are able to provide solutions thanks to our political agenda, which is based on gender equality and human rights that we apply in all policy areas.”
When Post recently won a Parliament Magazine MEP award, it wasn’t for women’s rights and gender equality, it was for justice and civil liberties. Part of her commitment to minority rights and fighting discrimination possibly stems from her own background; her father was a German Jew, and her mother was a Romani.
Feminist ideology, as it’s portrayed in pop culture and media, is sometimes accused of being exclusionary; many of the women that have been at the forefront of #MeToo and the fight for equality have tended to be rich and white.
Given Post’s Romani heritage, it was interesting to get her views on this. “This is a very important discussion, and the issue of intersectionality must be discussed more widely. My political party is based on intersectional and antiracist feminism.”
So what exactly is “intersectional feminism”? Post explains that it’s “the understanding of how women’s overlapping identities - including race, class, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation - impact the way they experience oppression and discrimination. We understand and build policies based on the fact that discrimination is multifaceted. Being a poor woman of colour with two children and chronic back pain gives a completely different life circumstance than if you are a white poor single mother.”
Still, she notes, “It is not the feminist movement that must be inclusive, the concept of inclusion include means that there is someone that is supposed to be invited. From a human rights-based perspective, we are all born equal.
“Hence, the feminist movement, when not fighting for women of colour, is not complete. It is only partial; to be a whole we need to really look at ourselves and ask - how can we ‘do’ equality. As American poet and intersectional feminist, Audre Lorde said, ‘I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own’.”
Inclusiveness is important, and unfortunately feminism is sometimes dismissed as some kind of exclusive girls’ club, something that concerns only half the population. “Some men and women think of feminism as a women’s issue, but it is not. It is an equality issue: to be a feminist means that you strive for the equal treatment of men, women and non-binary people.”