Mae Sot, Thailand
“I am kind of a free spirited person”
My name is Kate, I am 43 years old. I am from Bangkok and I came to Mae Sot, at the Thai-Burmese border for work. I work for Handicap International as Child Development Advisor. I have been working for this organization since December 2006. I am not married and I don’t have any children.
If I had to define myself I would say that I am kind of a free spirit person and someone who is always willing to learn new things.
“In the world of art they tend to value male artists more than female artists, and this is even more accurate in Thailand”
When I was still a child I had two dreams: be a cartoon writer and a solo traveler. It didn’t go exactly how I imagined it.
I was talented, people used to compliment me on my art, but when I went to college I studied business administration with a major in marketing, a subject quite far from what I wanted to do at the beginning. I wanted to study art but my parents talked me out of it because in their opinion it was impossible to make a living out of it. Sadly, opportunities for artists in Thailand are still quite narrow, it is quite rare that artists can survive with their art. And in the world of art they tend to value male artists more than female artists, and this is even more accurate in Thailand.
After I graduated I still had this desire to work in the field of arts. It was while travelling that I found my purpose in life. My family encouraged me to go to school and then leave to study in the UK. I was feeling a bit anxious because back then I had a secured job so I thought that it was risky to leave but then I could not give up on my passion for art. Besides, I really wanted to have an experience in another country, not an Asian country, but a geographically and culturally different country from mine. My family encouraged me a lot to pursue this dream.
“If I were a man I would travel more and travel to areas where people say that it is not safe for women. I would go there, maybe alone”
Since I am a young girl I want to travel around the world. I don’t want to just travel, I want to be a solo traveler. I read a lot of books about people travelling around the world, they’re mainly men…
I remember that when I was younger my friends and I wanted to go away for holidays in other provinces of Thailand, but our parents didn’t allow us because we were girls and according to them it was not safe for girls to travel. People always say that women should not travel alone, even in some places of South-East Asia that are safe. In the end I did travel alone. When I decided to go and travel I received a lot of support from my friends and my family, even if they were concerned at first to let me go.
When you’re a woman, travelling can be dangerous which is why I have not travelled alone in countries where the situation is too unsafe for women, such as Pakistan or India. But of course, as a woman, no matter in which country you are, you always have to worry about how you’re dressed up, if it is not too short not too revealing, what you say, how you behave and so on…
I think if I were a man I would travel more and travel to areas where people say that it is not safe for women. I would go there, maybe alone. I think that I could do more things if I were a man. Yet, I still do the things I want to do, I enjoy my life.
“I was not going to let my gender define what I could and could not do, but most of the women in Thailand live within the restraints that society dictates for them”
I haven’t faced many challenges in my life because of my gender. Because of financial problems or family issues, yes, but not specifically because of my gender. Even though my parents were not that strict on me, members of my extended family, like my grandparents or aunts and uncles, were the ones to tell me to stick to the roles that belong to my gender. For instance, my grandma and my aunts would tell me that the boys could go out and play but that I had to stay inside and work in the kitchen to help with the cooking. But every time I ran out! They eventually let me be. I remember that even cycling was a big deal. People used to say that it was not for girls and that girls should stay at home and play with their Barbies dolls instead. I was not going to let my gender define what I could and could not do, but most of the women in Thailand live within the restraints that society dictates for them.
In our culture, compared to western countries, people don’t tend to speak out that much, they don’t revolt. They just follow. Our educational system don’t teach us to think and criticize how things are. We are not taught to speak out and question the established structure of society, especially when it comes to gender roles. We learn to be discreet, to not put ourselves in the spotlight. It’s not common in Thailand that people will raise their voices, like in western countries, to denounce a system that they don’t adhere on anymore. When I studied in the UK, students were just standing up and saying loud what they wanted to say. We are not like this here in Thailand.
