As part of She’s Right’s participation in 16 days of activism to end violence against women, each piece will be dedicated to a woman or girl who has lost her life due to gender-based violence. This article is dedicated to Nada Hassan Abdel-Maqsoud, killed on or around 30th January 2020, at the age of 12.
By Jirada Phetlam.
Edited by Jessica Sutton.
Protests in Thailand are making history. Despite the country being described as having the “world’s harshest lèse majesté law” (a law which forbids criticism of the monarchy), thousands of citizens have come out to speak against the control of the military and support monarchy reform in public.
What is unique about the peaceful pro-democracy movement is that it largely consists of young women, who make up the majority of the protests as well as taking the frontline at the rallies. Apart from being vocal about the military junta and the monarchy, women are also speaking out about women’s rights issues such as reproductive rights, taxes on menstrual products, rape culture, and student’s strict uniforms and haircuts. Members of the Thai LGBTQIA+ community also joined forces in the protests to set up activities, such as art performances, fashion shows, and parades to make a statement on social issues that the country often ignores or is not aware of.
“Women are increasingly speaking out against patriarchy that has long controlled the military, the monarchy, and the Buddhist monkhood, Thailand’s most powerful institutions,” said Chumaporn Taengkliang in an interview with the New York Times. The co-founder of Women for Freedom and Democracy also added, “the male supremacy society has been growing since the coup…that needs to change.”
Certainly, the fight for gender equality and the fight for democracy are two sides of the same coin. Historically, Thai women have struggled in many spheres of life. Despite making up a larger population and receiving higher education than their male peers, women are grossly underrepresented in the parliament and government. In fact, only 13 women are part of the 240-seat parliament, on top of there being not a single female cabinet minister. In terms of democracy movements, whether it was the 1932 Siamese Revolution or 6 October 1976 massacre, women were mostly excluded.
“In previous democracy movements, it was almost all men,” said Jutatip Sirikhan during her New York Times interview. Jutatup is a university student who was arrested in November because of her involvement in the protest. She added, “until now, Thailand has not had a gender political movement.”
The inclusion of women and other genders in politics and political movements is crucial. It ensures that democracy functions as fully and effectively as possible. In terms of creating equitable laws and governing the country, women and other genders can bring a wide array of perspectives and issues to the table in a way that men alone simply can’t. Although the ongoing protests seem to symbolize a big, progressive step for women’s rights in Thailand, women are still facing gender-based threats due to their involvement. The threats usually come from pro-establishment groups and the government.
One of the horrifying examples is a young woman who dressed as a schoolgirl during the protests to highlight sexual violence in schools. “I was sexually abused by my teacher,” the sign in her hands read, “school isn’t a safe place.” The woman was later bombarded with abusive messages, threats, and victim-blaming rhetoric on social media. MP for the Palang Pracharath Party, Pareena Kraikupt, has also filed a police report against her, on the basis that the activist is not a school student. Senator Somchai Sawangkarn also publicly condemned the woman for supposedly damaging the country’s image. He added that she might be punished if her accusation is deemed to be false after the investigation.
Unfortunately, when it comes to women’s rights, there isn’t a lot of solidarity within the pro-democracy movement either. Women have been facing threats from their own allies within the pro-democracy movement itself. These threats range from sexual harassment and bullying, to rape jokes, body shaming, and victim-blaming, especially occurring on online platforms. A Facebook group “The Sanctuary of Wongyannavian,” is a notable example of how pro-democracy men mock feminists and their pursuit for women’s rights. Feminists are considered complaining women who detract from pro-democracy goals. The group was created using the namesake of a celebrated university professor Thanes Wongyannava, and was later shut down for its abusive content.
Sirin Mungcharoen, a student leader at Chulalongkorn University, said that she has been vocal about feminism as an integral part of democracy. However, some male activists who had been protesting alongside her started insulting and mocking her once she brought up women’s rights. The comments she received include:
“Are you from Lumpini park?” (referring to a famous spot for prostitution).
“No one wants to have sex with her, so she gets slutty.”
“Hope your school teaches the class how to be a good prostitute.”
“They didn’t even talk to me directly, instead, they passed on my photos or my tweets…” Sirin said when she shared her experience with the local press. “They said they want democracy, and to promote equality, but when it comes to feminism or LGBTQ+, they simply ignored it…I felt discouraged because I’ve been trying to explain, educate, and run activities on the issues, but instead of trying to listen, they attacked my physical appearance.”
This situation has raised a worrying question: if the constitution can be reformed successfully because of these protests, will women’s rights be one of the priorities? If there is no solidarity between men and other genders within the movement itself, can full democracy ever be realized?
The spectre of patriarchy is still haunting Thailand. The pro-democracy movement mostly consists of middle class, educated, young individuals who value equality and citizen’s rights. However, in opposition to the ideology it seems to uphold, the movement is ironically chauvinistic. The pro-democracy movement and women’s struggles within it, reveal how problematic, subtle, and deeply-rooted patriarchal ideology is in the country. Misogyny lives on, despite the education the majority of these protestors have obtained. Perhaps it’s not simply college degrees that we need in order to achieve equality. Perhaps it’s empathy and education reform. Only once women’s rights issues are centralised as essential to every political movement, will real equality gains be able to be made.
Thanks to the pro-democracy movement, we now get a better insight into the women’s rights situation in Thailand. Unfortunately, this insight shows us that a victory for gender equality may not come easily or soon. There is no guarantee that the women’s rights situation will improve even after a form of ‘democracy’ is achieved. Nevertheless, despite these challenges, and the gender equality destination being so far ahead, women are still rallying on the streets. Women are still making platforms for themselves and their allies to voice their concerns, to educate others, and to set up activities in the pursuit of change. Changing my country for the benefit of women will take time. But with the work of these dedicated female activists, and the support of allies, I have real hope that Thailand will get there one day.
Image from BBC.com