18 November 2012

Girl Power


As college students, our group is aware of the oppression women have faced and still do face, especially in working environments. As a result, we have taken this into account while planning exchanges with women NGOs or villages that have a strong female presence. Our group almost always sets aside a section to ask questions pertaining to whether being women has caused them to face more difficulties in their leadership positions.

            However, quite contrary to our preconceived notions, we have continuously been told that being a woman is actually often advantageous for Thais who are working for change. 
            One of the first places we saw how powerful a group of women could be was during Unit 1 in Yasothon Province, Thailand. Some of the families in this village recognized the harmful effects of pesticides, which influenced them to pivot back to using entirely organic farming practices on their land. To spread this food supply and awareness of this healthy lifestyle, in May of 2008 a group of women in the village came together to form a Green Market. This market has made great strides in the past 4 years; it is open every Saturday with many loyal customers.
            We also encountered this unexpected trend in the villages of Huay Gon Tha and Huay Rahong, in Chaiyaphum Province. These villages have experienced violations of their land rights as a result of the nearby Phu Pha Daeng Wildlife Sanctuary. During our exchange with the villagers, they said that when dealing with confrontation with officers, the women play an important role by being strategically placed at the front of their protests. As a result the officers are less likely to immediately respond in a violent manner, increasing the villagers’ chances of having their concerns be heard. We specifically asked the woman villager present at the exchange if she felt as though she was an equal to the male members in her community while working to obtain land rights. She responded by saying that she had the same voice as the men in her community.  
            During Unit 4 we had an exchange with Sodsai Sang-Sok who is a female NGO for Thai People Do Not Want Nuclear Power Plants. One of the students asked her was whether she faced any difficulties in her leadership role due to her gender. Sodsai Sang-Sok responded by saying that it is easier being a woman because women tend to be more compassionate than men. This allows females to be diplomatic in order to make the changes that NGOs are working to accomplish actually materialize. 
            This strong female presence is not as unlikely as our group expected it to be. There is an entire social movement referred to as Ecofeminism, which argues that the oppression of women and the environment is interconnected. Since women have a history of exploitation, they can relate to the experience of nature, which does not have a voice of its own.
            Even though we went into these exchanges assuming that the stereotyped characteristics of being a woman would be a disadvantage for Thai women, we have learned that these are the exact qualities that give them an advantage in their movements. The many Thai women we have met with have taught us that being compassionate is not a weakness; rather it is a tool to make a difference, especially while working with opposing parties.

Galen Hiltbrand
Georgetown University

8 comments:

CDobrez said...

Galen, I agree with many of your points. I myself have been a little frustrated with our group when we have exchanges with female NGOs and we always ask, “As a woman is it difficult…” We would never hold a space to ask a male NGO “As a male…” it is like we are participating in the inequality of women, when we assume it should be more difficult for them to be socially active, since she is a woman. Most of the time the women we exchange with look at us in total bewilderment, when we ask the ‘gender question’ like they have never received such a question. Image a world were gender was never looked at as a form of oppression, but rather just who you are. Now, now don’t get me wrong. It is clear that many women are still taking the second shift when is comes to gender roles. Often during our village stays, women help farm all day with their husbands, then run off to make dinner, take care of the kids and tidy up the house, while the husbands drink whiskey with friends. It’s not a perfect system by any means. But my point is maybe we Americans psychoanalysis things too much. Because the women that we have meet are not just strong courageous women, they are strong courageous people.

Marissa Lowe said...

I think the reason we often assume that it should be more difficult for women to be socially active or have an equal voice in the communities is because it is a fact that in much of the world women are still oppressed. The few times we have asked about women’s roles in the villages we have been told that women are indeed equal, “but they just have housework as well.” I’m skeptical of villagers who report that the two genders are equal when I have never seen a male villager take up the burdens of housework, cooking or childcare. Just because people say they aren’t oppressed doesn’t mean it’s true, oftentimes people are so used to this type of living that they don’t even recognize that they are being treated unfairly. In Baw Kaew when we asked about women’s roles in the protests, they responded saying that women’s roles are incredibly important…they cook for the men who are activists. That was it; that was the great job of women, to serve men. Sounds like inequality to me.

