Trickling Down the Weinstein Effect: Enter the Bonobo Sisterhood

Emmah Wabuke*

Following the expose about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predatory behaviour, many were quick to show support for the women accusers.  This public response is best summarised by the ‘We Believe You’ tone in the now-controversial Lena Dunham’s tweet: ‘The woman who chose to speak about their experience of harassment by Harvey Weinstein deserve our awe. It’s not fun or easy. It’s brave’.

Unfortunately, this collective goodwill is not always present in other sectors. Take politics for example. When women stood up to accuse President Trump in October 2016, and more recently, Republican senatorial candidate, Roy Moore, they were met with responses ranging from ‘If the allegations are true…’ to ‘Why now?’ . To be fair, in respect of the latter, many  Republicans have asked him to step aside. However, these ‘step-aside’ calls have not been bolstered by credible means to force him out, if need be.

As more accounts arise, a troubling pattern is emerging and that is, with the exception of Hollywood, women still face a serious ‘credibility problem when they accuse their superiors for sexual misconduct.  Why is there disparity in believing the veracity of the women’s claims?

The answer partly lies with the women involved.  As noted by Jane Meyer, ‘Sexual harassment is about power, not sex, and it has taken women of extraordinary power to overcome the disadvantage that most accusers face’. Weinstein accusers are successful and wealthy actresses. So, in the opinion of many, these women have no reason to lie. Where the women are ordinary in their livelihoods, however, their credibility level lowers. Anita Hill was a young law school graduate when she accused the more powerful Clarence Thomas; while Juanita Broaddrick was a volunteer at President Clinton’s gubernatorial campaign. They were treated more cruelly than the Weinstein accusers. It seems, therefore, that success and more importantly, fame is a protective shield against victim-blaming.

How, then, can we transfer believability from the more famous to the less-famous? Enter the Bonobo Sisterhood.

The Bonobo sisterhood derives its name from chimpanzee-like primates, native to the Wamba Forest, DRC which have established a female camaraderie to protect themselves against male aggression. When a younger female faces sexual harassment, she releases a cry which other older female bonobos respond to. What is even more inspiring is the fact that there need not be previous acquaintance before one female runs to the aid of another. Instead alliances sprout at the moment of distress. Through these alliances, female bonobos have greatly reduced male-instigated infanticide from their midst.

A Bonobo Sisterhood has three components: consciousness, combat and cooperation.  The Bonobo Sisterhood requires their members to be conscious of the nuances and subsequent privilege that defines the membership and combat against patriarchy by drawing cooperation through amplifying the voices of every member. The older female bonobos are conscious that their age affords them some protection (read privilege) against male aggression. Nevertheless, they remain ready to respond to the cry of those less-privileged than themselves. They combat the male aggressor on behalf of the less-privileged member and in that way, ensure that the unique struggle of the less-privileged is amplified.

Obviously, fame is no protector of sexual harassment. It is, nevertheless, a good equaliser in the ‘credibility scale’. Therefore, the more famous members of the Sisterhood should be conscious about this privilege. From this consciousness, the next question is: ‘What can we do to help those less-privileged than myself?’ Hashtags such as #MeToo and #Meat14 are instrumental in this respect. The more famous members of the Sisterhood should highlight and amplify the voices of those involved in the little-known stories, such as the immigrant labourers working in a minimum-wage job in Idaho, the house-help in Nairobi and the pupil at a law firm in Johannesburg.

This Sisterhood has been successfully used to transfer ‘credibility’. Take the Bill Cosby scandal, for example. Cosby had almost successfully refuted the accusations levelled against him by, for the most part, little known aspiring actresses until the famous supermodel, Beverley Johnson came forward. Suddenly, the ‘credibility scale’ of the other accusers rose.

More recently, Roger Ailes and Bill O’ Reilly were on the verge of getting away with sexual misconduct against, for the most part, ordinary women working at Fox Corporation until the famous newscasters, Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson went public with their sexual harassment claims. Suddenly, the accusations by the less-famous accusers sounded more believable.

The Bonobo Sisterhood is not the whole answer. In a perfect world, all women should be believed. As we continue to search for the perfect world, the Sisterhood remains relevant in shining a light on sexual misconduct. This light, of course, is easily shone by those who already are in the limelight.


*Emmah Wabuke holds an LL.B from University of Nairobi and an LL.M from Harvard Law School. She is also an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya. Emmah is a Lecturer at Strathmore Law School and a Research Fellow at Strathmore Institute of Advanced Studies in International Criminal Justice where she heads the Gender Peace and Security Centre. She has an interest in the intersection between gender and national security in Africa. 





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