“We say to them: we will develop equal power with you and those who have shamed us...” - Gloria Anzaldua, 1999
In the summer of 2018, my colleague and I from Pratthanadee Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to improving the quality of life for Thai women and girls, were invited to participate in a 2-day conference on Gender-Focused Governance Reform held by the Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI) in Bangkok. Finally, I thought, a chance to be in a room surrounded by game-changers willing to make a difference to the social, economic, and political status of women in Asia. Soon enough, delight turned into despair as these game-changers I was so excited to meet kept making one problematic presentation after another. Two key issues became apparent to me - issues that I refuse to stay quiet about.
The first was hypocrisy: men were invited to speak on women’s issues.
Let me explain I have no problem with male speakers; I truly believe that men need to participate in discussions surrounding gender equality for society to actually achieve it. What I do have a problem with, however, is ignorance and a lack of basic knowledge about how women are systematically discriminated against in most socio-political and economic climates.
For instance, one of the speakers argued that female-run businesses failed more in the first 2-5 years compared to male-run businesses, but no exploration of why that might be. Female businesses fail more because the traditional business world is, and has been, dominated by male figures for centuries. Make-or-break financial investors are usually men, who don’t trust women because of a culturally embedded idea we are “more emotional” and are not committed to their careers long-term, because we’re just going to quit our jobs to take care of our kids, anyway.
What these speakers failed to address was the cultural components of gender issues - we must do more than just analyze figures and statistics, we must address the patriarchal foundations that underlie and shape the composition of men and women. Patriarchal norms, expressed differently according to each culture and religion, are the invisible forces that, for instance, deem a women’s place to be in the home, and deem sensitivity in men shameful and un-masculine. Gender inequality is not a statistical issue. The inequalities we face today stem from systematic and cultural phenomenons that have worked to place females in a myriad of disadvantaged positions and have oppressed male expressions of vulnerability.
The irony was that these male speakers were contributing to the very problem the conference had set out to solve: why aren’t women active participants in the Asian labour force? What these male speakers should have done when invited by the Asian Development Bank Institute, was to nominate a female academic or government official to speak in their place. After attending the conference, I can firmly conclude that the ADBI was an active perpetrator in widening the gender gap they sought out to close.
The second issue, and perhaps the most heartbreaking, was that an academic professor from India stood on stage and declared “Indian men respect all women: we are equal in India.
The energy in the room shifted. Was he making a joke? Was he delusional? Was he about to declare that every news story about mass rape, sexual harassment, and low employment opportunities for Indian women were all exaggerated?
He did not just stand by the claim that these facts were exaggerated, he stood by the claim that these things did not exist. For the rest of his presentation, he proceeded to argue that Indian women had all the opportunities that men did, they just weren’t brave enough to take them. He stated that high numbers of women working in agriculture was evidence that the country was making important strides in destroying gender divisions of labour. Ironically, the issue of women occupying certain jobs and not others was a problem the conference was meant to solve.
Stunned, I could not do anything except shed silent tears. To borrow the words of Maggie Gyllenhaal in her televised discussions of misogyny in late 2017, I had come to terms with the fact that “we were not where we thought we were.”
But I did not know we were here.
I did not know that those at the highest levels of academia and politics held such backward beliefs on gender. Even more frightening, these individuals did not only have the platform - but the power - to further embed these patriarchal ideals into every institutional system in Asia. The conference proved that nothing is actually changing for the people who need change the most. People in powerful positions with damaging ideologies are being allowed to dictate how much, or rather how little, women are valued in the legal, political, and professional world.
But perhaps I should have. Donald Trump was elected president of the United States despite being accused of sexually assaulting over a dozen women, and his administration is rolling back on pro-choice female reproductive policies. Brett Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault and now holds one of the most powerful positions in the supreme court. Why should it have been different in Asia? True, there may be more female politicians represented in Asia’s parliamentary system, but this does not mean things are improving for women from a lower social class, or really, any class.
By stating that gender equality in India had already been achieved, the professor demonstrated a blatant disregard for the facts. Al-Jazeera’s study of the 2018 report exploring “excess under-5 female mortality across India” shows that approximately 239,000 of girls under the age of five die due to parent’s preference of male children over female children. If girls aren’t allowed to survive, why are we trying to tell ourselves that gender equality in the wider Indian workforce has been achieved? Less than a year ago, CNN reported that 55% of Indian couples still participated in the fertility stopping rule, where couples keep conceiving children until a male child is born. The Economist also revealed that in 2016, 110,000 out of 340,000 reported crimes against women involved abuse committed by their husband or his relatives. Let us also not forget that rape is cited as the fourth most common crime in India, more than half of rape victims do not come forward (to no fault of their own), and marital rape is not considered a felony. Denying that these problems exist does not solve gender inequality - it only serves to deepen the already existing divide.
Female victims of mass violence, sexual abuse, and discrimination are not phenomenons of the past. What is more, just because Indian women are not victims of violence, does not mean they of subversive patriarchal ideals. Though I come from a relatively privileged economic background, I am still bound by the chains of an Indian-Thai community who see my humanity as incomplete because I am a woman.
The day I was born, both my grandmothers sat consoling each other in the waiting room. “It’s okay,” they chanted hour after hour, “it will be a boy next time.” From the very first moments of my existence, my elders declared me less desirable than my soon-to-be younger brother. They declared that this time, this birth, this girl, this person, was not good enough. When these words left their mouths, my grandmothers deemed their own lives subservient to their male peers, to their husbands, to their sons, and to their grandsons. These words are taught, absorbed, and reproduced across generations; they lead to vicious cycles of unhealthy power structures and ruined senses of self. I will spend my whole life wondering if my ambition, my work ethic to the point of insomnia, my entering the humanitarian sector, is a crusade to make up for being labelled less valuable than a boy who did not even exist yet.
So, to all the men and women who do not believe in gender inequality, I ask you to step up and put an end to these cycles. Start a conversation with the people close to you. Start to learn how you are affected by gender norms. Start to learn how you can be a more inclusive member of society.
To begin, visit https://www.pinkladoo.org/ and subscribe to “The Guilty Feminist” on iTunes or Spotify.
Start slowly, start somewhere, but most importantly, start.