Is the #MeToo Movement the Beginning of a Political Revolution?
Pardis Mahdavi is the acting dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. She started working at the University of Denver in 2017. From 2006-2017 Mahdavi served as professor and chair of anthropology, director of the Pacific Basin Institute and Dean of Women at Pomona College. Her research interests include academic freedom, diversity and inclusion in higher education, gendered labor, human trafficking, migration, sexuality, human rights, youth culture, transnational feminism and public health in the context of changing global and political structures.
A sexual revolution is underway. Survivors of sexual assault — of which women represent 90 percent — are asserting their control over their own bodies and pushing back against gender inequality in the corporate world. The immediate results have been staggering. Stories detailing sexual abuse and harassment have become regular elements of daily news coverage, leading many perpetrators to issue public apologies and resign or lose their jobs. Overwhelming public support has encouraged others to speak up, leading Time magazine to name “The Silence Breakers” as their Person of the Year. But the question remains: will this movement fundamentally change society?
History offers precedents. In Tehran during the early 2000s, I watched as young people began resisting the morality police. Following the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Islamic Republic, led by Shiite clerics with ultraconservative views of gender roles, had set up a special police unit tasked with enforcing the regime’s strict social mores. Three decades later, young Iranians — many of them women, and almost all of them born after the revolution — began organizing to speak back. For nearly a decade, I conducted research on the climate of heavily moralized rhetoric and politics in Iran and the ways young people responded. At the time, the Islamic Republic imposed harsh rules on mandatory veiling, punishment for adultery, and the silencing of rape victims in ways that recall the silencing of #MeToo victims.
Young Iranian women resisted the rules that robbed them of agency. They slid their headscarves back millimeter by millimeter — leading some journalists to refer to the rising youth movement as the “Millimeter Revolution.” They wore red lipstick even if it meant their lips might be slashed with razors by the morality police. They painted their nails even if it meant their hands might be dipped in cockroaches. They had sex with their boyfriends even though premarital sex was punishable by death. In an environment where retribution was severe, these actions took on new significance. And, notably, they succeeded in carving out space and pushing back. They succeeded in gaining the attention of the regime who began to listen and loosen the tight morality codes.
At the time, most observers dismissed these efforts as insignificant. Yet they sowed the seeds for a broader movement. The young women who took risks and used their bodies to speak back to a regime with which they disagreed built the groundwork for protest and calls for reform that would become emboldened in movements in the decade to follow (or in years to come?). Young people continued organizing, using social media and social spaces to build power toward what eventually became the Green Movement, which — despite its inability to reach its larger goals — helped to pave the way for greater freedoms for women and young people. We have seen a similar pattern of sexual revolutions provoking larger political upheavals from Greenwich Village to Weimar Germany.
While these movements have not fully dislodged patriarchy or brought about perfect political systems, each has improved the political, social, and economic lives of those affected. In Iran today, young people are leading education reform efforts and changing the landscape of sexual and reproductive health. Iran, indeed, received a United Nations family planning award for reforms in the sphere of reproductive health, while Iran’s needle exchange program is serving as a model for the rest of the world. In the Arab world, the Arab Spring carved out spaces in the blogosphere and on the ground where young people can come together to organize and speak out against injustice. Throughout the region, a shift in discourse is palpable. Young people speak out against oppression, make room for changing gender and sexual norms, and have carved out public and private spaces to gather, organize, and resist.
History also shows us how established power hierarchies resist such challenges, usually by invoking traditional morality as an excuse to put women back in their place. The mullahs in post-revolutionary Iran tried to maintain control through the morality police, which, not by coincidence, tended to target women most frequently. Yet young people in Iran today are chipping away at the power of the regime by gradually undermining the narratives through which it has tried to maintain control. While activism and protest in Iran share many similarities with the U.S., the foundations of the American sociopolitical system allows even more room for change. This is why this moment in the U.S. must not be lost.
The #MeToo movement has the potential to shift the power dynamics of this country in positive ways. Leveling corporate playing fields to favor innovative ideas and contributions — regardless of gender — is vital to increasing productivity and innovation. Women need to be allowed to speak out against systems of violence — such as fear of assault — so that they can aspire to lead and succeed in the political realm, in Hollywood, or in higher education. A system that gives people of all genders and all racial and ethnic backgrounds the opportunity to succeed is also the foundation of progress.
Just as in Iran, this movement, amplified by social media and the mobilization of women and their supporters, is changing our cultural norms as well as how we think about sex, the body, and politics. And if the #MeToo campaign fully commits to the difficult task of building power, it may very well change this country as we know it.