“If you are 30 years old or in your mid 30s, society thinks that you are worthless if you’re not married or haven’t got any children (…) because for the society being a good woman and a successful woman means being a married woman and a mother. ”
I think women in Thailand, in general, face many obstacles in their life and are not treated the same way than men, even if people claim that nowadays we have gender equality. For example, one very easy example, in our society, men can have very young woman as partner and it’d be okay but, on the other hand, if a woman dates a man who is younger than her she will be judged, criticized and shamed by the society. Moreover, in some workplaces, employers are reticent to hire women because they are worried about the woman getting pregnant and going on maternity leave. Finally, at home, the housework is usually the burden of the woman, even if it may be different from one household to another. Some men have different mindset, and some are really taking their share of responsibility when it comes to the housework, but it is not as common as in Europe, for instance. Also, it varies a lot from Bangkok to the countryside. In some conservative places, if the man stays home to take care of the household while the wife is working, people will gossip about the couple and say that the man is not fulfilling his role as the leader of the family and that he is not a good husband, and vice and versa if the wife works and do not take care of the household herself. In the countryside, people will commonly assume that something is wrong in the family.
In the event that a woman is too “old” and still unmarried, like myself for instance, people will assume that something is wrong with the woman. They’ll ask her “what’s wrong with you!?” People in Thailand have got a strong belief that women should not stay unmarried and that if they do it’s a sign that something is wrong with her. Our society is very obsessed with women’s age. If you are 30 years old or in your mid 30’s, society thinks that you are worthless if you’re not married or haven’t got any children. They pressure you, they want you to settle down because for the society being a good woman and a successful woman means being a married woman and a mother.
But nowadays, I see a lot of independent working women. Now they want to get an education, have good jobs and better income. Things are changing, the society is slowly moving away from conservatism.
“Changes must happen from top to bottom and bottom to top”
I don’t think equality between men and women can be achieved in one day, but for this to happen we have to educate people, to teach them how to respect each other. We need to make them understand the importance of gender equality in order to change their attitude towards women. We can’t do that in one day but there is hope for the next generation if we start right now to raise awareness. It is also important to make the youth think and compare our society with other societies in the world so they may find out that women from other countries have more or less opportunities, or are more or less free and then realize that women’s rights is a global fight.
Nonetheless, all of this cannot be enough if there aren’t any changes in our laws and policies taken at the top level to make women equal to men. Changes must happen from top to bottom and bottom to top. In reality, however, I don’t see enough women represented at the parliament for instance. Men represent the majority. [See article on “The ripples of the military coup on women in Thailand” here]
“ I don’t think we need to beg people to give us opportunities. We can succeed, we can fail but it has nothing to do with the fact that we are women. Women don’t have to be strong.”
I try to inspire other women and change people’s mind when I can. I am an empowered women and I try to reach out to other women in my community to empower them too. If I can feel that the atmosphere is open to talk about topics such as women’s rights or women’s issues and that the audience seems ready to listen then I will speak up and try to start a conversation, otherwise I won’t. It is difficult to talk with men about women’s issues. Gender inequalities have been going on for so long that people, and men in particular, have just assimilated them as something normal. They will say “this is the way things are” or “this situation worked for a long time so why change it?” Sometimes, I think men are afraid that women will outpower them. The way they value women is perfectly illustrated in how people will systematically think that the top position should be filled by a man. They think men are good decision makers and only men can take the position of the leader. Women are considered emotional and weaker. No matter how a woman behaves at work, whether she is sensitive, strict, directive, or supportive and so on, most of the time people will think that her behavior is due to her menstruation!
I would like to say to people that men and women can work together and respect each other. I don’t think we need to beg people to give us opportunities. We can succeed, we can fail but it has nothing to do with the fact that we are women. Women don’t have to be strong. They are strong. But men, and our societies, have to understand that we can work together, we all have the same objectives.
I believe art can be the voice for those women who feel like they don’t have enough courage to say what they have to say with words. They can pass their message onto people through art. We can use art to advocate for women’s rights.