The stalled mediation attempt by the National Human Rights Commission is the latest in a series of failures to settle a long-standing dispute between the Supreme Council of Motorcycle Taxis and a group of women who want to offer motorcycle taxi services, with neither side willing to budge from their well-entrenched positions.
The status of female motorcycle taxis in Thailand has long been a controversial matter. Traditionally, motorcycle taxis in Thailand have been operated by men and the official organization representing them, the all-male Supreme Council of Motorcycle Taxis, has argued that it is impossible for female motorcycle taxis to operate in Thai society.
Against this, would-be female motorcycle taxis have noted that in other countries, there is no bar on woman becoming motorcycle taxis and that even as far back as the Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede of the late 19th century, women have been free to use motorcycles as they wish. Besides, even the poor shadow of an interim constitution that we are forced to live by enshrines equality of the sexes. A ban on female motorcycle taxis is therefore clearly unconstitutional.
The Supreme Council responds that they have no argument with female motorcycle taxis per se. However, the training procedure for motorcycle taxis requires that the learner take a practical driving test with a fully qualified instructor riding pillion. For this to conform to the rules of traditional Thai society, both instructor and learner must be the same sex. Since there are no female motorcycle taxis at present, there are logically no female motorcycle taxi trainers, hence there can be no female motorcycle taxis. The ‘chain’ of training has been broken and can never be restored.
‘Can you imagine a man sitting on the back of a motorcycle ridden by a woman?’ scoffed one aging member of the Supreme Council, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this is a daily occurrence throughout Thailand. When this fact was brought to his attention, he commented that it may happen upcountry, due to ‘uneducate’ rural people, but the practice was rarely seen in Bangkok so it can’t be the true Thai way.
Many believe that the arguments put forward by the Supreme Council against female motorcycle taxis are spurious efforts to hide a deep-seated misogynism. The Council earlier abandoned justifications based on the inherent inability of irrational, hysterical women to exercise the discipline required of a motorcycle taxi. Such chauvinism did not persuade anyone given the fact that woman are legally accepted as teachers, doctors and even Prime Ministers.
Now the Supreme Council insists that the safety of the travelling public is of paramount concern to them, and the impossibility of female motorcycle taxis to access training therefore presents an insuperable barrier. Critics note however that male motorcycle taxis are the most dangerous form of public transport, a situation not helped by the fact that they regularly allow female passengers to ride side-saddle and without a helmet.
A Supreme Council member who was asked about this apparent inconsistency said that it would be completely immoral for a woman to sit astride the passenger seat and that many passengers, both male and female, refused either to use their own crash helmet or use a spare provided by the taxi.
‘We cannot encourage depraved behaviour where a male motorcycle taxi’s back may come into contact with a female passenger’s chest. Who knows how this may affect his concentration. It also goes against the 12 Thai values that Our Dear Leader has vouchsafed to the nation.’
‘And we don’t want people using the same helmet for public health reasons,’ he continued. ‘We have taken medical advice that this will lead to the spread of AIDS, nits and Ebola.’
A quick survey of motorcycle taxis at the nearest street corner revealed that none of them had in fact undergone a practical test of the kind claimed by the Supreme Council. Most of them said that while their bikes had been checked for having 3rd party insurance, two functioning wheels and a sufficiently loud engine, they themselves had not been subjected to any form of test whatsoever. ‘Not unless you count paying for the orange vest,’ said one.
Some would-be female motorcycle taxis have got round this restriction by taking training in Sri Lanka, where female motorcycle taxis still practise. They then return to Thailand, don the orange vest and start work. While tolerated and even supported by some members of the public, they have been shunned by the Supreme Council. Without the Supreme Council’s blessing, they have none of the legal rights that male motorcycle taxis enjoy.
This, however, does not seem to worry female motorcycle taxis. ‘If the worst comes to the worst,’ said one, ‘we’ll just keep riding our bikes. There’s no stopping us now.’
About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).