How Thai “feminist” law students are challenging the patriarchy and cultural norms
“Feminism is demanding equal rights for all genders. Everyone can become a feminist, regardless of our gender. We don’t have to believe or fight in the same way, but we can fight in different ways. As long as our aim is to demand equality, anyone can become a feminist.”
This is Napatchanok Insawang’s definition of feminism, as a third-year law student of Thammasat University and president of the Thammasat Law School Feminist Club, a community which advocates for gender equality and women’s empowerment.
Student feminism movement
Thammasat Law School Feminist Club, which is mainly comprised of law students from all year groups, with current third-year students being committee members, was formed after they held a Clubhouse discussion last year, to exchange their views on sexual harassment.
“At first we held a Clubhouse discussion, because we want people within the Faculty of Law to talk about the problems they have encountered with harassment,” Miranda Payungwattana, the vice-president of the feminist club explained.
“There were people who said they experienced harassment. Last year, our faculty released an anti-harassment policy, so we discussed whether we feel safe enough with the policy.”
With their determination to make social changes and to empower women, they have expanded their movement by setting up a Facebook page, which provides information specifically aboutwomen’s rights, as well as dissecting the patriarchal oppression that still exists in modern Thai society.
Currently, with 2,100 likes on their Facebook page, their aim is to increase the reach and engagement on their posts. Their bigger aim, however, is to collaborate with other faculties or even with different universities to push the movement forward.
“Our goal is to increase engagement first,” Yanisa Kunwee, another vice-president of the group revealed. “For years to come, we may have to ask our juniors to continue our movement. In fact, they are doing great, so we trust them to make our page continue to grow.”
Patriarchal oppression is everywhere
Whether it’s the gender roles, the stigmatisation of women’s clothing or even how women should act or behave in Thai society, these issues are still frustrating young women today. These law students also recall similar experiences.
Miranda, who comes from a Thai-Chinese family, has been raised with unfair gender roles from a very young age. The most obvious examples are the responsibilities within the household.
“I’ve always been told that girls should wash the dishes, while boys can go and play games,” said Miranda. “So I would ask myself, why is it always the girls who have to do the dishes and not the boys? In fact, these responsibilities can be shared between boys and girls.”
Another member of the group, Chanikarn Kraitat, said that she was banned from wearing spaghetti-strap tops and shorts, as her parents believe that women fall victim to rape or other forms of sexual harassment because of the way they dress. It was not until she got into university and moved into a dorm that she could finally wear shorts, as no one could “monitor” her choice of clothing anymore.
“I’ve always been told not to wear any of that because they think that women will be raped or stared at if they wear them. When, in fact, we should teach men not to harass women. The root cause is the men’s judgement, not the way women dress.”
Similarly, Pimkwan Parnchim reflected on another problem, which is the safety issue in Thailand, as women are still subject to sexual harassment on the streets. She explains how her friends would be too scared to cross a footbridge to eat at a barbecue restaurant opposite their campus, because they were scared of “psychopaths” reportedly stalking young women there.
“The location itself is not safe for men either but, because of the patriarchy still oppressing women, women feel even more unsafe to live their lives normally,” said Pimkwan. “Particularly how the patriarchy often influences men to objectify women, men often think that women cannot fight back because we’re physically weaker, that’s why men dare to attack us.”
Meanwhile, Pawinee Khamcharoen, another committee member of the feminist club, explains her frustration over Thai culture’s expectations of a woman, which often prefers them to be soft, sweet and to be well-mannered at all times.
“Women are still being oppressed in all aspects,” she explains. “Women have always been told to behave a certain way, dress a certain way, speak a certain way and do certain things in order for women to be considered well-behaved. These are the values that still exist, even when society keeps saying that we’re all equal.”
Patriarchal oppression in the Thai language
Pimkwan and some of her friends also feel that patriarchal oppression is also reflected in the Thai language, particularly with men calling women “nhoo”, which often sounds condescending to many.
“Nhoo” which literally means mouse in Thai, also means little boy or little girl, and it is often used by adults in an “endearing” sense. Family members would use “nhoo” (as in “you”) when talking to children and children would call themselves “nhoo” (as in “I”) when talking to the elders.
Pimkwan, however, recalls an incident when the House Speaker called some female MPs “nhoo”, apparently to belittle them or to reiterate that they are in a much lower position than the speaker.
“Because of the patriarchy and the hierarchy in Thai culture, I feel unsafe to call myself “nhoo” with others,” said Pimkwan. “Like we’ve seen in parliament, calling female MPs “nhoo” is to reiterate that they’re inexperienced and to make that person feel small.”
While Pimkwan and her friends express discomfort, they also acknowledged that, whether the meaning is to patronise or not, also depends on their intention and the tone of voice.
At the same time, Pawinee also believes that there should be other pronouns that women can use comfortably, like men, aside from using their own nicknames, as female pronouns such as “chan” may come off as rude or abrasive, while “dichan” or a more gender-neutral term “kap-pa-chao” would be too formal.
Pawinee added, “I think this is a real problem, as the pronoun itself can reflect patriarchal oppression, and because the word “nhoo” also means a mouse, which is very small in its size, we can see why it feels so patronising [to be referred to in that way].”
Ultimately, “We need to stop using this pronoun to belittle women,” Pimkwan suggested.
Not everyone realises that it is a problem
As these law students believe, the main cause of such problems come from the patriarchal beliefs that are passed on from generation to generation. The seniority system, in which people are ranked and treated based on their age, oppresses women even further.
“Some people don’t even know that this is called patriarchal oppression,” this is an alarming problem which Napatchanok has noticed. “For example, some families are stuck with the gender roles, some people still have stereotypical views of women and don’t even realise that it is a problem.”
They also noticed that the Thai media, particularly in commercials or dramas, often repeat the same message on how women should “improve” themselves, be it their looks or their personality, in order to be liked by men.
“The patriarchy often tries to demean a woman’s worth,” said Yanisa. “Men often feel entitled to make comments about women, whether it’s saying they’re not pretty or not cute enough, and then women have to do everything they can to look better in the eyes of men. It teaches women to surrender to men, but it never teaches women to fight back or to say that I’m fine with who I am.”
When asked how uncomfortable they feel when having to deal with such societal pressures, Pawinee admitted that she caught herself crying several times, especially when she was told to be more “girly” and “ladylike”, which is much preferred in Thai culture.
“Our society is still attached to the patriarchy, that’s why women are still being oppressed, we feel pressured while we’re trying to be our true selves, or to do whatever we want to do.”
Don’t be afraid to challenge the norms
While acknowledging that such prejudice against women still exists in Thailand, these students are glad that they are not alone in their advocacy, as many people now have a better understanding of the problem and have offered moral support for their movement.
“Most who commented on our posts agree with us, so that makes us glad, said Yanisa. “It makes us happy, especially when more men are joining our movement because, at least, we had an impact on some of them. It’s nice to see that some men have already changed their mindsets.”
Building a feminist movement also attracts criticism from those who either disagree or are just ignorant of the issue. Nevertheless, the feminist club members believe that, if people are open to different perspectives, positive change can happen, which will hopefully lead to a fairer society for all genders.
“I think people should listen and be more open-minded, not just listen only to challenge our views or to argue,” said Pawinee.
“I think challenging the patriarchy and the traditional beliefs is not easy, but I think coming together will help us fight the oppression with a strong heart, because we know we are not alone,” said Napatchanok.
“If we dare to challenge the oppression, our society will change in a positive way and our movement will be much stronger too,” Miranda concluded.
By Nad Bunnag, Thai PBS World