Debunking misconceptions: Feminism explained

Thai social media has recently focussed on issues of sexual violence and gender equality, sparking a debate about feminist ideas and the goal of the movement. In this interview, five self-identified feminists who have experienced and witnessed gender-based violence and discrimination speak on the feminist movement in Thailand, misconceptions about feminism, and what it actually means to be a feminist.

In the eyes of netizens, feminism, the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes, has been turned into a so-called matriarchy movement. This led to the term เฟมทวิต (Femtwit), a combination of “feminist” and “Twitter”, coined by anti-feminist netizens to demean feminists on Twitter.

Associate Professor Verita Sriratana, lecturer at the Department of English, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, Jaded Chouwilai, director of the Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation, Daranee Thongsiri, founder of Feminista, Fluorescent Lady (pseudonym), and Pimsiri Petchnamrob, a human rights activist, share their experiences and views on feminism in Thailand.

Feminist movement and portrayals of feminists in Thailand

The term feminism might have been acknowledged in larger circles only recently, but Jaded, who has been fighting against gender-based discrimination for 30 years, said the movement used to be mobilized and discussed only in academic groups and non-governmental organizations. 

Compared to feminist movements in the Anglophone world, most interviewees see that Thai feminists are not as unified but many feminist ideas are found in various political groups such as labour unions (for rights to maternity leave) and environmental activist groups, even though they may not identify themselves as feminists. 

Daranee and Pimsiri said many Thai people see Kalamae and Panadda Wongphudee as feminist figures. It might be true that some of their ideas parallel those of feminists, however, Panadda’s belief in capital punishment for rapists does not.

“When people look at individuals, it makes them think that this is all feminism is, so they misunderstand feminism,” Daranee pointed out, “There have never been interviews with feminists who work behind the scenes who do not have the power to get their voices heard.”

Nowadays, interviewees see that feminists are getting louder. In Fluorescent Lady’s opinion, “Femtwit” can be considered part of the latest feminist movement in Thailand.

Daranee explained that this name refers to those who are likely to be angry and use inappropriate words. Thus, anti-feminists pigeonhole Femtwit into “bad feminists” in contrast to “good feminists” whose voices are more polite and pleasant. These are attempts to show feminists as unfavorable or wicked when they defy patriarchy and call for justice. “Pushing feminists into two sides is like saying feminist voices that are sweet are the voices that are correct and fine, which devalues other feminist groups whose words are unpleasant in the eyes of antifeminists” Daranee said.    

Fluorescent Lady explained further that those who call people Femtwits have internalized patriarchy and are usually fact-deniers as they deny gender inequality and patriarchy. She sees their acts of hatred that try to control and punish feminists on Twitter as misogynistic. 

In the views of online anti-feminist bullies who Verita has encountered, “feminists are portrayed as man-hating supporters of matriarchy who revel in women’s all powerful rights to park cars in ladies’ parking spaces allotted in department stores” and “bra-burning lesbians wanting to scrape men from the face of the earth.”

Yet Verita does not find, among the feminists she knows, any who are like this perception. In fact, in her close friends and family, she  sees men and women showing solidarity and working together in their shared mission to challenge and deconstruct patriarchy.

Similar to Daranee, Verita finds it unsurprising that those who fight for a political cause tend to be conveniently divided. She provides an example of feminists in the twentieth century in the Anglophone world. While “suffragists” were labelled as the good ones in the eyes of patriarchal establishment, “suffragettes” were labelled by the press as the bad ones.

Verita proposes that, like the term “suffragette,” which was later cleverly appropriated and embraced by the so-called “bad women” it meant to demean, “Femtwit” can easily be embraced in defiance of the anti-feminist discourse which propagates the term . She also suggests that this coinage can never tame feminists or drive them into silence if feminists do not let it. 

Like the suffragette and suffragist movements, Verita believes that direct militant action as well as civil disobedience is as important as the call for reform. For Thai society, she advises against being submissive and eager to please the tone-policing group of people. She also wishes to debunk the idea that the best way to build gender rights awareness or to fight for the feminist cause is to do so while crawling in front of the patriarchal status quo and engaging in the act of prostrating oneself on the lap of ever-condescending patriarchy.

“Nothing can be achieved by being compliant and submissive, just like nothing can be achieved by singing a love song to a dictator in exchange for liberation and democracy,” said Verita, who believes that advocating for gender equality constitutes and enhances self-expression, which is central to democracy, and one must not only shake but also shatter and deconstruct the status quo.

