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Tuesday 21 January 2020
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A scandal close to home

BEFORE THIS month, Harvey Weinstein’s name was not as recognisable as some of the actors he assaulted. Yet, he was behind some of the most acclaimed films of all time. He worked with Hollywood royalty, including the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Daniel Day Lewis, Madonna, Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman. As a producer or executive producer, his name is forever tied to some of the most successful movies ever, such as two instalments of The Lord of the Rings and the record-shattering documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.

But a better sense of the strange power of this man can probably be had by reading the list of his accusers. Lupita Nyong’o, Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Léa Seydoux, and Cara Delevingne. How could this happen? And these are only the actors who managed to have a career notwithstanding their ordeal and who are in a position today to be able to come forward publicly. Many others were probably never heard from or seen again after their “audition” at the hands of Weinstein.

From what we know thus far, his sexual advances were as uncouth as they were devastating.

All of this feels close to home not just because of the high-wattage of the names involved. The truth of the matter is that for many women, sexual harassment – and worse – remains a fact of life that must be contended with daily. But long before the Weinstein scandal, we in Trinidad and Tobago formulated our own prescriptions for these kinds of matters.

In 1987, calypsonian Singing Sandra breathed new life into the social commentary genre with her now classic anthem, Die With My Dignity—a work that captures the appalling practice of sexual harassment.

“They want to see your whole anatomy,” warned Sandra. “They want to see what your doctor never see, they want to do what you husband never do, still you ain’t know if these scamps will hire you.” Her message, coming in the middle of the tough economic circumstances of the 1980s, was one of empowerment: “Well if is all this humiliation to get a job these days as a woman, brother they could keep their money, I go keep my honey, and die with my dignity!”

While this is the course some of these encounters take, many do not end in such triumph. Sexual predators rely on power imbalance: they target only persons who, due to a perfect storm of circumstances, will be unable to raise objection. In these situations, a choice can, tragically, feel like no choice at all.

There has been a lot of attention paid to the problem of violence against women in the home. We have witnessed the horror of brutal murder-suicides, infanticide and severed limbs. But we cannot afford to overlook other forms of assault that can take place in supposedly safe spaces. It can happen in the workplace or even in the street.

Who knows what the true prevalence of these incidents is? Women do not report them. They are often left emotionally scarred and fearful of retribution. They may seek to protect persons around them and to avoid having their trauma re-enacted by a censorious society. But silence comes at a price.

The physiological effects of sexual exploitation are severe. Often, pain can manifest itself years after the fact, try as hard as the woman might to move forward emotionally. Luckily for us, we live in a society that is, thanks to social media, increasingly more open to discussing matters such as this. Yet, there is still a long way to go. It was only a few years ago that a government minister stood accused of demanding sexual favours from women in exchange for State services.

The women who have come forward now in the Weinstein case are inspirations. They are playing their greatest role imaginable: reminding women everywhere they are not alone

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