Being a woman in a man’s world (in Thailand)

One thing I didn’t expect to do while living in Thailand, was to learn more about what it means to be a woman in a man’s world. In this respect, the past year has been a rather fascinating journey for me.

It was around ten years ago that a female school friend stated, in a chauvinistic way, that “feminism was dead” etc. I felt both incensed at her ignorance and dogmatism, but when I was a teenager, I didn’t really possess the abilities and the knowledge to disagree with her in a rational way — so I just glared at her instead. Not that she would have cared what I said because in that same conversation she also claimed that IVF shouldn’t be allowed and that if you were a woman who was infertile – “Too f’ing bad!”

At that time, from my own life experiences, limited as they were in many ways, I had experienced sexism enough times to know that it was a reality, even in a country like Australia, which yes, in terms of women’s rights is decades ahead of most of the world’s countries. As a young girl with extremely protective parents, I could see the different treatment my brothers got, the double standards that existed. There were also other moments out and about in the world that left its mark on me, including a cruel incident where I was the subject of some verbal abuse from a complete stranger passing by in a truck. The experience of voicelessness and the shame of that insult lingered for years afterwards, since I was such a sensitive soul at that age.

However, even though nothing I experienced was enough to stop me from doing what I wanted to do with my life, it was at times a bloody hard fight (but then, I also had the child-of-migrants factor as well). The long and the short of it is, I’ve never considered myself anything BUT a feminist. And the older I get and the more I see of the world, the more “women’s rights” as a concept means to me. And now, here in Thailand, I understand it in a way I couldn’t have possibly understood it ten years ago.

This past year living in Chiang Mai, I’ve had exchanges with some men – and I might add, they all happen to be expats – that have made me think afterwards, “If I was man, you would have shown me more respect and not spoken to me the way you did.” Being a young woman with a strong personality, and Asian at that, is probably enough to trigger negative reactions in some men who are not used to having their opinions challenged like this in Thailand by the women here — who can be forces to be reckoned with in the private sphere, but are not necessarily going to challenge their husband’s ideologies and professional opinions.

At this point I will add that I have really grown to respect Thai women as a whole, since I have gotten to know about their experiences from my circle here, because they are really holding Thai society together in a way I didn’t realise at first. One thing that completely surprised me when I got here was to find out just how widespread divorce is — so much more common than among the Vietnamese community I think. So many women have raised — or are raising — children on their own. It seems that Thai men just aren’t cutting it as partners and fathers, which is why there is also a natural entry point for Western men, actually. The younger generation of Thai men don’t seem to be the same way, but it remains to be seen how things will play out in future, since Thai culture is not exactly about tackling gender roles in an outspoken way. Suffice to say, I have gotten some fascinating anecdotes and insight into the dynamics of Thai relationships. I’m still getting my head around it all but I’m so intrigued by what I am learning is living, breathing Thai culture, not just the one a lot of people see as tourist, or even the expats who live here who don’t delve in so deeply. Thai culture, even with all its flaws, is evolving in its own way.

Thai women
(Photo courtesy of shapeshift on flickr)

But to go back to these expat men I’m referring to: they are nice enough people and perhaps even fairly enlightened beings in many ways — which probably only makes them even more blissfully unaware how patronizing, or even aggressive, they have acted towards me at times. It doesn’t seem such a stretch to say that I somehow threaten them and expose their insecurities. They all seem pretty confident when I first meet them, but the more I get to know them, the more I think otherwise.

However, I think I have an explanation for this kind of behaviour. I have met some wonderful men in my time here, and the ones that seem most at ease with themselves have, in many ways, really given themselves over to Thailand in some kind of spiritual way and can just be here. They’re largely comfortable with themselves here and can often speak the language well because this is truly their home. The ones who need to find ways to assert themselves in arenas where they encounter people like me, are the ones who are somehow real fish out of water here. They may be married to Thai women and love the lifestyle of Chiang Mai, but they don’t really ‘get’ it either. They probably feel disempowered because they have to rely so much on their wives to get by here, and their wives are canny women who know what’s what. The language abilities of these men, if they even have any, will never give them the power to accomplish as much as they would like to here, in a professional sense.

These are just my guesses from what I’ve observed. I’ve since had discussions with quite a few people about this and the sum of our experiences seem to tally up, and I’ve been learning good strategies to deal with these problems. I do realise that this dynamic exists everywhere in the world; it’s just that I haven’t experienced it much back home because I have mostly been involved with very female-centred workplaces and initiatives at junior levels. Chances are, I will only encounter this more and more at later stages of my career, as I end up in positions that have more influence, so I’m glad that I’m becoming increasingly better at holding my ground and asserting myself more. I also feel hopeful that many of the men of my generation are not the same way. I look at my boyfriend and my circle of male friends and what I mostly see are men who have absolutely no problem giving respect to women the way they would anyone else; and even more than that, truly enjoy their friendships with women — perhaps even moreso than men!

Last week was the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. Coincidentally, on that same day, I met Professor Virada, the head of Women’s Studies at Chiang Mai University. A colleague and I went to her office to meet with her specifically because we wanted to pick her brains about this video on safe abortion in Asia that we’re doing and thought she might have some good contacts for us. It was very cool to be back in a university environment again, with its slightly cloistered feel. Professor Virada’s office was just like the offices of female academics I used to visit when I was a uni student; cluttered but also vibrant and intellectual. She articulated her ideas so well and so warmly that I couldn’t help but instantly like her. It was so inspiring to meet a Thai woman who had a clear vision of the world and knew what needed to change about Thai society.

Meeting people like her in my time here, along with so many other women and men committed to worthwhile causes, has made me feel that I should go with what I’m feeling, that I must make more of an effort to ensure that I am constantly making a decent contribution to society. For example, doing TEDxDoiSuthep has been a real boost to my spirits so I know I’m on the right track here.

You know, the funny thing is I’ve become even more idealistic about the world as time has gone on and the idealism I formed in my youth has only strengthened over time. People say that it’s often the other way around. But I feel more and more convinced that things need to change. This may be the “real” world that you have to elbow your way through, but there is a lot of room for improvement. Lately I’ve felt so heartened by all the mass protests around the world that prove that people see past the bullshit and want things to change. I admire them all so much for their courage to voice their opinions in the face of death. Of course, all of this goes far beyond women’s rights…but it’s obviously a big piece of the puzzle in the year 2011.

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