It’s been eight years since Seo Ji-hyun says she was sexually harassed, but it’s still painful to recall. “For a long time, I tortured myself by blaming myself for everything,” she tells TIME on a cloudy September morning in Seoul’s trendy Apgujeong neighborhood. Seo, a top-level prosecutor in South Korea, alleges that a senior male colleague repeatedly groped her at a funeral in 2010, while the country’s Justice Minister sat nearby.
She reported the incident to her managers shortly after, but was subjected to performance audits that she describes as unfair and assigned to a lower-level branch outside Seoul–a move she says did not match her strong track record at work. (The Ministry of Justice did not respond to TIME’s requests for comment; Seo’s alleged harasser has said he was too drunk at the time to recall the incident but denies any involvement in the alleged cover-up and retaliation.)
Last fall, Seo watched as the #MeToo movement took off in Hollywood and spread across industries in the U.S., Canada and parts of Europe. She realized even “world-famous actresses” had suffered as she had. “I had more confidence in believing that it wasn’t my fault,” she says. In November, Seo asked to meet with senior management to open an investigation into the incident and her treatment at work in the years that followed. Frustrated by the lack of progress, Seo added her voice to the global chorus on Jan. 29, sharing her experience in an open letter on her workplace intranet and signing it with #MeToo at the end. That evening she spoke on one of South Korea’s most influential evening news programs. “The reason I did the interview was to tell many people out there that it’s not their fault,” she says.
Her words resonated. Today, Seo’s interview is widely credited with kick-starting South Korea’s own #MeToo movement, triggering a wave of women speaking out against film directors, actors, a poet and others. Meanwhile, Ko Mi-kyung, president of Korea Women’s Hotline–an organization supporting survivors of domestic abuse and sexual harassment–estimates that the hotline received a 23% increase in calls in the weeks following Seo’s interview. Violence against women is a widespread problem: in a 2017 study, almost 80% of South Korean men surveyed by the Korean Institute of Criminology said they had physically or psychologically abused a girlfriend; a 2014 U.N. report showed South Korea had the third-highest rate of female murder victims in the world.
From South Korea to India, women’s-rights activists and survivors across the region have been watching the #MeToo reckoning on the other side of the globe. As high-profile perpetrators in the West apologized for their behavior and some lost positions of power, many in Asia saw a chance to reignite long-simmering movements pushing for gender equality.
As in the U.S., the movements in Asian countries have been started and sustained by ordinary citizens. But while celebrities helped make #MeToo go viral in the U.S., there have been fewer high-profile cases in Asia. “Those who are fighting are not famous people,” says Lu Pin, the founder of the Chinese activist platform Feminist Voices. “It is countless grassroots people echoing each other.”
In Asia, #MeToo isn’t just synonymous with sexual harassment and assault. While women in China and India have borrowed the hashtag, its manifestations have become a broader feminist rallying cry elsewhere, addressing deeply entrenched inequalities including access to abortion, domestic abuse and murder. In Japan, #WithYou has been used to express solidarity with survivors of workplace harassment; in Thailand, women voiced their frustration at being slut-shamed with #DontTellMeHowToDress; and in the Philippines, women have flooded social media and the streets in protest against President Rodrigo Duterte’s sexist comments, under the hashtag #BabaeAko (I Am Woman).
But daring to speak out in some of these deeply patriarchal societies comes with enormous risks. In democratic South Korea, even as women take to the streets demanding justice on violence and sexual harassment, they cover their faces out of fear of backlash. In China–a repressive state where crackdowns on human-rights activists and minority populations are escalating–women must contend with their social-media posts being censored and online feminist platforms shut down.
One sexual-assault survivor in Hangzhou applauds the Hollywood celebrities who have spoken out. But the situation is different in China, she tells TIME. “A lot of people say that when a woman speaks up, or even when [rape or assault] happens, that’s the moment she dies.”
In China, hostility toward public protest means women’s-rights activists cannot flood the streets; they must go online. Although the government has a tight grip on freedom of information, a new generation of digitally savvy women is working to amplify #MeToo stories. Activists have managed to circumvent censorship in various ways–distorting images, using emojis, manipulating Chinese characters and using code sourced from GitHub, a software-building platform.
The movement took off on Jan. 1, when Luo Xixi, a former student at Beihang University in Beijing, wrote an open letter on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social-media platform. Luo alleged that when she was a Ph.D. candidate in 2004, her professor Chen Xiaowu drove her to his sister’s home and tried to force himself on her. Chen denied the allegations but was fired 10 days later. The university revoked his teaching qualifications, issuing a public statement saying it found Chen had sexually harassed students.
Luo’s post was viewed more than 3 million times in one day and sparked allegations against at least a dozen university professors. In a 2017 survey of college students and graduates, almost 75% of women in China reported being sexually harassed in their lifetime, with more than 40% of incidents taking place in public spaces on college campuses. Ripples of the movement eventually reached beyond universities, with allegations against leading figures in China’s NGOs and media sectors coming to a head in July.
The roots of today’s movement can be traced to feminist campaigns several years earlier. Back in 2012, young women gained widespread attention for public performances, including wearing “bloodied” wedding dresses on Valentine’s Day in Beijing to draw attention to domestic violence and occupying men’s bathrooms in Guangzhou to protest inequality in public restrooms.
