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Challenging power: #MeToo and women’s rights

By Laurent Standaert , Terry Reintke

Terry Reintke was elected in 2014 as a German Green to the European Parliament and has recently featured on the TIME Magazine Person of the Year Issue, as part of the Silence Breakers. Laurent Standaert of the Green European Journal interviewed her on issues of gender equality and women’s rights.

Laurent Standaert: How do you explain the #MeToo phenomenon today, the recent wave of sexual harassment revelations? Can it bring about concrete change or is it a wave that will pass and things will go back to ‘normal’?

Terry Reintke: There is a sense of ‘time’s up’ – we need to talk about this now. I had a revelation moment when one of the victims of Harvey Weinstein was interviewed. She said she had brought up the issue several times before, but everyone had told her, “this is just how Harvey is, don’t complain about it – if you want to get anywhere in this business you will just have to accept it.” It is stories like this that made many people realise this is not happening on an individual level. This is a structural problem of our societies that millions of people are subjected to. And unless we all speak up, it is not going to change.

There certainly is a fear that the campaign has only been a media hype. So it very much depends on all of us now, whether we make it a window of opportunity for actual change. Here in the European Parliament, I pushed for a resolution on ending sexual harassment. It was adopted with a large majority in October 2017. We started a petition that has almost 100 000 signatures. With these measures we tried to advance the debate, proposing concrete steps on what we have to do to stop any form of sexual harassment.

In the European Union, all Member States and institutions show strong commitment to gender equality and women’s rights on paper. But from sexual harassment to the gender pay gap and beyond, there are many causes for concern when it comes to the reality on the ground. How do you assess the situation in Europe today regarding women’s rights and gender equality?

We are facing a backlash in the European Union when it comes to gender equality, but also fundamental rights in general. When we look at the legislation, many important steps were taken, while at the same time the societal discourse seems to be moving backwards. This is not only happening in certain Member States but all over the EU. In Germany, for example, the number of women in the German parliament has gone down from 36.5 per cent in the last term to only 30.2 per cent for the current term.

There is a systematic development we are witnessing: in areas where we have seen progress in the past, we are currently faced with a severe attack on women’s rights and gender equality. One of the battlegrounds for this development is the Istanbul Convention. The task of this Council of Europe convention is to end gender-based violence, such as domestic violence and sexual harassment. This convention has been signed by all Member States. However, during the last month, certain Member States have put off the ratification of the international convention. There are concerns about the term ‘gender’ and how it is defined in the convention. It shows that the liberties and the rights we have achieved in the past years cannot be taken for granted, but that we have to fight for them every day.

As a politician and activist, how do you see the situation in terms of women’s rights on the ground developing in the next 5 years?

I think it depends on us. If we take to the streets and mobilise not just in parliament but in all parts of society, we can turn it around and make a difference. We need to get back on the offensive. There are several examples where we were successful – take the Black Monday Protests in Poland for instance: the right-wing government was supporting a bill that would have meant a complete ban on abortion, even if the health of the mother was endangered. When men and women mobilised against this proposal, the Polish government backed off. So it shows if we stand up against this right backlash, we can counteract it. These battles can be won. But if we take the stance that this is none of our business, or think that things will not actually turn bad, then we can lose a lot in the next years.

How can Greens and other progressive forces propose strategies and policies to ensure real progress in Europe beyond gender mainstreaming-style box ticking?

If we are talking about the Istanbul Convention, for example, an EU ratification is not enough. We have to go even further. As Greens we demand a directive against gender-based violence on a European level. Violence against women is a question of fundamental rights. Thus it is a question of European legislation. Such a directive can change the lives of millions of people within the European Union.

Culture is strongly influenced by legislation. As an example: if legislation defines that ‘no’ means ‘no’, and that non-consensual sex is rape, it changes how people think about the concept of consent. As policy-makers on the European level, it is our job to influence and create certain discussions – progressive ones – on gender equality questions.

What’s the legislation in Germany regarding gender-based violence?

During the last two years, we had an intense discussion around the topic. The main issue was the definition of rape. In the German code of criminal law, one could only be accused of rape in cases where force had been used – threats or physical violence, such as beating. A small comparison: if my handbag is stolen, without me being beaten up during the process, it would not qualify as theft. It took a massive public debate and many demonstrations in Germany to change the definition of what ‘qualifies’ as rape. But it was a huge success in the end. Again we see that fighting for progress is worth it.

Where do we look to for best practice and positive examples regarding women’s rights and gender equality in the EU?

