Taipei, Taiwan – More than 30 people, mostly women, came to Taiwan last month to share stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault on social media inspired by a hit Netflix series.
Some of the incidents happened more than a decade ago; others are new, but they call people in politics, art, academia, and even foreign diplomatic circles.
Many complained, too, of a culture of subtle misogyny they faced at school and in the workplace, with unwelcome comments from fellow male students and colleagues about themselves and other girls.
Nearly six years since the #MeToo campaign took the world by storm, Taiwan’s reckoning with sexual harassment and assault has been a long time coming.
Taiwan’s first experience with #MeToo has been mild compared to other places, although there have been some publicized incidents. One includes the release of a novel by 26-year-old writer Lin Yi-han that draws on her experiences of being groomed and sexually assaulted by her middle school teacher. The writer later took his own life, starting a national discussion.
This time, it was the Taiwanese Netflix drama Wave Makers that inspired women to act.
The show tells the story of two women who work to hold accountable a male partner for sexual harassment by a thinly disguised version of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and is inspired by life events. of one of the show’s writers, Chien Li-ying, who was allegedly harassed by the exiled Chinese writer Bei Ling. Bei Ling has publicly dismissed the allegations as a “fabrication” according to Taiwanese media.
Chien and co-writer Yan Shi-ji both have direct experience in Taiwan’s political circles, which makes the show realistic for many Taiwanese viewers, said Brian Hioe, a frequent news commentator. in Taiwan and is a non-resident fellow in the University of Nottingham’s Taiwan Studies Programme.
“The series is very accurate, including … the details. For example, the office of the DPP is copied as the office in the TV show. It’s exactly the same,” he said. “And so a lot of it is taken directly from real life.”
The realism has resonated with viewers since the release of the show on April 28.
Just over a month later, the accusations began to flow – by two party workers against their DPP colleagues, then against the exiled Chinese dissident Wang Dan who denied the allegations as “nothing basis”, and finally a stream of stories about men connected to Taiwan’s elite.
Elections are coming
Hioe said the reports may have caused more unrest as Taiwan prepares for a presidential election early next year, which means political parties are under more scrutiny than ever.
The women also came forward with allegations against members of the KMT, Taiwan’s main opposition party, and the smaller New Power Party.
Former Taipei mayor and presidential candidate Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party has also been accused of making “sexist comments” in the past about female political candidates and about her choice of specialization as a doctor.
Ko has since publicly apologized and promised to change his behavior as he begins his presidential campaign. His apology seems to have worked, and despite the backlash against him, Ko still scores higher in some polls than the KMT candidate.
“It’s a very sensitive time, so it could be a bigger story,” Hioe said. “And so, it started with the DPP, spread to Chinese dissidents, but also to literary and cultural circles, and it affected many different areas, academic life as well.”
The accusations also rocked diplomatic circles in Taipei after a Taiwanese woman publicly accused a Polish diplomat of sexual assault and revealed that a criminal complaint she made in 2022 not charged.
Writing on Twitter, the accused diplomat, Bartosz Rys, said the Taipei prosecutor’s office dismissed the woman’s complaint, adding that his accuser had a financial incentive because he asked her for 2.5 million New Taiwan dollars (about $81,000) to drop the suit.
The wave of allegations shocked even those familiar with gender politics in Taiwan like Ting-yu Kang, an associate professor at National Chengchi University who researches gender and media.
“As someone who works on gender equality in Taiwan, it does not surprise me that there are many cases of sexual harassment in a wide variety of industries and areas. However, the sudden wave of #MeToo surprised me, considering Taiwan’s silence on the last wave of #MeToo,” he said.
Many of the institutions affected by the allegations – from the DPP to university programs – have pledged to improve their sexual harassment reporting systems, but Kang told Al Jazeera that deeper issues are holding those back. victim reporting incidents – from a desire to maintain “workplace balance.” ” at the risk of a potential backlash from the development.
“Like many other countries, online misogyny in Taiwan has intensified in the last decade. Whenever there is a news article about sexual harassment or rape, online comments on the news almost always contain a lot of ridicule and blame of victims. It makes the online environment a very bad space to expose your predators,” he said.
“A popular online phrase in Taiwan is, ‘If you’re a pretty guy, there’s no such thing as sexual harassment,'” he said. “Another popular online comment on rape or sexual harassment cases is, ‘It’s not sexual harassment. [or] rape. It’s just that they don’t agree on the numbers,’ meaning that women in such cases only cheat men for money.
‘Generations of effort’
This is a reality that stands in stark contrast to Taiwan’s relatively positive image of gender relations.
Since 2016, Taiwan has been led by a female president, Tsai Ing-wen, who is also unique in Asia for rising to power alone and without ties to a political dynasty.
In 2019, Taiwan became the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage and regularly ranks alongside Scandinavian countries at the top of the UN Gender Equality Index.
On the books, at least, Taiwan also has strong sexual harassment laws similar to Western countries, said lawyer Audrey Lu, but in practice, sexual harassment can be a difficult crime to prove.
Beyond the social pressure to remain silent, evidence can be hard to pin down, he said, while statutes of limitations can also limit legal and civil prosecutions, and tough libel laws raise at the risk of a public accusation ending in a lawsuit.
“This is also a significant obstacle that many victims face because, as you can see in this recent incident, many victims are talking about events that happened years ago – decades ago. passed – because at that time, they were under so much pressure that they didn’t dare to speak against their teacher, their bosses, their professors,” said Lu.
“At least they can tell the public what happened even if they can’t take any legal action because of the statute of limitations.”
Lu rejected the idea that the Wave Makers program was responsible for the recent accusations.
“This is the effort of many men and women who have battled sexual harassment and sexual assault for many generations. This is a combination, not a shot or an event effect of the TV show,” he said. . “The TV show itself is the result of many generations of effort, otherwise it wouldn’t be a work of TV or literature. Maybe the timing is right.”