Stories that reveal pain - #ISpeakUp movement in North Macedonia
Sexual Harassment of women and girls is a form of violence against women and girls broadly spread, and in some cultures hard to recognize and define as a form of violence rather than a cultural norm. Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment can occur in different forms and contexts such as:
- The conduct is made as a term or condition of an individual's employment, education, living environment or participation in a University community.
- The acceptance or refusal of such conduct is used as the basis or a factor in decisions affecting an individual's employment, education, living environment, or participation in a University community.
- The conduct unreasonably impacts an individual's employment or academic performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment for that individual's employment, education, living environment, or participation in a University community.
In its guidelines, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that unwelcome behaviour is the critical word. Unwelcome does not mean "involuntary." A victim may consent or agree to certain conduct and actively participate in it even though it is offensive and objectionable. Therefore, sexual conduct is unwelcome whenever the person subjected to it considers it unwelcome.
These very definitions of sexual harassment were challenged and problematized in debates triggered by the #MeToo movement, present in our society as well. Those vocal against the movement often alleged that the movement desexualizes women, reduces men’s desire for flirtation and conquering women, i.e. it deeply redefined the male-female relations, however, in the wrong direction. After heated debates and comments on the social networks, joined by several of my feminist friends, we realized that most of the critics have truly failed to understand the problem of sexual harassment, mostly due to the fact that women tend to hide, or avoid sharing such experiences. Aware of the complexity of the sexual harassment problem, we believed the first step towards resolving it was recognition. We had to extract these experiences, women’s experiences of harassment, from our body and soul, and expose them under the scrutiny of the public in order to make the issue visible and comprehensible. Therefore, on January 16, 2018, at noon, with previous agreement, around 50 women shared a sexual harassment experience on the social networks (mostly Facebook) under the hashtag ISpeakUpNow and TaniTregoj (in Macedonian and Albanian). In no time our initiative spread and throughout the day hundreds of women shared their or sexual harassment experiences they had witnessed.
The sample analysis of the accounts revealed that 93% of the experiences were shared by women and 7% by men, with the better part being personal experiences (70%), and the remaining being witnessed by someone. The stories shared involved different forms of sexual violence women in North Macedonia faced. The most prevalent form of sexual harassment in these accounts was verbal/psychological harassment (41%), followed by sexual assault or rape (28%), unwanted physical touching (19%), public self-pleasuring (4%) etc. The Study on the range of gender-based violence against women and girls in the Municipality of Tetovo revealed that sexual harassment is a widely spread form of violence. In addition, the research also focused on women’s reactions to the different forms of sexual harassment and violence they have experienced. Consequently, incidents of visual nature, such as staring, peeping and similar are never reported to the relevant institutions, similar to experiences of sexual harassment not involving touching (exposing one’s genitalia, masturbation etc.) or verbal incidents (catcalling, whistling etc.), which are hardly ever reported. In conclusion, women seek institutional protection in cases of violence affecting the body, meaning bodily contact or threat to the same. In cases of violence not directly affecting the body, meaning violence of verbal or visual nature, institutional protection is not sought for. It is important to mention that even these non-bodily forms of violence have bodily, or psychosomatic repercussions and can be harmful to the psychological and mental health of women. As expected, the #ISpeakUpNow initiative brought to light truly traumatic women’s experiences buried deep for a long time, concealed from state institutions, friends and family as perhaps the most embarrassing points in our lives. The feeling of shame is the result of two states: 1) self-accusation for the harassment, a feeling of guilt that we somehow provoked this behaviour ourselves; and 2) ruining the ideal of female purity, i.e. experiencing the act of sexual harassment as tainting women’s bodies and souls. Such dominant set of values oppressing women in patriarchal cultures and environments demobilize victims, leaving them in a state of recurring trauma after the violent act.
Women and girls victims of such violence face severe emotional consequences, violation of their personal and bodily integrity, loss of self-confidence and unequal chances for participation and success on a personal and professional plan. The stories shared spoke of sexual harassment occurring in different locations. It is troubling that the most prevalent cases of sexual harassment have occurred in educational institutions (32.7%) or at the workplace (18%). In these cases, the harassment came from a professor/teacher or a superior, in other words someone in a position of power, who can influence the educational and professional development of the women or girls. A substantial number of the victims choose to leave or change their jobs or educational institutions as the only available option for resolution. Such circumstances of widespread and unsanctioned sexual violence in education and at the workplace, among other things, leads to violation of the right to education of these girls and to equal opportunities in their access to the labour market. This inevitably affects the economic and personal growth of women and girls.
