The Power of Feminism Why We Still Need to Fight for Women’s Rights

In many ways, this internal disconnect is exactly what APWLD seeks to address. Established in Malaysia in 1986 before moving to more open-minded Chiang Mai a decade later

By | Tue 1 Jul 2014

“We’re living in a world of obscene inequality,” says Kate Lappin, Regional Coordinator of the Chiang Mai-based Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD). “Right now, 85 people own more wealth than half of the world’s population.”

It’s the opening plenary session at the second Asian Pacific Feminist Forum (APFF), held at the (fittingly named) Empress Hotel here in Chiang Mai. Over 300 feminists are gathered from around the region, and the Imperial Ballroom is buzzing with energy. Next to me sits a soft-spoken woman in a hijab who hails from the Philippines, and on the other side is a woman from Georgia (the country) wearing a black t-shirt festooned with police tape that reads, Caution: Women Crossing the Line.

Onstage, Lappin, a Chiang Mai based Australian who has been working for women’s rights for the past two decades, goes on to describe the particular blend of militarism, globalisation, fundamentalism, patriarchy and environmental catastrophe that forms the world we’re living in today, one desperately in need of activism and reform.

“This so-called ‘Asian Century’ that economists talk about is built on the shoulders of women – enslaved, displaced, oppressed women,” Lappin continues. I look around the room and there they are, rows and rows of female activists from some of the most repressive nations in the world: India, Nepal, Burma, Pakistan (where just two days prior a pregnant woman was remorselessly stoned to death by her own family for refusing to marry her cousin). They’re listening intently, nodding along. A woman in a wheelchair raises her fist in unity at one point and I feel a fluttering in my stomach, the threat of hot tears under my eyelids. This is real, and powerful.

Next up on stage is Judy M. Taguiwalo, a twice-imprisoned activist from the Philippines who has been fighting for women’s rights since her university days in the late 1960s. She scrolls through photos of protests past on a projector before launching into a critique of the current situation. The battle has not been won, she says, when militarisation is big business and the number of unemployed, impoverished, vulnerable women increases even as Asian economies boom.

“We women have to come together and fight,” says Tin Tin Nyo, General Secretary of the Woman’s League of Burma, who is currently battling proposed legislation that will make interfaith marriage illegal in Burma. “We have to start calling ourselves feminists.”

The F Word

Feminism. The word that hath inspired a million wars, mostly on Twitter feeds and the comments section of Salon, these days. You can’t throw a rock into cyberspace without hitting a new essay or op-ed devoted to either renouncing the word or embracing it, or another survey, or another personal essay: “Why I’m Not a Feminist” or “Why Feminism Doesn’t Need Rebranding” or “Can Dudes Be Feminists?”

Meanwhile, the de rigueur media move of the moment seems to be asking random female celebrities whether or not they identify as feminists. The responses run the gauntlet of witlessness: “That’s too strong,” says Kelly Clarkson. “I’m not a feminist! I love men!” says Lady Gaga. “Whenever people bring up feminism, I’m like, god. I’m just not really that interested,” says Lana Del Rey, who goes on to claim she’s more interested in “you know…our intergalactic possibilities.” And Taylor Swift is like, “Wait, what? I like kissing boys in the rain.” (Okay, that last one was a bit of a paraphrase.)

Now, while I certainly wouldn’t claim that a bunch of white Americans famous for singing pop songs should be held up as a global example of how to think and what to be, these comments illustrate a sad state of affairs for a few reasons. One, of course, is that women feel the need to publicly reject a word that simply means “the theory of political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.”

It’s also sad that our public discussions of feminism have devolved into this: debating semantics and taking cues from the uninformed opinions of celebrities. This is sad

because it makes us forget that feminism is not a thing of the past, nor is it merely the territory of successful white western women; it’s a living, breathing thing that is just as relevant and necessary today as it was a hundred years ago, and there’s still a lot of work left to do.

A Cruel Twist of Fate

Funnily enough, most of those who reject the word feminism (which is, depressingly, about 80 percent of the American population, according to a recent poll) actually do claim to believe that “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals” – which is, of course, the very definition of feminism. While many of these people probably just don’t know what feminism actually means, or have antiquated stereotypes of hairy-pitted bra burners that they find threatening, some are rejecting feminism for other, more compelling reasons.

