Any experience of true, unabashed exploration and independence is sure to show you, quickly, what you’re capable of. That’s what living and winding my way through the other side of the globe has done for me. I am, and always have been, a feminist. To me, feminism has always meant that I am able to do, say, and think freely without any regard to my gender, that my actions and intellect not be stifled by the fact that I’m a woman. It seems shockingly simple and common sense to be an ideal that has triggered so much backlash and confusion—the intelligent mind has to wonder what all the fuss is about? Men and women are equal and should be in all senses of the word—done deal. Right?
Considering that the US is one of the most socially progressive countries on the planet and we still haven’t nailed down feminism, it comes as no surprise that traveling throughout southeastern Asia has shown me an entirely new face of feminism and how women are represented around the globe.
Living in Thailand has taught me a lot. For instance, Thailand is build on a collectivist society (as opposed to our capitalist society) wherein everyone in the community is really helpful and caring to everyone else, and that goes for all communities. Things get done, people are happy, life, for the most part, is easy. In the town where I lived for five months, people didn’t go hungry or get kicked out of their home if they couldn’t pay rent on time. It’s a community oriented place. This collectivist society, to me, stands as a sort of metaphor for any social issue, but in this case feminism. It’s not “us versus them”, but rather all of us, men and women alike, collectively moving toward a world where being a woman isn’t a problem. Whether it be in politics, the work place, or the bedroom, being a woman should never make us inferior to men. Ironically, though, women aren’t treated as an equal part of the collective whole.
I’ll start by saying that Thailand is relatively progressive when it comes to women’s rights in Asia–it’s among one of the first Asian countries to allow women to vote, and from what I’ve seen there is no limit on what women can do professionally. It definitely isn’t anything like Myanmar or Saudi Arabia, where women are truly limited and restricted in most aspects of their daily life.
I have noted, though, that I’ve been considerably more aware and made to be more aware of the fact that I’m a woman here. Rather, that I’m NOT a man. Buddhism, the national religion, is both highly regarded and ever present in the daily lives of Thai people and has lots of restrictions on women. I’m not allowed to go anywhere near a monk, for example, and have to change seats if one gets on the same bus as me. When traveling from Chiang Mai to Pai, a northern town where you can only travel to-and-fro via 12 person vans that wind through the mountains, a monk went to hop on our van and all of the women in the front row had to rearrange so that he wouldn’t sit next to a woman. Once, while touring an oceanside temple in Hua Hin, we got the privilege of a small meeting with a monk. As a few dozen of us entered the temple, women were directed to the back while men were ushered to the front. Both times, the westerners I was with and I exchanged sideways glances and muted eye rolls about the subtle sexism.
In Thailand, and this is true of lots of southeastern Asian nations, you don’t have freedom of speech. You can’t challenge authority, question the rulings of the King or anyone associated with him, or even get mad at your boss. You could go to jail for a blog post that spoke out against royal policies. Though there are major faults within our predominantly male-dominated society in the western world, I’ve gotten to observe how women live in a country so far away from and so different from my own. Women just deal with whatever hand they’re dealt over here. I’m proud to be from a place where we have the ability to fight authority and challenge ideas we don’t agree with, and to be women fighting to make ourselves equal to men in all corners of life.
So, how does living in Asia affect how I view feminism and my own feminist ideas? It makes me much more excited to use my voice. It has made me understand the value of my opinions and my words, so much so that other countries ban them. It makes me appreciate the progress we’ve made in the US. Americans have lots of work to do in the way of achieving equality for the genders, but we’re on our way. The conversation has begun. Lastly, traveling throughout this region has shown me how strong, intelligent, and able women are. Mothers, travelers, teachers, shop owners, and all of the women in between that I’ve met along my path have shown me that we can be anyone, do anything, go anywhere. Strength and intelligence and capabilities aren’t derived from which gender you are, they’re derived from who you are–and now that, to me, is feminism.