The #ISpeakUpNow initiative elicited strong reactions and debates in our society. In the most part, the reactions in the form of commenting bellow the posted stories were reactions of support. However, a significant part of the comments were negative or critical towards the victims. An analysis of these would be valuable since they reflect society’s reaction to sexual harassment, in addition to exposing the link with the reasons for not reporting, for tolerating, or even normalizing sexual harassment in our society.
The most common remark was the question why women waited for so long to share experiences that had occurred in the past, in some cases several decades ago. Such comments aimed at delegitimizing sexual harassment experiences as obsolete and long-forgotten unpleasant events, i.e. to cast doubt on the motives for disclosing such experiences. However, the name of the #ISpeakUpNow initiative itself clearly indicates to the fact that while most of the sexual harassment experiences remained unshared or unreported when they occurred, they are revealed now as part of a collective women’s voice. This voice surpasses the boundaries of isolated personal experiences, speaking of a phenomenon so widely present in our society that is beginning to be perceived as the norm, culture or customary. The joint women’s voice was also a voice of solidarity and mutual support among women who have experienced sexual harassment and decided to speak up decades later.
Another reaction of criticism was also common in the comments bellow the shared stories. Namely, most of the experiences shared did not reveal the identity of the harasser, only his function or position in the setting where the harassment had occurred. People mostly demanded exposing the names of the harassers as a form of ascribing validity to the story. Our initiative had no intention to privatize the guilt for the sexual harassment in a list containing 10, 20 or 100 names. On the contrary, the intention was to take notice of the system’s problem with sexual harassment, and its normalization and tolerance in all social structures. Of course, we took great caution in studying the potential risks such an initiative could have, such as victimizing the victims who would dare to expose the identity of their harasser in court procedures initiated by the latter. Our imperative was to unearth such experiences and publically expose their effects, which could then encourage state institutions to resolve the issue more comprehensively and seriously.
The relevant state institutions did not turn a deaf ear to the initiative. On the very first day, the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, the Ministry of Education and Science, as well as the Prime Minister of the Republic of North Macedonia supported and committed to resolving this issue. However, a concerning fact was that educational institutions, particularly the largest state university, the St. Cyril and Methodius University, as the most called upon in the accounts shared, remained silent throughout the entire initiative. From this perspective, after almost a year and a half, the institutions’ support remained almost entirely only in written. The main effect of the #ISpeakUpNow initiative was the beginning of debates on sexual harassment and including this issue in new legal solutions, such as the Law on Gender-based Violence and the Law on Primary and High School Education, still being drafted at present.
A lot more work and efforts are required to deal with sexual harassment. Initiatives of this type are only the first step. We also require a series of studies and research in order to firstly understand this complex issue and be able to propose the most effective solutions in future. We need to additionally research the consequences and negative effects from being exposed to a form of violence during one’s educational process, with a focus on violence and sexual harassment by professors. The public, as well as the private sector have to develop prevention and protection mechanisms against sexual harassment at the workplace. The protection system should develop a protocol for acting in cases of sexual harassment and with victims. However, nothing would suffice if we continue to maintain the culture of tolerance and impunity for sexual harassment. As women, as feminists, and as a society we need to be strong and loud in changing these narratives and thus create future generations which would recognize sexual harassment as a form of violence, an act of violence violating women, their psychological state and bodies. Until we reach that point, we will have to admit that we are living in times and culture when it is dangerous to be a woman or a girl.
 What is sexual harassment, Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, University of Michigan
Available at: https://sapac.umich.edu/article/63
 For more please see: https://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/currentissues.html
 The Me Too movement (or #MeToo movement), with a large variety of local and international alternative names, is a movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault. The movement began to spread virally in October 2017 as a hashtag on social media in an attempt to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace.
 Gligorova A., Angelov M., Danevska L. Research on the presence of different forms of sexual harassment in R. Macedonia, Youth Educational Forum, Skopje, 2018.
 Cvetkovikj I., Drndarevska D., Kocevska J. Study on the range of gender-based violence against women and girls in the City of Tetovo, UN Women, Skopje, 2019.