Let’s return for a minute to that elite 85-person group that holds 50 percent of the world’s wealth. Within it, there are 11 women, the richest of whom is number six on the list: Christy Walton of the infamous Walmart fortune. Now consider this: in just one minute, Christy earns more than a female Bangladeshi garment worker will earn in her entire lifetime.

“This must be addressed within the feminist movement,” says Kate Lappin. “Our goal is not to just have more rich women and more poor men; our goal is to flatten hierarchies. That’s why we focus on justice and development. Equality is one element only, it’s not the whole thing.”

Indeed, one of the biggest dividers of feminism today is what APFF speaker Taguiwalo called the “neoliberal hijack of feminism.” She and others argue that the global feminist movement has let itself be engulfed in a westernised, capitalist agenda that leaves most people – particularly the marginalised women of the world – out of the picture entirely.

“In a cruel twist of fate, I fear that the movement for women’s liberation has become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free-market society,” wrote British feminist Nancy Fraser in The Guardian last year. “That would explain how it came to pass that feminist ideas that once formed part of a radical worldview are increasingly expressed in individualist terms.”

Indeed, some of today’s most prominent self-proclaimed feminists are wealthy, high-powered white women like Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO whose bestselling book Lean In encouraged women to embrace feminism by being assertive at work and climbing the corporate ladder. Unfortunately, while not inherently wrong, this message comes off as elitist and exclusionary when the majority of women are too busy working minimum wage jobs and raising children to even approach the ladder, let alone climb it.

In many ways, this internal disconnect is exactly what APWLD seeks to address. Established in Malaysia in 1986 before moving to more open-minded Chiang Mai a decade later, the forum focuses on encouraging a new global model of development justice, one that asserts the rights of people over profit. Feminism, here, is a movement that leaves no one behind, one that addresses not just the elite few but the collective whole. And in a region that contains within it some of the world’s biggest gender gaps (globally, Pakistan ranks second only to Yemen for gender inequality), this is crucial work.

Women on the Fringe

During my days at APFF, I was able to attend a number of eye-opening workshops led by women from around the region. What struck me most was the huge range of subjects spoken about, the vast scope of what feminists are trying to accomplish on a grassroots level here in Asia. Some of the most profound statements came from voices that are often left out of the picture entirely, including women with disabilities and sex workers. These two very different groups had surprisingly similar things to say about their marginalised positions not only within the general population, but within the feminist movement.

“Society has turned sex into a bad, weird thing,” says Liz Hilton, American spokesperson for the Thai sex worker rights group Empower. “It tries to keep groups of women separate, the good girls versus the bad girls. That’s what we’re trying to change.”

The three Thai sex workers sitting at the table beside her nod their heads. This particular workshop is primarily a Q&A session entitled Why Good Girls Go Bad, designed to transcend one of the most age-old internal divides of the feminist movement: sex work. The women at the table are in the process of creating a new model for their much maligned occupation by becoming their own agents, via a unique Chiang Mai venture called Can Do Bar, the only bar in Thailand owned and operated by sex workers themselves. At the same time, they’re trying to erase the stigma and the misconceptions that so often accompany sex work.

“Sex work is not an accident, it’s a job,” says Lily, who wears a t-shirt that reads, Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere. “We are not victims, so please don’t try to save us.”

Let’s Talk About Thailand

As one of the first Asian countries to grant women the right to vote (in 1932), Thailand possesses the highest percentage of working women in the Asia Pacific region, one of the lowest gender gaps in Asia, and until recently, a female prime minister. Add that to the widespread visibility of “ladyboys” and seemingly laissez-faire approach to sex work, and you may come away with the opinion that Thailand is quite progressive when it comes to gender.

Or, you might look through a different lens, observing Thailand’s equally prominent reputation as a hub for sex trafficking coupled with the fact that abortion is illegal, Thai soap operas glorify not only hugely limiting gender stereotypes but also rape, and the Buddhist Sangha considers womanhood itself a direct result of bad karma. Then there’s the sky-high teen pregnancy rates (Thailand ranks number one in Asia), the rising levels of domestic violence, and the surprising lack of both sexual health and gender studies at all levels of education.

