HOW FAR CAN FEMINISM GO IN ASIA?

by Faizal Nor Izham

Over the past century women have made great strides towards gender equality in the Western world. From the Suffragette movement of the late 19th and early 20th century in Britain to the commonplace election of female MPs today, women’s rights in the West are increasingly becoming the norm. Feminism has even played a role in the world of science fiction, with prominent authors such as Margaret Atwood and Ursula LeGuin imagining hypothetical future societies in which gender barriers, and in some cases gender itself, have been removed completely for the betterment of the human race.

But in some parts of the globe, particularly in the developing world, the mere recognition of female equality is still only starting to take off. Feminism in the Arab world, for one, continues to remain an uphill struggle, with Iran only recently electing its second-ever female ambassador last year – its first since the 1979 Islamic revolution under its more moderate president Hassan Rouhani – while more everyday struggles such as the right to drive and the right to higher education remain stagnant in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, abortion rights remain a distant dream in several Latin American countries such as Chile, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador.

the role of women often seems cemented in a stringent Confucian culture
that offers little or no room for dissent against most forms of authority

Asia itself has always appeared to leave limited room for women’s rights to progress. From Japan’s famed history of geishas to today’s increasingly common gang rapes in India, the role of women often seems cemented in a stringent Confucian culture that offers little or no room for dissent against most forms of authority. Asian feminism has also been dismissed in the past, such as from contemporary American feminist and political activist Naomi Wolf, who claimed in 2014 that the Western feminist model is inappropriate for Asia to emulate. During an interview, Wolf reiterated several times her desire “not to impose Western feminism” in Asia due to the obvious cultural differences.

(Tsai Ing-wen)

However, Taiwan’s recent election of its first-ever female president this month, Tsai Ing-wen, may help steer the region’s movement in the right direction. The 59-year-old now leads the country’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in its ongoing bid to claim  independence from China as well as instigate the world’s only Chinese democracy. In her victory speech, she vowed to preserve the status quo in Taiwan’s rocky relations with China, stressing that Beijing should respect Taiwan’s bid for democracy and that both sides must ensure no future provocations. Tsai also hailed a “new era” for the nation, pledging to co-operate with other political parties on major issues.

That’s not to say Asia has lacked its own share of female leaders in the past. Aung San Suu Kyi has always been a formidable spokesperson for Burmese democracy, while conservative Islamic cultures such as Pakistan have nonetheless enjoyed strong female political presence in the form of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Not to mention South Korea’s Park Geun-hye, who was named the world’s 11th most powerful woman and the most powerful woman in East Asia by Forbes magazine. However, the Asian movement at a grassroots level continues to meet its fair share of obstacles in what is traditionally seen as a highly patriarchal society.

cultural taboos remain strong in a highly patriarchal culture rooted in Confucianism

For example, young women in contemporary mainland China, especially in urban areas, are often highly educated and are said to have begun overtaking men in several university subjects. Despite such academic breakthroughs, at least in terms of figures, deep cultural stigmas nonetheless continue to hold them back – many Chinese women tend to prioritize their boyfriends’ or husbands’ goals ahead of their own, while parents continue to impose their own wishes on them, a cultural norm that has proven difficult to change.

(Wu Qing, a women’s rights advocate, seated in the front row at the school she founded to empower rural women © Gillies Sabrie)

Despite these barriers and many more, it’s safe to say that women’s rights in Asia continue to steadily move in the right direction. However, cultural taboos remain strong in a highly patriarchal culture rooted in Confucianism. Potentially the next best step would be to educate the male population on how and why the feminist movement would benefit Asian society just as effectively as in other cultures.

Amidst the culture of extremism the world faces today, world politics would perhaps benefit greatly from the contribution of strong and constructive female politicians (as exemplified by Germany’s Angela Merkel) instead of continuing the culture of aggression often typified by their male counterparts.

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