#Metoo: from the Balkans to Twitter

A friend asked me to follow the flow, and write this hashtag #metoo. Cavafi, the Greek poet who lived all his life by the sea and wrote about everything but the sea, before dying he said: Let me too say something about the sea.

The sea is too big a topic for literature, just like the oceanic scale of harassment, stalking and rape.

All my life I’ve been thinking about the oppression of women, writing about it, acting out. I am a feminist activist: sexual harassment was one reason I became one. Nobody is born a feminist.

But my point of view, even after many years and much female experience, was never the view of a victim. I still forbid myself to think in that way. Especially after bearing witness, and writing down the stories of women raped in war-crimes in former Yugoslavia. It was their brave testimonies that helped make that common deed of war into a crime, officially, in 2008.

I appreciate this recent flow of #metoo. As an activist, I can hope that my work has done well, now that the mainstream is picking it up. Not from Balkan battlegrounds, but from Hollywood and Silicon Valley, no less. The fish stinks from the head.

My mother was a doctor, and a resistance fighter in World War Two. She always considered uniformed soldiers, guerrillas, killers and rapists as all part of one whirlwind of violent cruelty. I understand that every woman has the right to feel differently and express herself thus. But to my mind, in the everyday matter of violence against women, there is no major difference between war and peace.

My mother survived war, and I was born in peacetime. My mother told me how she was harassed by the husband of a friend. My father and she socialized with this man and his wife on daily basis. I grew up with their daughter, who was my own best friend.

He was a notorious womanizer, a good looking, sweet talking gentleman with high social position. I was a grown up teenager when my mom told me about his advances: I went to his office and denounced him to his face. As a gentleman, he was horrified. He threatened to punish me by damaging my career, which actually followed.

Many years later, I also learned his daughter, as a child, had been molested by the family gardener. This gardener was no gentleman, but the gentlemanly father hushed it all up anyway; he forbade his daughter to ever speak of what had happened to her.

Once, as a teen, I was assaulted, in the tight closed room of the elevator, by the big brother of my neighbourhood girlfriend. I told her and her mother about it, but they stayed silent. Big brother was the hero of their family: handsome, dashing, bold…. So whatever he did was right, or else my fault! Some years later, the guy ended up in prison for fraud.

At the age of 21, I went to the Yugoslav embassy in Rome to renew my passport, since I enjoyed living alone in Rome. The ambassador, who was a family friend, received me in his Roman office and assaulted me out of blue. I told my parents. Next time he came to our home, with his wife and son, for dinner, nobody mentioned the episode. We all behaved as if nothing untoward had happened.

I left Italy and went to Belgrade to renew my passport. Then I stayed in Belgrade, forsaking my Italian life. The ambassador eventually made a good career. He became the last president of Yugoslavia before it disintegrated in bloodshed.

At a film festival in Ischia, I presented a movie script, in a lively Italian scene full of movie celebrities. Along came the president of Italnoleggio, the Italian governmental film company. He tried to seduce me by showing me pedophile pictures of small girls dressed in high heels. I immediately reported this to the celebrities: they listened, and told me that Rome was a notorious center of all sorts of weird vices, and that a newcomer like me would get used to it. They needed the government funds he was managing; they were the talent, but also the great man’s hangers-on. I later heard that he committed suicide in a state corruption scandal.

Asia Argento, the Italian actress and director, is paying a hell of a price for her coming out in Italy’s machiavellian cinema culture, with its Catholic double standards. I especially appreciate her honesty of not playing the violated “good girl”, which exactly what puritan creeps don’t like about Asia Argento.

The worst of the lot was my gynecologist. One of those nightmares every woman dreads when she must expose herself to a trusted male professional. I was young, I was a foreigner, and I was in a very special clinic, alternative politically and economically correct, in a Catholic country. The doctor was handsome, famous, young and with nice manners. And yet he did it, unexpectedly, out of sheer male power, without any shame or fear.

I was so shocked and horrified that I didn’t even know how to interpret that, and cope with it in future. Go to the police? Refuse all male doctors on principle? Never have any children? This, in a country where Catholic nuns secretly performed abortions? Who was in charge of my body and the abuse of it: the doctors, the state, the church? It certainly wasn’t me, so #metoo.

I know a young woman, who is not a feminist, who criticized the #metoo coming out. She said that those women made choices to advance their careers, that they could have bravely and forthrightly shouted no at the moment, instead of all lamenting #metoo together, much later. I asked her if she ever had any similar indecent approaches herself, being a beautiful girl with a job. She said of course. But then, she added, those work situations didn't bother me. What bothered me was a pedophile who hit on me while I was with my parents on summer holidays. I never dared to tell them, or tell anybody. Oh, and then there was that priest in the church, who groped me while I was with my best friend for her christening ritual.

I was alarmed that things hadn’t turn out much better for this young brave friend who saw no use for feminism, “God forbid.” There must be a lesson here for women of all ages, colors, creeds and financial conditions. Woman may not support, or even believe, the coming-out women, but they should bear in mind that it can happen to #themtoo!

I know women who say they adore men in power, that coercive power feels sexy… I also know women who routinely beg men for money and favors, because of sex, or just because they are men, and men are present in the world, and have wealth and power. I know women who consider all men equally worthless, and cheerfully go to bed with them anyway. But I never met any woman who liked being assaulted or raped. No one can protect or console those who suffer, when they live in denial without empathy.

After the conflict, if it can end at all, can come truth and reconciliation. The #metoo situation is a viral social-media event, like others of our time, but the emotional pain of the sexual abuse of power, and the righteous joy of revenge at last, can’t last long enough to transform gender relations. We should open a place where the wisdom of empathy among women is stronger than viral media. Where we can write about the deep and stormy sea, instead of mutely living on its shores, until we die.

(Image: Bruce Sterling)

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