Sean Burke said...

This blog post was thought provoking. I agree with your argument, Galen. As Buddy has mentioned, I too have felt uncomfortable multiple times throughout our exchanges with female NGO's when we set aside a time to ask them about oppression they face due to their gender. We are programmed to think that women everywhere must be at a disadvantage in the workforce. But Thailand is not the United States. Thailand is different. I actually think that there is much more equality between the sexes in particular aspects of society than the United States. Of course, there are certain "generalizations" about gender roles that carry over to Thailand. Female NGO’s in Thailand still face a form of oppression in the sense that they must deal with the “stereotype” that the work of their gender is typically confined to the household. But Thailand is by no means a patriarchal society. Like Buddy, it bothers me that we would never ask male NGO’s if it is difficult for them to be social activists, yet we always make sure to ask female NGO's this question. I would go as far to say that I think asking these types of questions insults the credibility of the female NGO. Moving forward, I think that it is important that we put aside our preconceived notions and reassess the stereotypes of gender roles in Thailand.

Molly said...

When I was considering where to go for study abroad, and I was perusing reviews of certain programs, I noticed that most places had warnings to the tune of "are you a woman? watch out." Every country except for Thailand, which I found encouraging. And it really turned out to be true, at least for these woman activists we've met. There is so much power that comes with being a Thai woman (including but not limited to power over the kitchen). I'm really happy you put this into the context of the entire semester. There are so many women who probably havn't even considered that they may be disadvantaged. they see it as a strength. More interestingly, I've been noticing more and more that what is really valued the most among Thai NGOs is that sense of compassion that Sodsai emphasized. Both gender's benefit (in the world of social activism) from compassion and sensitivity.

Hannah Loppnow said...

¡Que Chulo! (“How cool” in Spanish) I had never heard of Ecofeminism before and I think it is a great perspective! The women of Thailand have such an organic way of conceptualizing their role in society and I admire that. They use their maternal abilities to their advantage to take control of situations in a different way than one might expect. No one likes to be wrong, but it’s so awesome that these women have proved your original hypotheses wrong and have proven that they have the same rights as men, maybe even more! Sometimes the way we think about how we’re being treated affects others’ perceptions of us. I think it’s great that these women have such pride in their femininity and that it is a catalyst for personal success in their lives. I will definitely continue to think about Ecofeminism and tell others about what I learned. Thanks for the insight!

BrytneeMiller said...

Before coming to Thailad I was told by family members and friends to, "be careful, girls aren't respected there." I took those sayings with a grain of salt because none of those people had ever actually been out of the country before. Since being here I've realized the misconceptions people have about a woman's place in Thailand. While, in some situations women are still oppressed, a lot of times women have a unique power here in Thailand, as Galen described in her article. Women were able to make change because they are women. They use their femininity to offer a more gentle and logical approach to social change, while men tend to be more aggressive and demanding.

Anonymous said...

Galen,
I think true equality will never exist between any two people regardless of their race, ethnicity or sex. Especially, their gender. Even in the U.S. the female worker makes 70 cents to the dollar for the same job that a male works. The U.S. is still working on this.

Another example of how women are not treated equally is evident in how the Thai men place them strategically in between the thai men protesting and the police. The police treat the women differently than the treat the men even though they believe in the same thing. This is a form of "good" inequality I guess. But it just goes to show that men and women are treated differently for better or worse. I think it's important that we understand that "true" 100 percent equality is just impossible.

Kierstin Wall said...

Galen I had also assumed that going into the first exchanges women may have told us stories of oppression and discrimination. However, I found during home stays that women have a much higher role in society than stereotyped in our own culture. After learning that women tend to rule the household, deal with finances and hold more of a voice in communities, learning that the power of women can be used to strengthen protest movements. This is the type of confidence that many women lack in our society because of our history, many women in the world are still oppressed and it is an issue that we as women are drawn to. I think that we expected this similar type of oppression in a developing world, while we also had the intent to 'help' during our stay here.