Ariya Svetamra is a Women’s Studies lecturer at Chiang Mai University, the first of only two universities in all of Thailand to teach Women’s Studies. “We get about 10 to 20 students a semester, mostly women and transgender students,” Ariya tells me. “What we teach is completely new to them, and many say they never knew about gender construction before, only that their mothers do the household chores and their fathers go to work. They were never taught to question that.”

Ariya says there is a notable lack of gender knowledge in Thailand, and very little talk of sex aside from some rather obsolete reproductive health classes taught at some schools. “Women in Thailand are marginalised,” she adds. “There is a fear of feminism because many think it is anti-men. Here, women are constructed to become ‘good girls’ with a concentration on virginity. At the same time, they’re never taught when to say yes or no, so they don’t know what’s dangerous because no one ever talks about it.”

Where We Are Now

Ouyporn Khuankaew is an inspiring feminist peace activist who has has spent decades working for women’s rights in Thailand. For the past twelve years, she has run the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice in Mae Rim, which provides unprecedented training against gender-based violence for Thais working in the government sector, such as nurses and police officers. Ouyporn says that while Thailand is one of the more evolved countries in the region when it comes to women’s rights, it still has a long way to go.

“We don’t have a feminist movement in Thailand,” she tells me. “We have feminist groups and feminist individuals, but no movement.”

Indeed, Thai feminism is divided in ways quite similar to the west, thanks to high levels of wealth inequality and a diverse mix of ethnic groups with different issues sharing space. Here, however, the divides are even more pronounced because unlike in the west, where the vast majority of feminists tend to fall pretty squarely on the left-leaning side of the political spectrum, here in Thailand women are said to make up the backbone of both movements, yet neither the red shirts nor the yellow shirts have ever made gender equality a priority.

On the contrary, female politicians like Prime Minister Yingluck have often been subjected to highly gendered insults, from “whore” to “dumb bitch” to this charming comment from a university professor: “The Prime Minister still has some time left to be a nude model. Resign now before your periods come to an end. Otherwise it would be too late to start a new career.”

Thai social critic Kaewmala decries the lack of feminist response to these kinds of gendered attacks. “The appalling misogyny deserves more domestic reflection and condemnation,” she wrote on her blog, Thai Woman Talks.

“The lack of response just further illustrates we don’t have a feminist movement here,” says Ouyporn. “Most of my academic friends are either yellow or red and political divides take precedence. Politics polarise us so that we don’t come together to defend our rights as women.”

A Call to Arms

A movement is made up of many individuals and many subgroups, and when that movement is designed to address the issues of half the globe’s population – across continents, creeds and class – there are bound to be conflicts within it. The bright side of this coin is that we do have enough (wo)manpower to address each individual issue at the grassroots level. The point of an overall movement is solidarity and support, but that’s the casing, not the meat (yes, this awkward analogy is comparing feminism to sausages, but please bear with me). The meat is all the individual victories and advocates within that movement, people like Ouyporn and Tin Tin and Taguiwalo, without whom the movement would be nothing but empty words.

Calls for female leadership in a corporate setting must not supersede the unsung grassroots advocacy happening every day within migrant worker communities in Thailand and groups of women with disabilities in Pakistan. Feminism is not designed to be glamourous or trendy or sellable in book form; it’s about the day to day struggles, and triumphs, of women and the entire networks of people that rely on them. We need female power at all levels of society, with the ultimate goal of levelling the playing field not just between men and women but between women and women as well. Our goals are not mutually exclusive, and if they are then we’re doing it wrong because they don’t need to be. There is space within this movement for everyone, and that’s perhaps the best thing about it.

“What APFF sought to do was to bolster the movement by bringing women together and finding a sense of solidarity and common belief in the midst of so many diverse issues,” Lappin tells me. She recounts a particularly moving moment from the last day of the forum, in which a woman from Pakistan approached her.

“My life has always been in a divided community,” the woman said. “I’ve never felt like I was a part of something until now.”