A turning point came in 2015 when five activists, known widely as the Feminist Five, were detained on charges of “provoking trouble” after planning a multicity protest to tackle sexual harassment on public transport. After international condemnation, authorities backtracked and released the women a month after their detention. “These political activists spent years making the ground fertile for the blossoming of the #MeToo movement in China today,” says Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China.
That blossoming hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Chinese government. In May 2017, state media pointed to “hostile forces” using “Western feminism” to interfere in the country’s affairs, a phrase that cropped up again during the recent wave of sexual-harassment claims. If the 2012 protests took place now, says activist Xiao Yue (better known as Xiao Meili), “we would have been arrested before it even happened.”
Indeed, with more than 800 million Internet users in China, censors are quick to block or delete any content deemed disruptive. That was the case for Xianzi, 25, who alleges that well-known TV presenter Zhu Jun molested her in a makeup room in 2014, when she was an intern at China Central Television, the country’s state television broadcaster. (CCTV has not responded to requests for comment.)
“I wanted to share my own experiences with other girls, even though I can’t guarantee what will happen when they speak up,” Xianzi tells TIME of her decision to post about her experience on social media in July. (Fearing backlash, she asked TIME not to publish her real name.) Her story was reposted by another user on Weibo but was censored after only two hours; in August, she says posts on her own Weibo account were temporarily blocked from being reposted for more than two weeks.
Zhu denied the allegations in a lawyer’s letter posted online in August. Soon after he filed a lawsuit against Xianzi, a friend of hers who posted the story on Weibo, and the platform itself. (Weibo did not respond to a request for comment.) In a court document reviewed by TIME, Zhu said Xianzi’s accusations are “seriously not factual.” He demanded a public apology and the deletion of the online posts, as well as $95,000 in compensation. On Sept. 25, Xianzi filed a countersuit against Zhu; she is now set to become one of the first people in China’s #MeToo movement to confront their alleged perpetrator in court.
Xianzi’s social-media post is one of many accusations that have been repeatedly deleted. But traces of the stories and debates can still be found online. Some share other women’s stories on their own social media, creating a kind of virtual support network to draw more attention to cases. Activists say this decentralized web of volunteers has helped make the movement more resistant to the tide of authoritarianism. “When the authorities know that you are an organizer, they can come to harass you,” says Xiao, the activist. “But now everybody is the organizer.”
Seo, the South Korean prosecutor, has been on medical leave since January. She’s enjoyed spending more time with her 10-year-old son. “Nothing has changed in the prosecutor’s office,” she says. “I’ve heard they still think of me as an enemy who disgraced the office.”
Seo isn’t the only woman in South Korea to face severe backlash. Lee Eun-eui, a lawyer who successfully sued her employer, Samsung, in a landmark sexual-harassment lawsuit back in 2008, says 80% of her clients are claiming cases relating to workplace discrimination and harassment. Many end up denounced as “gold diggers,” receiving a torrent of online abuse and even being countersued by alleged perpetrators of harassment or assault. “Who would have the courage to speak out?” she asks, sipping iced tea after a long day in a Seoul courtroom.
South Koreans may not face the kind of restrictive censorship coming from the government in China, but publicly supporting feminist causes can still be dangerous. Some women wear masks at rallies, wary of having their personal details leaked to the public. They fear being fired, stalked or even attacked with acid. The Inconvenient Courage group that organizes rallies in Seoul also chooses to remain anonymous. The group focuses on fighting the country’s spy-cam porn epidemic, the well-documented problem of hidden cameras in Korea’s public toilets and changing rooms. That secretly captured footage often makes its way to online pornography websites–leading to more than 6,400 cases reported in 2017.
Clad in masks or not, women are protesting in unprecedented numbers. In August, more than 40,000 women attended a rally against spy-cam porn; later that month, 20,000 took to the streets of the capital after a top politician was acquitted on rape charges. “This is a battle that we can’t retreat from,” says Ko, president of Korea Women’s Hotline.
Despite the backlash, glimmers of institutional change are also appearing. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is calling for tougher punishments on spy-cam perpetrators, and Seoul’s government is launching a cleanup campaign to rid the city’s public toilets of hidden cameras. In August, China announced a plan for legislation that would define and target sexual harassment in workplaces, and Japan’s Labor Policy Council recently held discussions to address the same issue. Meanwhile, one year after the Harvey Weinstein allegations exploded, a #MeToo reckoning kicked off in India’s media and entertainment industries in early October–leading to public apologies, the resignation of high-profile figures and the closure of a Bollywood production house after its co-founder was accused of sexual assault.
It’s still tough to predict what the movements in Asia might achieve in terms of legislative change. But in South Korea and China, the culture of activism remains particularly strong. “I think I truly feel the meaning of #MeToo,” the survivor in Hangzhou tells TIME. “It connects every individual who had harm done to them and makes them no longer feel like they are isolated or helpless.”
And in South Korea, Seo’s testimony has exposed the pervasiveness of sexual harassment. In a society where prosecutor is one of the most prestigious jobs, many were shocked to see that even powerful women like Seo were vulnerable to sexual harassment. “She really shook the stereotype of sexual-violence victims,” says Bae Eun-kyung, professor of gender studies at Seoul National University.
Across the region, as women turn their anger into action, they are determined to change how survivors of abuse are perceived. “South Korea has a culture of demanding that victims act like victims: they should always be in pain, and cry, and cannot be happy,” Seo says. “I want to show the image of the survivor as happy and confident.”
–With reporting by JINYOUNG PARK/SEOUL