Sadly, barbarism begins at home
Early last week, the world watched with bated breath to see if Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun would be sent back to what she feared would be her inevitable death in Saudi Arabia. The 18-year-old had renounced Islam (a crime punishable by death) and run away from her family, accusing them of physical and psychological abuse.
She flew to Thailand in order to transit to Australia, where she hoped to seek asylum. But upon landing at Suvarnabhumi Airport, her passport was seized and she was detained in a hotel room. Thai officials were ready to put her on the first plane back home. Qunun had other ideas. She barricaded herself in the hotel room, took to Twitter, and global social hysteria ensued. Long story short, she's now under the protection of the UNHCR.
According to Human Rights Watch Asia division deputy director Phil Robertson, Saudi Arabian diplomats had -- shamefully -- been allowed to seize Qunun's passport during international transit. They were allowed to march through closed areas of the airport to stop her, all because her guardian had reported her for travelling "without his permission".
Under Saudi law, women are still subject to archaic and regressive "male guardianship laws", whereby they must seek a male relative's permission to do everything from travel to work to study abroad, get married, get out of jail or even leave a shelter for abuse victims. Women who disobey their guardians risk jail.
It's old news, of course, that Saudi Arabia's treatment of and attitudes toward women are appalling. But the fact that Thai immigration officials were so complicit in co-operating with Saudi diplomats sheds an uncomfortable light on our own treatment of women. Sure, the immigration bureau later backtracked and reassured everyone that Qunun would not be deported (adding some corny statements about how Thailand is the "Land of Smiles"). But it's obvious that this was all about avoiding embarrassment while the world was watching and railing against their decision. Although gender equality in Thailand looks like rainbows and butterflies compared to Saudi Arabia, the initial decision by Thai officials illustrates that there are still deeply rooted gender-issue problems in Thai society.
On paper, it may seem as if there's little discrimination. Thai women were among the first in Asia to get the vote. The country ranks among the best in the world when it comes to women in top business positions. Minister of Science and Technology Dr Pichet Duronkaveroj even went so far as to say that "Thailand doesn't have a gender problem", at his Harvard address. But then again, Saudi Arabia was elected to serve on the UN Commission on the Status of Women. It looks good on paper. Due to a deep-rooted patriarchal mindset and traditional attitudes, Thai men still tend to think of themselves as head of the household and women as their property. It may not be as horrific as what Saudi women have to go through, but it is still toxic and presents a major barrier to gender equality.
A recent visit to a community in Wat Po Liang in Bangkok Noi turned up some shocking stories. One community leader, Boat, a former drug addict and alcoholic, admitted to having beat his wife regularly. The most common reason was because she wouldn't prepare food for him when he came back home at 2 or 3am after getting drunk and cheating on her with other women.
"I slapped and hit my wife," he said. "I felt like she's my wife so she's mine. I never thought why. She's just mine." Thankfully, he says he's a changed man, and it's been months since he's laid a finger on her. But the fact that this mindset was so normal to him and the community at large is disturbing, and gives a hint of what life might have been like for Qunun in her own home.
What's worse, many cases like this go unreported, as both victims and authorities see it as a private matter rather than a legal one. Gender-based violence remains rife behind closed doors.
Even highly educated women, like pro bono lawyer Busayapa Srisompong, have had issues dealing with police after getting physically abused by their partners. Stuck in an abusive relationship, the breaking point was when she was choked, punched, knocked over with a pan, and kicked in the stomach while curled up on the floor.
When she went to police for help, they told her she looked fine, was still young and would get back together with the man anyway, so she was wasting their time. Busayapa left in tears, but later returned to the station in a fury, this time armed with her law books, demanding that they do their job. In court, judges were hostile and resorted to victim-blaming, urging her to talk it over with her abuser. Busayapa refused to cave in and eventually won the case. She went on to establish a nonprofit organisation called SHero, aimed at reducing and preventing domestic violence in Thailand.
Qunun had social media and the backing of the rest of the world; Busayapa had her knowledge of law. Yet there are many more women like Boat's wife, whose pleas don't go viral and whose lack of knowledge means they are too afraid to seek help and support. Then again, success stories like Qunun's and Busayapa's give hope -- and hope leads to action -- and action leads to change. Let's just hope this change doesn't just stay on paper.
Apipar Norapoompipat is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.
Apipar Norapoompipat is a features writer of the Life section of the Bangkok Post.