Sexism is the weapon of choice for the truly cowardly

Sexism is the weapon of choice for the truly cowardly

The political crisis has unveiled a series of "inconvenient truths" that have long been hidden in our society. One of them is the prevailing pre-modern sexism that has come to define modern relationships among the genders in general, and in the present political context, between angry males and females protesting against Thailand's first female prime minister in particular.

To be fair, a degree of ugly sexism has been employed by all political factions. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra might be the prime target now, but the reds and the yellows have also used bigotry to assault their opponents' gender or sexuality.

Women were given electoral rights in 1932, the year Thailand abolished the absolute monarchy. In the meantime, Thailand might have become a developed nation on many fronts, but its current code of conduct between men and women still leans toward the behaviour of yesteryear.

In other words, Thailand has firmly remained a male-dominated society. Male chauvinism exists everywhere: from the workplace and communities, through to national politics.

It is true the situation on gender equality has improved to a certain extent, but scratch beneath the surface and so much is still the same.

Members of society have for so long paid lip service to gender equality even when in reality they mistreat those who are different. Not just women and homosexuals; insults are often made against the underprivileged and other ethnicities. Some of those in the Bangkok protests squarely label their fellow countrymen uneducated and undeserving of political equity. Shamelessly, this behaviour has rigidly remained a political tactic.

Since Yingluck Shinawatra became Thailand's prime minister following her landslide election victory in 2011, she has become the target of the most vicious kind of sexism. Opponents called her a stupid bitch, a buffalo, a whore, a traitor, a bimbo, a puppet, and so on. Political enemies have picked on her gender to chalk up easy political points. Media manipulation has become part of this process. Photos that captured seemingly unintentional flirtatious interactions between Ms Yingluck and US President Barack Obama on his visit to Bangkok in November 2012 were selected to showcase what it is to be a slutty prime minister engaging in a serious discussion with the most important leader in the world.

Civil society organisations working to protect women's rights and a long list of so-called independent feminist groups have refused to take action. Yet worse, when former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva used derogatory terms such as "stupid" and "slut" in a political speech, possibly in reference to Yingluck, some feminists lined up to offer support.

Certain members of the opposition Democrat Party have continued to play this sexist game to taint Yingluck. Mallika Boonmeetrakul, deputy spokeswoman, circulated a manipulated photo of Ms Yingluck that conveyed the meaning of her being a rhino. Note that in Thai, rhino, or raed, could also mean "slutty".

It takes a great deal of backbone to walk through this kind of sexist war. And it seems that Ms Yingluck has been doing so all alone.

In the past few months, as Thailand has fallen into a new round of crisis, sexism has re-emerged as a weapon. Many personalities took turns to go on the anti-government stage to pummel Ms Yingluck's femininity. From a doctor from Songkhla to a Silom transvestite, all condemned Ms Yingluck for being born female, essentially.

Some might have tried to elaborate on why Ms Yingluck deserved this kind of dehumanisation, but it all resolved around the same old tune _ the woman was stupid and brainless.

Lewd posters made to humiliate Ms Yingluck, such as her holding a giant sex toy, are seen at the protest sites. Yet protesters continue to self-proclaim as representatives of something decent and ethical in Thailand and they assign themselves the task of cleansing Thai politics by kicking Ms Yingluck out.

But are they themselves also politically unethical in abusing the real context of Thai politics just to undermine their female enemy?

An Election Commission member, in voicing his frustration over the inability to meet Ms Yingluck, showed his macho attitude by suggesting he could meet her at the Four Seasons Hotel _ the place of a meeting between Ms Yingluck and some businessmen in June 2012. Sadly, in Thailand, independent organisations have their own political colour. In my opinion, most of them are standing on the opposite side of democracy.

Why do we allow sexism to thrive in a supposedly mature society such as Thailand?

Sexism is a weapon of the weak. It is a veil that obfuscates the vulnerability of those who use it while attacking others. Thai men are often uneasy around powerful women. And Thai women can find it intolerable if they feel less attractive and intelligent than their rivals. Perhaps such insecurities are found elsewhere in the world, yet mostly these remain in the closet. In Thailand these feelings are legitimised on the public stage as they are freely shared.

If Ms Yingluck was a man, she would have faced different kinds of attacks. Being the country's first female leader is a tough job, particularly at this time of a high political divisiveness.

Sex and gender provides a contemptible battle that only denigrates the sexists themselves.

You don't have to like Ms Yingluck to see this absurdity behind her dehumanisation. Any decent citizen, especially those claiming to be well-educated, needs to respect others, regardless of their gender, before they dare to lead any rightful protest. No truly civilised country would tolerate such endless sexist attacks.

Former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard showed us that sexism had to be eliminated. I hope Ms Yingluck will have a similar opportunity one day.


Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun

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