When we look for gender equality we look to Scandinavia. Laws that were already implemented in many Scandinavian countries 20 or 25 years ago are only very slowly reaching the European level. Scandinavia has the highest number of women in decision-making, for example. When you look at laws in relation to sexualised violence, you look to Scandinavia – they are very progressive and very far-reaching. Interestingly, we think the debates around gender equality are the strongest in countries where gender equality is the lowest, but it’s the exact opposite: as soon as you have more women in decision-making positions, frictions, conflicts, and tensions become much more obvious and there is pressure to tackle them. The Hungarian parliament, for instance, is composed of only 10 per cent women, and still everyone tells you there is no problem with gender equality in Hungary; women simply choose not to run for political office. This shows clearly that we need women in power positions to even start the necessary societal discussions.

According to some commentators, the internet has helped liberate and emancipate women and victims. On the other hand, social media and the internet act as echo chambers where harassment, sexism, and violence are perpetrated or trivialised and are in themselves products of white male power. What is your take on the interplay between women’s rights and the digital age we are in?

Both of these observations can be well reasoned. The internet and the virtual world can be an empowering place. For example, when you look at marginalised groups – women of colour, LGBTI women – the internet has created the space to share experiences and start movements. At the same time, the internet has been a space of violence and hatred. This is why it is so important that we find a good regulatory framework: one that both protects and preserves online freedoms. We certainly do not want a controlled internet. At the same time, we need to take measures to prevent smear and hate campaigns. From my own experience, these campaigns are much more often targeted at women than men.

From the beginning, the internet has been seen as the Wild West, where everybody can do as they please. But this has been changing. Big social media platforms recognise they have a responsibility to go against hate campaigns, and sexist and homophobic commentators that are organising systematically to intimidate people. This responsibility needs to be expanded. At the same time, we need a societal debate about what one is allowed to say and at what point this is only an insult or a threat.

Expanding the responsibility on a voluntary basis is maybe wishful thinking for those big platforms. How do we regulate this digital space while not policing what is happening?

The key word is enforcement. For a lot of threats that I’m getting, we don’t need additional legislation. They are punishable by law. If you threaten to kill someone or to rape them, this is illegal – be it face to face or on the Internet. The question is, can I trust that, if I forward this to the police, they will follow it up, and that there is a high chance that these people will be sanctioned? That is the problem. Many victims do not go to the police because they feel like they are not being taken seriously and that there will be no consequences.

It is striking that in the #MeToo movement we hear a lot about women and sex but little about men and power. Is it not men and masculinity we should be talking about?

When we talk about #MeToo, we need to talk about masculinity and we need to talk about power. The media coverage on this issue has been mainly about sex. This is what supposedly sells. However, for me it is very clear: #MeToo is not about sex. It is about power. It is about power distribution in our societies – and yes, that has a lot to do with patriarchal masculinities. What we have seen in the debate surrounding the #MeToo campaign is that if you start challenging the distribution of power, those who feel threatened start attacking the campaign as a whole trying to protect their power and privilege – a phenomena that is called toxic masculinity.

This is why in the debate in the European Parliament, I asked not only for women to speak in this debate, but for more men to take a stance. Many men think they are not responsible for this, that this is a women’s issue and that women have to solve it. But unless we also have men on board, challenging their own masculinity standards and what they think their roles in society are, we cannot change the structure that lies behind this system. The #MeToo movement is thus also about men starting – and in some cases continuing- to reflect upon their previous behaviour.

We’re here at the heart of politics, in the European Parliament. Can you tell us about the world of politics and about your experience relating to women’s rights and gender equality?

One thing is as clear for the European Parliament as it is for any other arena of power. Sexism, and also sexual harassment, are used as tools to keep certain groups from even entering the arena. To give one example: I was invited to a talk show, a live talk show, everybody was a little nervous before the start. Then my counterpart, an older member of this parliament from the right of the political spectrum, mentioned that I was wearing a red dress, and that I was probably wearing it because I wanted to get more attention. First, I thought, “What a stupid comment, why are you saying this to me?” And then I actually started thinking about it, and immediately it worked! His comment derailed my thoughts from Brexit, the topic of the political discussion, towards what I looked like. In that moment, I felt that it was a power tool, and that it was working. This is why it is so central that we debunk strategies like this. This again shows that it is about power. And we need to continue fighting forcefully and determinedly to change these power structures.

Challenging power: #MeToo and women’s rights

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