Image of woman holding a #MeToo sign

From #MulaiBicara to #BabaeAko: Unpacking #MeToo movements across Asia

The movements in Indonesia and the Philippines bringing gender rights into public discussion

Deakin University’s Asian Media and Cultural Studies Network has launched their inaugural podcast research series on the #MeToo movements across Asia

#MeToo involves a combination of online and offline activism to bring difficult topics – such as sexual harassment and assault – into public discussion, with the intention of creating change around various aspects of gender rights.

The Asian Media and Cultural Studies Network is transdisciplinary, drawing on scholars from across the arts, social sciences and humanities disciplines who work in both national and transnational Asian contexts.

The network explores Asian media and cultural studies, particularly in the areas of digital media production, youth cultures, national and regional identities, and cultures of fame.

It is an initiative of Deakin University with partners from universities in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and India, amongst others.

Mobilising Indonesian women

Before the #MeToo movement, Indonesian gender equality activists were using online campaigns to encourage women to speak up about sexual assault and harassment. 

In April 2016, Lentera Sintas Indonesia (a support group for survivors of sexual violence) and online feminist magazine Magdalene launched a multi-platform education campaign about sexual violence. 

Along with promoting online discussion using the hashtags #MulaiBicara (start talking) and #TalkAboutIt, Lentera and its partners held panel events and film screenings. 

While the #MulaiBicara discussions preceded #MeToo, Magdalene co-founder and managing editor Hera Diani notes that, in the wake of the global movement, the publication is now receiving more submissions dealing with sexual violence, bringing to light what is often a taboo topic in the media. 

Online activism is not surprising, considering Indonesians’ use of social media is the third fastest growing in the world. Social media platforms enable awareness-raising and the recruitment of new activists. 

It also facilitated offline action, such as an increase in the number of online gender rights groups involved in international women’s day street marches from 2017 to 2019 demanding the Indonesian government to ratify the bill on domestic violence.

Image of women at a protest in Indonesia
2019 Indonesian Women’s March in the capital city Jakarta with the hashtag DareToHaveAVoice or #BeraniBersuara. Photo courtesy of Gavin Height 

Filipino women’s voices in the digital sphere 

The Philippines has a long history of people’s movements that challenge dominant and abusive political powers and social regimes.

Digital communication technologies have played a pivotal role in organising and mobilising mass gatherings and protests. 

Two prominent Filipino women’s movements have emerged over the past years.

These movements have primarily called out how the conflation of broader social, economic, and political structures in the Philippines can place Filipino women in vulnerable and abusive conditions. 

It is important to note that the Philippines is predominantly a Catholic country and is one of the two countries in the world where divorce remains illegal.

Through religious values and a patriarchal system, Filipino women are often ascribed with nurturing, caring, and domestic roles.

They are also constructed as embodying altruistic, caring, and filial characteristics, which reflect across various media channels and popular culture.

With the strong influence of Roman Catholicism in Philippine society, Filipino women can be denied of their bodily autonomy and agency.

This was shown in the lived conditions of women before the approval of the Reproductive Health Bill. Women were stripped off their basic rights in using reproductive health tools and services.

Positively, with the implementation of the RH Bill in 2017, Filipino women have started to receive support in making reproductive health related choices and actions to manage and improve their lives.

But personal experiences and gender rights can be undermined by other, broader structures within Philippine society.

Here, one’s individual capacity can be constrained, especially when those who are in power produce, disseminate and reinforce discriminatory remarks and actions. 

As a result, Filipino women start to fight back, reflected in movements like #BabaeAko (I am a woman) and #HijaAko (I am Hija). 

The #BabaeAko movement began in May 2018, after President Rodrigo Roa Duterte remarked that he preferred the next ombudsman of the Philippines not to be a woman.

The declaration happened after Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno was unceremoniously ousted from her position. 

Drawing on this incident, former Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, activist Mae Paner, journalist Inday Espina-Varona, and Asia Pacific Chief for Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Jean Enriquez, created the #BabaeAko social media movement. 

The founders and many other women produced online posts using the hashtag. Many also used the phrase, “Lalaban ako!” (I will fight).

The movement was recognised by Time Magazine, placing the founders in the Time’s 25 Most Influential People on the internet. 

#HijaAko and Contesting Victim Blaming

Another prominent Filipino women’s movement in the digital sphere was facilitated using the #HijaAko hashtag.

This movement started when Simone Francesca Emmanuelle Cuneta Pangilinan – also known as ‘Frankie’ or ‘Kakie’ – made a Twitter post in reaction to a municipal police station. 

The police encouraged women to avoid wearing revealing clothes, so they would not be targeted for sex crimes. Frankie responded about the need to teach people not to rape women in the first place.

Frankie’s post was then criticised by Television Host Ben Tulfo, who used the word ‘Hija’ – meaning ‘younger girl’ – to talk down to her.

Frankie then used the word ‘Hija’ to brand “girls who fight for their rights as human beings”.

The #HjiAko movement generated many tweets from Filipino women and organisations.

Women shared stories of abuse, exploitation and rape, and highlighted issues surrounding victim blaming and rape culture in the Philippines. Several celebrities also joined the conversation by posting online contents. 

The #HijaAko movement has opened an avenue to critically examine and reflect on the severity of exploitation and abuse in Philippine society.

For instance, various reports have shown that Filipino women have been sexually exploited and emotionally abused.

According to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), some 222 women were sexually exploited in 2019. Further, according to the Philippine National Police, there were 2,162 rape cases reported to the police in the same year. 

Beyond the digital sphere

Digital communication channels have facilitated political participation across Asia.

Digitally enabled movements have presented the gendered dimension of digital activism, reflecting how the personal can become political. 

The curation of experiences – abuse, exploitation, discrimination, and victim blaming – indicate the impact of social structures on the lives of women across the globe.

Indeed, the fight back against sexism, misogyny and rape culture has just begun in the messy space of the digital world. 

Nevertheless, networked mobilisation, collective curation, and unified voices indicate ways of challenging dominant perspectives and reclaiming agency among women. 

Dr Monika Winarnita and Dr Earvin Charles Cabalquinto are lecturers from Deakin University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, and School of Communication and Creative Arts, respectively. 

They are also members of the University’s Asian Media and Cultural Studies Network. Their research encompasses the #MeToo movements in Indonesia and the Philippines, respectively.

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