Verita leaves a note for online feminists thus: “Don’t pay attention to those who say Twitter is not the real world and ignore people who are trying to condemn the act of “ฉอด ” or “ranting” (a term which means being loud and critical on social media but not causing any real change in the real world).”

She gave the examples of the Arab Spring protests and the #MeToo movement where social media, especially Twitter, has the power to call out injustices, topple the status quo, and make social changes. She also suggests that a term like “เฟมทวิต”(Femtwit) or “ฉอด” can be reclaimed and redefined by the very target of anti-feminist ad feminam “labelling” attacks, which is the original purpose of this divisive term.

In contrast to such categorisation, feminism is indeed diverse by its nature. There are differences among feminist philosophers and various political causes one can fight for.

Verita, for instance, identifies herself as a lesbian feminist. She explained further that the word feminist usually requires at least one adjective or attributive noun, such as male feminist, marxist feminist, transgender feminist, etc.

The word “feminist” is fundamentally democratic. It comes with so many political possibilities, as Verita explained, “even anti-feminists can never exist or campaign without the word which they attached the hateful prefix to: feminists.”

“Feminists are not homogeneous and do not think the same, and it’s not a problem,” Daranee added. Some might support sex workers as they see it as an act of empowerment and it is in women’s power to use their own bodies, while others might not, because they see it as a form of oppression.

It is up to the people which group they want to ally with. “Pick your own battle,” Fluorescent Lady suggested.

“The fight goes on as the ceiling of gender inequality, solid and transparent, which can be felt in terms of not only legal and economic inequality, but also everyday casual sexism, remains intact to this day,” said Verita.

“Men are trash”

The coinage of Femtwit can be traced back to its origin, #menaretrash, shared by victims of sexual violence. Fluorescent Lady brought up the issue that “men are trash” is banned on Facebook as it is viewed as hate speech. Still, she empathizes with those who used this statement to express their grievances.

Meanwhile, Verita problematizes and criticizes Facebook’s censorship of this phrase as it has a reputation of banning the wrong people. For example, a woman who shared rape comments has been banned for reposting the offensive comments even though she made it clear that she was against sexual violence in any form. But the actual harassers who posted rape comments got away without any punishment.

Verita added that misogynist sayings like “having a daughter is like having a toilet in front of your house,” period shaming, or the ingrained notion that women are the weaker sex cause much more unspeakable harm and deep suffering. It is latent sexism against women, not the phrase “men are trash” that supports violence against and violation of women ranging from bullying and limiting women’s rights to rape and murder.

“If, in your eyes, ‘men are trash’ causes more offense and grievance than the misogynist sayings and practices which have unquestionably become our social norm do, then you are looking at gender equality from the tip of your own privilege, being so fortunate and high up that you do not see the real problem. Or you are just a plain ignorant hypocrite. There are not many options left, I’m afraid,” said Verita.

Daranee explained that “men are trash” is not a feminist strategy but rather the experience of women who have been harassed and assaulted, while Verita thinks that it’s a generic statement and a provocation, which is meant to propel listeners to think and rethink toxic and fragile masculinity.

Although Daranee herself never uses this statement for the cause, she believes that this statement does not take away their privileges or harm men, except perhaps for a feeling of uneasiness, but there are practices that actually harm women,  such as selective abortion in India, which see women as a burden. “We can see that women are trash the moment they were born,” said Daranee.

Why do you call yourself a feminist?

As feminists are negatively branded and too controversial in the eyes of the public, many netizens argue that feminists should start calling themselves humanists instead of feminists.  

Still, all interviewees call themselves feminists without hesitation. In fact, some of them even wear it like a badge. Each one became a feminist because they have experienced or witnessed gender discrimination or sexual violence. While Fluorescent Lady was treated as subordinate because she’s a woman, Daranee experienced sexual violence and Jaded witnessed violence against the lives of female labourers. Pimsiri, on the other hand, acknowledges gender discrimination.

In response to this statement, Daranee thinks that the ability to identify oneself is one’s right. She insisted that “humanist does not conflict with feminist. We can be both simultaneously. Being feminist stems from the fact that we cannot see gender equality.”

Verita agrees that feminists have often been attached to stigma throughout the term’s long history.

However, she poses a question on how one can be an anti-feminist while upholding a socio-political philosophy (humanism) which advocates for the equality of all humans given the fact that gender equality is elusive.

“All humanists are automatically feminists. Anti-feminism goes against the value of human reason and egalitarianism,” said Verita, while Fluorescent Lady added that inequality of women could not be acknowledged if people only call themselves humanists as naming feminists is a part of addressing the issues.

