‘Nasty Women’: Asia Pacific’s unapologetic feminist heroes
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‘Nasty Women’: Asia Pacific’s unapologetic feminist heroes

LAST week, the world lost a powerful and relentless feminist leader when Pakistani lawyer Asma Jahangir sadly passed away from cardiac arrest on Feb 11.

Described by UN Women as “a resonant voice in the world” of equal rights, Asma became an inspiration for innumerable women who wanted to be lawyers, human rights defenders or simply active, empowered citizens of Pakistan.

It is figures like Asma that spur the future generations of feminists to reach for goals that previous generations thought impossible. While truly pivotal in the advancement of women’s rights, Asma is far from the first to tread the treacherous path of unapologetic feminism in Asia.

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History, and the current day, is littered with figures who refused to relent when faced with almost insurmountable adversity.

Here’s our nod to some of Asia’s most prominent “Nasty Women”:

Asma Jahangir (1952 – 2018)

Prominent human rights lawyer since the 1980s, Asma Jahangir fought tirelessly for the rights of women and against extremism, corruption and domestic violence.


Asma speaks during a news conference in Islamabad, on Jan 25, 2007. Source: Reuters/Mian Khursheed/File Photo

In Pakistan, human rights, and specifically women’s rights, are widely understood as a western concept introduced with the agenda of weakening local Islamic or cultural traditions. But this did not stop Asma from fighting for human rights within her own country.

Asma was one of the leaders of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF). The organisation boldly confronted General Zia-ul Haq’s Hudud Ordinance, which discriminated against women and religious minorities. She was also one of the founders of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan; both platforms that remain at the forefront of human rights work in Pakistan to this day.

Throughout her life, Asma continued to take cases that put her in the line of danger. Championing the causes of minorities, she often represented those charged under the country’s strict and controversial blasphemy laws, a position that came with a palpable risk of assassination.

Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi praised Asma for her “immense contributions towards upholding rule of law, democracy and safeguarding human rights.”

Qiu Jin (1875 – 1907)

Chinese rebel and prominent feminist writer, Qiu Jin used her voice to spread the word of powerful women and question the regressive traditions of 19th century China.

The fight for women’s rights is far from a new one. Women across the world have been fighting for generations to put women on the map, facing more abuse and backlash than many modern-day feminists can imagine. One such woman is Chinese revolutionary and writer, Qiu Jin.

The “Woman Knight of Mirror Lake,” as she was affectionately known, didn’t shy away from danger. Joining a Chinese rebellion against the Qing dynasty, Qiu used her poetry to express concern about the fate of China and spreading stories of powerful women heroines and warriors of history.

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After moving to Japan to study, Qiu became known for shirking the traditional female dress in favour of western male attire. In Tokyo, she became editor for a journal where she used the medium to voice her disgust for feet binding, which was still commonplace in China at the time and that Qin herself was victim of, and oppressive marriages.

In 1907, Qiu was arrested and tortured for her views. Refusing to give up any information of the revolutionary uprising, she was executed, solidifying her place as a Chinese feminist martyr.

Corazon Aquino (1933 – 2009)

Corazon Aquino was the first female president of the Philippines and is known for leading the People Power Revolution in 1986 which restored democracy to the country. She was named TIME’s Woman of the Year in 1986.


Aquino greets officials as she walks across the flight line to the passenger terminal Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Aquino was the wife of Benigno Aquino Jr., a prominent figure in the Philippines for his efforts to overthrow the 20-year authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos.

Following her husband’s assassination in 1983, Aquino became more active in protests and movements against the Marcos rule, eventually ending in her making a bid for the presidency.

After Marcos announced a snap election to show the legitimacy and credibility of his position, Aquino decided to throw her cap in the ring, despite having no previous elective experience.

Marcos declared himself the winner despite the initial results showing Aquino as the victor, sparking the People Power Revolution. Over two million civilians, political, military and religious groups held three days of mass protests, which resulted in Aquino taking her rightful position as the 11th president of the Philippines. The Filipino people refer to her as “The Mother of Democracy.”

Malala Yousafzai (1997 – )

Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai wrote an anonymous diary about life under Taliban rule in north-west Pakistan. She was shot in the head by militants for daring to go to school. In 2014, she became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.


Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Malala attend the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan 25, 2018. Source: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

While most people became aware of Malala after the 2012 shooting, her education activism and work for female empowerment began long before that.

Her journey began back in 2008 when she spoke at a local press club on the Taliban’s growing influence in Pakistan. The Islamic hardline group had taken over her local area, banning everything from music to television, and, crucially, girl’s education.

Gaining attention from the press, she later went on to write for the BBC under a pseudonym and continued to pursue her activism to fight for girls’ right to go to school. The international recognition gained her some unwanted attention, however, and in October 2012 she was pulled from a bus after taking her exams and shot point blank in the head.

After extensive surgery, Malala made a full recovery and went on to speak in front of the United Nations in 2013, and became the youngest Nobel laureate in history in 2014. She is now studying at Oxford University and where she continues her activism, opening a school for Syrian refugees for her 18th birthday.

Raden Kartini (1879 – 1904)

Born in 1879 in Mayong, Indonesia, long before feminism was accepted, Raden Adjeng Kartini opened the first Indonesian primary school for native girls that did not discriminate based on social standing. Her work towards Javanese women’s emancipation and her letters with Dutch colonial officials, published after her death in 1911, changed how colonialists viewed local women.

After attending Dutch school from the age of six, Kartini struggled to adapt to the isolation and sheltered existence expected of her as a Javanese woman once she came of age at 12.

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Driven into an arranged marriage with a much older man who already had three wives, Kartini was forced to pass up a scholarship to study abroad. Frustrated by her own lack of educational prospects, she worked to open her own school for Javanese girls.

The curriculum at her new school encouraged empowerment and enlightenment, and promoted a lifelong pursuit of education.

She also reached out to Dutch lawmakers and fellow feminists in a bid to repeal outdated and oppressive laws and traditions that kept women from fulfilling their potential.