There are a lot of questions swirling about the #MeToo movement as Hawaii braces for impact. After nearly half a century of civil rights for women, why is sexual harassment so persevering? Is it really a problem, or is it women’s inability to distinguish between harmless behavior and sexism? 

One assumption that recently circulated in local press is that, while a few vestiges of the “Mad Men” era linger, ultimately a culture of kissing and hugging and women’s inability to distinguish innocuous customs from inappropriate assertions of power, is the problem.

Specifically targeted was so-called local culture, which is rooted in traditional Polynesian greetings that include ha, an exchange of breath where two people touch faces and breathe in deeply together. This exchange of breath is one of the highest forms of respect you can pay another person.

Ha is never sexual, and you don’t do it with just anyone. Native Hawaiians even practiced ha in school. We continue to practice ha, and the culture here is generally more affectionate because of our aloha spirit.

Aloha spirit is the opposite of sexual harassment — that is, sexualized disrespect — and women can tell the difference. Every woman is trained from girlhood to be on hyper-alert for male violations of our boundaries. Every man is trained to dehumanize women.

The real problem is men having and constantly needing more power, abusing that power, and using culture to justify violence against women. There is a long history of this blame game.

Let’s problematize the culture excuse. Culture is not monolithic. We know that it is always changing. Recently, slavery was deemed legal along with the denial of women’s vote and LGBT people to marry. But now all of those “norms” are abolished and deemed unacceptable. The #MeToo movement is setting a new norm about what constitutes acceptable treatment of women at work. We need to always interrogate culture because it is not incorruptible and pure.

Taking Women’s Accounts Seriously

Male supremacy is not the default setting of humanity. Instead, it was socialized into all of us, and tolerated by law and culture. It may be 2018, but still the worst thing you can call a man is a woman.

What does it feel like to be an insult, and forever trivialized and disrespected for something you cannot control? We need to take women’s accounts of their lived reality seriously. The daily toll of sexism and sexual harassment interrupts women’s lives and their ability to gain economic, social, and political power. Top down and ground up, we need leaders to take a stand against systemic sexism. Men in power need to stick their necks out longer than anyone.

Aloha spirit is the opposite of sexual harassment — that is, sexualized disrespect — and women can tell the difference.

All cultures in Hawaii have been impacted by colonialism and patriarchy. Under these systems, certain people were able to decide what was acceptable and unacceptable. Speaking olelo Hawaii was and still is, as evidenced in the case of Kaleikoa Kaeo, unacceptable. Refusing submission to a husband was unacceptable, and Native Hawaiian women had to be forcibly trained by missionaries into that rigid gender role. Hawaiian culture and so-called local culture cannot be analyzed without looking at how each are shaped and influenced by colonialism and patriarchy.

One extreme example globally is female genital mutilation. This has been justified by saying that this practice is part of the culture so it is okay to mutilate female bodies and prevent their sexual pleasure. Further analysis complicates the story that this practice did not exist, then it existed but it was not widespread, and then because of colonialism, it became widespread and was used to further oppress women.

There are many ways to create a new culture. Instead of vilifying individual men, we decided to lead by example by offering free legal and cultural trainings about the gender system and how we can each create new conditions that make sex discrimination, including harassment and assault, unlikely to occur in the workplace. We knew the tide was turning when institutions as diverse as the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney on Kauai to the National Association of Social Workers invited us to train their members.

This moment calls on all of us to participate in the ending of patriarchal and colonial ideas about women’s worth and how they can be treated. There will growing pains, individual men who abuse may fall, but it’s time to prove to Hawaii that women matter.

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