“I call myself a feminist to reclaim this word just like women should reclaim the night in which they walk the streets without fear. I call myself a feminist to pay homage to those who have fought and perished, hated and persecuted, in the process of gaining what many women take for granted today i.e. professions for women, rights to vote, rights to property.” 

“Lastly, I call myself a feminist because, as long as gender inequality exists (and it still exists), each and everyone of us should be a feminist.” said Verita, which Pimsiri agrees with.

Feminism is good for all genders

Despite misconceptions that feminists aspire to matriarchy or more privileges than men, all interviewees insisted that feminism is good for all genders. Verita emphasized that what feminists unite to fight against is patriarchy, not men in their lives.

Jaded noted that not only men, but also women can internalize the ideology of patriarchy. From his experience, some women still think that only men can be good leaders and do better than women.

For Daranee, women do not understand patriarchy any better than men but women have many experiences related to gender discrimination due to power dynamics. She further explained that feminists acknowledge that not only women but also men suffer from patriarchy.  

Fluorescent Lady shared her own experience of never realizing that she was sexually harassed until she studied feminism. Things like sexual harrassment are not dealt with in compulsory education but she wished the Ministry of Education would take it into consideration. She explained that originally she thought that sexual harassment included only physical contact when in fact it also includes implicit sexual overtones, and sexual jokes.

Jaded elaborated further that when women face domestic violence, they often blame themselves for being bad persons or perhaps for being dressed in ‘too revealing’ a way. This is when feminist thinking takes place as it empowers women and helps them realize that such violence stems from patriarchy.

Seeing many male opponents online, Verita is amazed by the fact that men would rather die than become feminists. In a deeper and more subtle extent than women, Verita explained, men have served as patriarchy’s slaves and mediums for many centuries to the extent that masculinity is so fragile a concept that it can be easily threatened by the misconception that feminists “want more privileges” than men.

Verita finds it unsurprising that women, on the other hand, would rather stay silent and indifferent so they can remain the “good ones” in the eyes of the patriarchal world they were born into as women have been trained for centuries to think and seek approval in that way.

“The enemy of feminism is the patriarchal mindset, never men – who, by the way, suffer more than women from being hopelessly enmeshed in the patriarchal discourses,” said Verita.

As Verita has encountered many online bullies, she expressed her sadness that one can feel threatened and insecure when other people demand basic rights to the point that one says hateful words to those who fight for the cause.

Gender inequality as a democratic struggle

Since the Civil Partnership bill was drafted, many netizens argue that the LGBT community will not achieve what they are fighting for or even fight for their own rights, as the goal of a true democracy has not been accomplished.

Daranee sees that fighting for gender equality is the same as fighting for democracy, as democracy enables everyone to have equality. For example, women have fewer job opportunities because of gender.

Daranee explained that sometimes those who fight for democracy go against feminists as patriarchy does not distinguish men and women or even LGBT, which prompts them to lack perception.

Many fight for freedom in this country, yet they inflict violence on their partners. As Daranee said, patriarchy is a structure that forms and shapes us unknowingly and therefore, possibly transmits patriarchal ideas to others without realizing it.

Verita provided a historical background that thanks to Khana Ratsadon (the People’s Party), Siamese women were given the right to vote 12 years before women in France and suffrage was never fought for in Siam. This shows, Verita believes, that a central element of democracy is women’s active political participation.

According to Verita, despite the right to vote, which is a good first step towards gender equality, Siamese women never really achieved equal rights and standing to Siamese men. She explained that Khana Ratsadon’s views on women and gender equality can be seen as flawed by the benevolent sexist discourse prevalent at that time. For instance, Siamese women serving in office were almost non-existent.

“Those who nowadays celebrate the legacies of Khana Ratsadon and call themselves progressive and democratic but nevertheless use the term Femtwit  to demean and silence feminists ought to be ashamed of themselves. One would be a total hypocrite if one claims to be fighting for democracy while seeing nothing wrong in gender inequality,” Verita pointed out.

She also urges readers to consider whether those who claim to support democracy but do not support marriage equality at all because the marriage laws are flawed are any better than those who claim that Thai people should not have an election before reform, which led to the demise of democracy in Thailand. 

Verita also said it would be a sad waste of potential, especially for the Thai intelligentsia and those who have access to the opportunity to improve their academic skills and knowledge, if they keep harbouring such cheap attitudes.

“This trashy thinking awaits critical and logical cleanup. So squeeze out your sanitiser gel, get a broom, get a rag, and sweep and wipe, citizens – dear feminist men and women, sweep away and wipe out such hateful prejudice and pseudo-intellectualism which have hindered democracy in Thailand!” Verita urged.