PM's gender equality stance stuck in the past

PM's gender equality stance stuck in the past

A women's right activist waves a flag calling for endorsement of a policy of equal representation of men and women in the next constitution. The call went unheard. (Photo by Narupon Hinshiranan)
A women's right activist waves a flag calling for endorsement of a policy of equal representation of men and women in the next constitution. The call went unheard. (Photo by Narupon Hinshiranan)

I always thought fathers who have daughters would be supportive of women's rights. After all, would they want their girls to face the same unfair practices their grandmothers did?

Our dear leader has proved me wrong.

Gender equality has long been a global consensus. But who cares what the world thinks? On Friday, our prime minister -- a former army chief, coup leader, and a father of twin daughters -- said with a straight face that, "It will make Thai society deteriorate".

This outrageous remark did not hit the mainstream press. Neither did women's rights groups hold any public protests. It is probably because the much-awaited draft charter was unveiled on the same day, attracting all the media attention.

It may be because civil society feels the urgency is elsewhere; the draft charter robs people and local communities of many constitutional rights that were enshrined in previous charters, and they have only two weeks to make noise and propose amendments.

It may be because people have just given up commenting on every outrageous remark the prime minister has made on an almost daily basis.

Or we may have to confront the harsh truth that there is no public moral outrage against gender oppression here simply because society does not care.

In case you missed the PM's gender equality gaffe, here is a rough translation:

"Everybody says we need to create justice. Men and women must have equal rights and can do the same good and bad things. Thai society will deteriorate if you think like this."

"Women are the gender of motherhood. Women give birth. At home, women have the biggest say, don't they? Outside, we may be big and command authority at work. But at home, we must be quiet because women take care of the kids, and everything else in the households. 

"Since my marriage, I've never had to do anything in the household. She takes care of everything. That's why I can think this and that, without any worries."

For starters, it is wrong to equate gender equality with the division of labour in the family, comments feminist scholar Sutada Mekrungruengkul. "It's not the same thing."

Besides, while role segregation in the family according to sex is not only outdated and out of touch with reality, it also punishes working mothers with a double workload -- and guilt when they cannot fulfil a mother's duty as expected due to work demands. 

Equally important, it hypnotises women into accepting child-rearing work and household chores as unquestionable and economically unproductive. Subsequently, they quietly continue to do it unpaid, without welfare assistance from the government.

The division of labour in a family as described by the PM also reflects the ideal family unit that is rapidly crumbling. Statistics are aplenty on rising divorce rates and the impotency of the alimony law which ends up making single moms shoulder child-rearing costs alone. 

The number of single women living alone or with their parents is also rising. Again, their care for ageing parents is robbed of economic value because care work is considered free women's work.

The ideal heterosexual family image also disregards sexual diversity in society and robs gay couples of their right to be parents.

We can criticise Gen Prayut all we want, but we cannot deny that his frowning on gender equality reflects a deep-rooted misogyny in our society. If we want to tackle this problem, we need to ask why a large segment of society -- especially educated women themselves -- do not question the chains that bind them. 

It isn't so surprising that a veteran soldier like Gen Prayut upholds values that put women down. It's what militarism and patriarchy are all about. And more.

Both value systems tell women they should know their place as ordered by men; that they have no identities or self-worth without their men; that their main life goal is to silently serve and please men in the family, first the fathers, then the husbands and eventually the sons.

Women are also made to subscribe to the "good woman" ideals (read virgin/self-sacrificing wives and mothers). Those who do not fit this image are severely punished and socially stigmatised. Worse, they are allowed to be violated if they are viewed as "bad women", "bad wives" or "bad mothers".

Making women internalise these sexist values -- through the education system, mass media, and other socialisation processes including child-rearing -- in my view, constitutes violence against women. It not only perpetuates unfair practices and -- more often than not -- raw physical violence against women, it also makes women blame themselves and choose silence instead of fighting for justice.

For Ms Sutada, clearly spelled out constitutional rights are crucial for citizens to protect their rights and for women to undo gender oppression. She is not alone in her concerns that the draft charter has done away with most constitutional mechanisms for citizens and communities to protect their rights and for women to fight discrimination.

"True, many constitutional rights have not been enforced due to bureaucratic resistance," she said. "Still they represent the goals society is heading toward. Without them, society is directionless, or even moving backwards as it is now."

In my view, it is not only the centralised, patriarchal officialdom that is in the way. Gross disparities probably play a more significant role in blinding people -- especially well-to-do women -- from gender injustice.

Indeed, there is no need for professional women need to complain about the sexist division of labour in the household when you have poor women to clean the house, cook dinner and raise the kids. Why fight for welfare assistance for single moms who provide care for ageing, sick parents when cheap migrant domestic workers can fill the gap?

A good law and a visionary charter help. But the patriarchal values that perpetuate gender oppression will remain unquestioned and the path toward equality remains grim when our minds are still stuck in the feudal past and our society remains trapped in class disparity.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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