Sexual harassment has exploded into public awareness in the last year. We’ve seen unprecedented levels of protest, the indictment of many famous celebrities, and unparalleled media attention dedicated to the sexual oppression of women. The Weinstein scandal and the WOMCAM Breaking the Silence campaign have brought to the foreground the prevalence and pervasiveness of sexual harassment within global culture and within the University of Cambridge. To be able then to interview Adama Iwu, was – to put it lightly – kind of a big deal. Adama Iwu was one Time Magazine’s four People of the Year in 2017, named for being “the Silence Breakers”. In October 2017, Iwu wrote an open letter to the LA Times detailing the high levels of misogyny and harassment in her work environment the California State Capitol, despite the major risk this move posed to her career and public reputation. Over 140 other women also signed, and the media was ablaze with the news that the political sphere, like Hollywood, is hardly a safe space for women.
The prospect of meeting such a feminist icon was certainly a little daunting. But when I meet Adama I am instantly put at ease as she greets me with a smile, a handshake, and a joke about her arduous journey down to Cambridge. She comes across as charismatic and comfortable in talking to the press, which is impressive as she confides that until recently she’s never been a very public person. This, of course, would swiftly change with the publication of her open letter, although she didn’t anticipate this, as she laughs and says “I had no idea it would go this far, I had no idea it would have such far reaching repercussions”.
Adama discusses why she came forward with her open letter. The Weinstein tape had come out the day before, when a colleague “had the misfortune” of choosing that night to sexually harass her. She explains that due to the Weinstein scandal she was “already on a slow burn”, and reveals her colourful response to the incident that night: “I was like you know what, absolutely the fuck not, not today Satan, I’m not just going to sit back for this”. Whilst her delivery is amusing, she takes care to emphasise her reasons for coming forward this time, having not come forward in the past when sexually harassed. She says that “this time” she had “just had enough”, and was “tired” of hearing young women tell her about bad experiences with men she’d previously been harassed by. “I felt like, great I’m now complicit in this cycle” she says, “and I don’t want to be complicit in this cycle, and I felt like, you know what, if I get fired I have some savings, I can sell some stock, I can get a smaller apartment, I’ll find another job, I had already made those calculations”. She laughs as she lists off her contingency plans, but it’s clear that these are very real issues facing the women who decide to come forward with accounts of sexual assault. I ask Adama how she would encourage women who are being harassed by men in positions of power to come forward, specifically when their job might be dependent upon that very man. “Yeah, that’s so hard”. She thinks for a moment. “I felt like I was safe, and I could do that [come forward], and I would not tell any woman that they should come forward, if they’re not safe or if they can’t do it. It’s an incredibly risky and difficult decision to make and so I would say don’t do it if you feel like you can’t”.
Having mentioned the risk involved in going public, I want to know if Adama has experienced a negative backlash since the publication of her open letter. She says that she’s been really fortunate, that her job has been supportive, and that she hasn’t been fired. Women working closely with her, however, were contacted through a “crazy email” asking them to confirm a “rumour”. And how did she respond to that? “If he wants to run some scurrilous ridiculous piece of bullshit ass journalism, I will call an attorney. I was just like this is just the stand I have to take. I am not responding to pieces of retaliatory garbage”. At this point, Adama is offered a glass of wine. She finds the prospect of drinking before giving a talk absolutely hilarious, and takes a glass of water instead.
It’s been over seven months since the publication of the letter, so I wonder whether Adama has seen a shift in the overall culture of harassment. It’s obviously hard to tell for Adama, as everyone she comes into contact with knows that she “basically exposed everything”, and they probably modify their behaviour around her. She jokes that “legislators don’t want to talk to me, but now they want to take a picture with me”. She’s still somewhat optimistic, as “a lot of women tell me things are definitely different”, and yet these women “feel like it’s a rubber band, it constantly just wants to snap back”. This is why we have to continue pushing for change in terms of policy, customs, and culture, she argues, “because power doesn’t like to cede power very easily and it takes constant pressure to really change things”. So then how do we change things, how do we keep these topics current and keep moving forwards? “We have to keep talking about it”, Adama says, “we have to keep having really tough conversations”, which she acknowledges is exhausting and potentially triggering for lots of women. “But we have to push through that, we have to keep talking about it because it’s very clear that there are whole swathes of people who have no idea what consent is”. Campus rape is also brought up, which the University of Cambridge is by no means exempt from, as shown by the extensive work of the Breaking the Silence initiative led by the CUSU Women’s Campaign. Adama believes that this is an issue that universities and all kinds of institutions haven’t yet figured out how to address appropriately. When asked exactly how far student lobbying can realistically go, her message to us all is this: “It has to go all the way. I mean this is your university”. We have to go about “breaking the cycle of being complicit in a system that isn’t serving you, or the women who come after you”. Evidently, there is still much work to be done.
So how should men in positions of power assist women in breaking their silence? I am given three main criteria for men hoping to support vulnerable women: believe women, listen to their stories, and hold other men accountable. Adama is sick of hearing men say “Oh my friend ‘Trevor’ is so nice” when hearing their friends accused of sexual harassment. “No, ‘Trevor’ is actually a rapist and when you see Trevor doing these things, don’t turn a blind eye, don’t wait”, she says fiercely. Men should take this opportunity to be an ally. We don’t need men to hold doors open for us, “my arms work”, what we need is “real allyship”, and we need to give men the space to do that, because “they are part of the problem, but they’re also part of the solution”. It all comes back down to complicity, and part of being an ally can be about calling out your friends, even if ‘all’ they are doing is making comments about women walking by. In these cases, Adama says you have to “be like…bruh”. Be cognizant of what is happening around you, and “just step in and ask”, even if this feels uncomfortable or puts you in a potentially awkward situation with friends, family, or colleagues.
Since Adama’s own experience, she’s thought a lot about the many ways in which women can be helped. Whilst it’s important to make a symbolic stand, “we do have to move past performative feminism”, and make changes through both publicity and policy. One of the ways in which Adama has been aiming to do this is through her foundation, We Said Enough. The foundation’s aims are to eventually affect political policy, and Adama plans to do this through collecting data. We Said Enough are working on app that will track and report sexual assault in real time. Women would use the app to report assault in a “safe, secure and confidential” manner, so that “god-level data” concerning demographics, industry and geography can be used for active research into sexual assault. These results will hopefully aid cognitive scientists, sociologists and psychologists to start developing curriculum, get to root causes and start stopping misogynistic behaviour before it escalates. Not only is the app useful for furthering research, but for political purposes too. “I think data is so critical” she says, “and having worked in public policy for so long, I know that this is what politicians need, they need data because they never believe it’s a problem until they see numbers”. The women reporting meanwhile are immediately provided with support tools; helplines, web articles and many more resources that are geo-appropriate. It’s a reciprocal interaction. Those who provide data can actually get outreach support and start getting help immediately, which, Adama points out, is crucial in these “most isolating times”.
It’s reassuring to see resources and research into sexual harassment expanding. It’s reassuring to see and speak to Adama, a public figure who is dedicating her life to emancipating women. It’s reassuring that we are able to openly and publicly have these very conversations. It’s also apparent, however, just how much change we still have to work for. In our university and in our society a culture of sexual harassment still perseveres. It is down to every individual to call it out, avoid complicity, and fight for women, for their right to feel safe in their everyday lives.