It’s been an ugly few months in Thailand when it comes to the political situation in this country. Violence, deaths, inflammatory rhetoric – and no one is sure where it ends. But it’s been ugly for other reasons as well, not the least of which are the sexist, misogynistic attacks that have been hurled at Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The Thai PM has taken a lot of flak over the past couple of years, and the torrent of abuse has been intensifying amid mounting pressure to remove her from office. Late last year Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the opposition Democrat Party, called the prime minister a ‘stupid bitch’ [‘ee ngo’ in Thai – อีโง่] in a public address. In January, Election Commission chief Somchai Srisuthiyakorn made oblique, yet public, remarks about Yingluck’s fidelity; these just a couple of weeks before the country went to the polls.
When it comes to her capabilities as a leader, Yingluck is certainly not above reproach. But she’s been called derogatory words and suffered sexist attacks that should make any feminist, or decent person, uncomfortable.
Some academics and feminist activists have said that if Yingluck were a man, no one would be using sexist slurs toward her – at least not so publicly. They don’t rush to Yingluck’s defense as a prime minister, but some have said the sexist insults she’s suffered highlight how far Thailand has to go when it comes to gender equality.
“Sexism in Thai culture only applies one way,” said Dr. Pinkaew Laungaramsri, a professor at Chiang Mai University, in an email. “As the public discourse about Yingluck has often been framed in a very derogatory way (poor English, whore, shedding tears too easily, etc.), it has affected public trust in her ability to undertake difficult tasks such as national reform.”
In January, Bangkok Post columnist Sanitsuda Ekachai made the point that feminist groups have not rushed to Yingluck’s defense against attacks that would surely draw criticism were they leveled at other women.
Dr. Nongyao Nawarat, a sociology professor at Chiang Mai University, said this may be because feminist groups don’t want to appear to support Yingluck’s policies or her administration, which many see as being a puppet government run by her brother, self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
“I think in the beginning, most women’s groups were hesitant to react, whether they should be happy or unhappy, welcome or unwelcome to the first female prime minister,” said Dr. Nongyao Nawarat, a sociology professor at Chiang Mai University, where the Prime Minister studied in her younger years. Because Yingluck had little political leadership experience when she took office, they were unsure of whether she was capable of leading and didn’t want to throw their support behind her off the bat.
Dr. Sutada Mekrungruengkul, network coordinator of the organization Women’s Network Reshaping Thailand (WREST) compared Yingluck to Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska who ran for Vice President of the United States on John McCain’s presidential ticket in 2008. Both women were scrutinized for their appearance and their lack of political acumen (one obviously being a more valid complaint than the other), and mocked regularly in the media.
“Sometimes I think Yingluck and Palin are the same in one way or another,” Mekrungruengkul said. “She is not very good in political knowledge, she is not prepared to be a political leader. These make people scared. When you are a prime minister, people will condemn you.”
Nonetheless, she said feminist groups should speak out against the sexist and misogynistic treatment of the prime minister, regardless of their opinions on her politics.
“In our network, some women feel that she deserves to be treated like that and we have to discuss with each other that she doesn’t deserve that. Every single woman does not deserve to be treated like that,” Mekrungruengkul said. “They fight for the status of women, but they omit this person. But I say to them, no, you have to check your stance. To change your principle because of this particular case is not good thinking.”
The double standard applied to the country’s female prime minister cracks the door open into the widespread issues of sexism and gender inequality still prevalent here.
Gender inequality issues in Thailand are nuanced and complex, especially when looking at the situation for women in different economic classes and those from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
Education and employment are ongoing concerns for feminist and gender activists here, according to Mekrungruengkul. She said that although the constitution calls for equal opportunities, there is still a vast disparity when it comes to income and job positions, particularly in blue collar environments such as factories.
“The law enforcement is very loose in every sense,” Mekrungruengkul said. She and Nawarat have said the situation is most dire for undereducated and poor women, who hit a wall when it comes to promotion and opportunities fairly quickly.
Nawarat said this is due to a lack of education. Many women who take low-level positions in a factory do not have the educational background to compete for better paid jobs doing clerical or management work within the company. Someone who has been well educated might do fine there, but many low-income women won’t. Both women advocate raising the compulsory schooling age so students are in school until they are 16, in order to keep more women in school longer and improve their chances of economic stability.
Both Nawarat and Mekrungruengkul said conditions have improved for middle-class women who, because of their access to education, are able to secure higher positions and therefore higher salaries.
“If we look at the women in the city or higher economic status, they are OK. They are educated, they are financially independent, they can earn for themselves,” Mekrungruengkul said. “So we have to look at the women in the ghettos, the slums, women in the up-country, poor women. These are the women who are victims of violence. Unfortunately, the number of people living in bad conditions is higher than the [wealthier women].”
Feminist causes in Thailand run the gamut from domestic abuse, to the protection of sex workers, to establishing migrant workers’ rights, and the rights of the transgender community. At the recent International Women’s Day March and rally in Chiang Mai, women from a number of civil society organizations and ethnic backgrounds spoke out in favor of decriminalizing sex work and the need for fair treatment for migrant workers. As is the case in so many places, the priorities become more dire the lower the socio-economic class. Sex trafficking is a very real threat to women in the poor nations surrounding Thailand, and those living in the ethnic minority, or hill tribe, communities.
Nawarat has worked with the hill tribe communities near Chiang Rai and helped a Karen woman be elected to local government. This is one step toward better representation of marginalized groups, and in making women from disenfranchised groups more visible.
The energy and commitment of many groups that assist women of Thai, Burmese, and other ethnic backgrounds in the country is palpable. And Mekrungruengkul said there have been efforts to engage more men in the conversation about gender equality, making them feel like partners in the effort rather than as though they are being blamed. While progressive legislation might provide recourse for women who have long been denied real protection by law, true change will come when the general mindset has shifted to one of equality and partnership among the genders and economic classes.