What Does It Mean to Be a Thai Feminist?
A Thai translator investigates how feminism appears in the language and literature of her home country
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Some months ago, a colleague asked me for the Thai word for “feminism”—a no-brainer, one would think. But I found myself bashing my head against the English word over and over, because it is what I would say, even when speaking Thai; the loan word is simply more common. And though my mother tongue does have a word for feminism—satreeniyom— I’d never heard the term “feminism” in any language until I was already an adolescent in America.
That moment prompted me to return to the question that had been on my mind since I first met the author Duanwad Pimwana: what does feminism mean in Thailand?
When I began translating Thai literature five years ago, of course I was going to seek out women authors sooner or later, imaging myself at least that much of a feminist. I reached out to various writers and asked: which contemporary women authors would you recommend? When the name of the social realist Duanwad Pimwana came up again and again, I circled it in my notebook. First, I went for the obvious: her SEA Write-Award winner, the book that became Bright in English. I fell in love with the novel, and thoughts of Pimwana being a woman writer and the fact that I had been scouting around for one faded into the background. Then I dove into her various story collections, of which she currently has many more than novels, and a feminist writer emerged in my mind. In between reading the novel and the story collections, however, I had reached out to Pimwana and arranged to meet her in Chonburi, her home province on the eastern seaboard. As she drove me around her neighborhoods past and present in her pickup truck, we chatted about how few female social realist writers there were, and I asked her if she felt that she was a representative for women. “Say yes!” I begged in my head (and this before having read her short stories). She did not oblige. I did not know it then, but I would continue to struggle to make sense of her relationship to Thai feminism for a long time.
Social realism is an influential literary movement among left-leaning writers in Thailand, but one that has been dominated by men from its inception. Pimwana is one of the rare female voices standing shoulder to shoulder with male peers. To me, this fact alone makes her a practitioner of sameness feminism—the feminist approach premised on the idea that men and women are the same for relevant purposes and therefore should be treated alike—and her many stories whose primary concern is class inequality (a theme particularly prominent in her earlier stories, a number of which are included in Arid Dreams) a practice of it. But that is not all: Pimwana has written piles of stories that reflect on the power dynamic between men and women, obliquely or otherwise: the objectification and commodification of women, in particular the value placed on their physical beauty (which some of her female characters use as their bargaining chips), the subordination of wives, and husbands’ callous attitude toward their own adultery and violence are among the issues her writing brings to light. These are all matters that sit easily within the purview of feminism in the West, what I had in mind when I attempted to steer her with my leading question.
But in Thailand Pimwana is not thought of as a feminist writer. Rather, she is called a “genderless” writer because to many her work reads as if it could have been written by a man, a far cry from the romances Thai readers traditionally expect from female authors. What’s more, Pimwana doesn’t self-identify as a feminist, something a person with a more American sense of feminism has to contend with. That the English word “feminism” is in more common usage than the Thai word “satreeniyom” seems to indicate that feminism in the Thai imagination is an imported concept, but one must be careful not to assume that the importation happens wholesale (or that a version of feminism wasn’t already in existence), such that the discourse of American feminism, with its vocabulary and yardsticks of progress, will prove entirely illuminating; it isn’t always helpful to conceive of movements around the world as linear or parallel. In his essay “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Arjun Appadurai proposes viewing the global cultural economy as a “complex, overlapping, disjunctive disorder, which cannot any longer be understood in terms of existing center-periphery models,” with the effect that “forces from various metropolises” do not show up in a new society unaltered but “tend to become indigenized in one way or another.” In the case of Thai feminism, we have a degree of synchronicity with the West in some respects (certain legal rights) but not in others (the cultural understanding of feminism, which affects the lens through which class and structural issues are viewed). Still, the foreign term “feminism” should have tipped me off to at least a certain level of Westernization of the speakers who use it—and with that the concomitant class implications.
Growing up in Thailand in the ‘80s, I thought life as a girl wasn’t too shabby. I took for granted my future right to vote (a mistake, I would later find out, but not on account of my sex), and took as a given my right to an education. I always believed I would have a career outside the home. In my 30s, I beamed with pride when, at a lunch gathering during one of my visits home, my girlfriends from elementary school (not a particularly radical bunch) and I took a poll among ourselves to see who had changed her last name after marriage; most of us had not, and all of us continued to use the prefix “Miss.” These were two new choices allowed to us by law. In 2011, Thailand elected its first female prime minister, a controversial one, but her taking office a milestone nonetheless. The country does seem to be able to tick some feminist boxes. These rights-based benchmarks have partly been how I’ve measured progress, even as I’ve witnessed traditional gender roles being taught and performed at home and in the culture at large.
But my story is, at most, representative of the experience of heterosexual women in Bangkok’s upper or middle class, the kind of women who freely use the English word “feminism” when speaking in Thai. Our numbers, however, are dwarfed by those of our farming- and working-class counterparts, many of whom live outside the capital—and these are the women of Pimwana’s literary world. I had my blind spots to confront. Those feminist victories my friend and I enjoy, like the right to keep our maiden names, are the fortunate products of the movement that has come to define feminism in the Thai public consciousness. It is no accident that Thai women have been accorded certain legal rights, formal, concrete rights we can put our fingers on: these have been the focus of mainstream liberal feminists, women largely like myself. In a speech given at Cornell University in 2003, Virada Somswasdi, founder of the Women’s Studies Program at Chiang Mai University, said of the main Thai women’s movement in the late 1960s: “The campaign, even though [it] contributed greatly [toward] allowing women a better status in society, was seen by many as an outcry of wealthy elitist women whose concerns were vested in personal economic interests… It did not touch upon any societal patriarchal structural problems or gender equality. Nor did it touch upon problems of low-income and rural women.” This lack of inclusivity continues to plague mainstream Thai feminism today. In a blunt 2016 interview with Matichon newspaper, Chanida Chitbundit, director of Thammasat University’s graduate program in women’s studies, stated: “Upper- and middle-class women present their own problems as the problems of all women…The fight that society tends to be aware of is the fight of [these] educated women, which emphasizes legal reform. One can see that Thai laws relating to women are quite advanced, for example, family law, rape law, and laws regarding last names and prefixes.” Chitbundit also pointed out that the political activism of poor women (who, in her ballpark estimate, make up eighty percent of the Thai female population) tends to go unacknowledged as a feminist struggle, even though at the grassroot level, women, more so than men, are the driving force behind efforts against policies that directly threaten the livelihood of their communities, such as those controlling land use and natural-resource allocation that leave farmers landless. As she put it, “Women in the lower class will say, ‘It doesn’t matter whose last name I use, as long as I have enough money to take care of the mouth and stomach, as long as I have land to make a living off of.’”
The Thai phrase “matters of the mouth and stomach” is used to imply or explicitly state that such matters must naturally take precedence, and they form the immediate concerns of many of Pimwana’s characters, in Bright, Arid Dreams and beyond, despite their harboring bigger dreams for their lives. The expression served as my wakeup call: should my gleeful modern-woman moment with my school friends, sitting in an air-conditioned mall, feel like bourgeois frivolousness? I don’t think so, for the legal gains we have made can help establish a framework, but at the same time I’m reminded of the example of post-independence Indian peasants, who, as discussed in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s essay “Europe as a Problem of Indian History,” became participants in the country’s political modernity despite being deemed unready from a historicist perspective. From Chakrabarty, I borrow the idea that we must not look for a woman well-versed in the discourse of (liberal) feminism before we would call her a feminist. We must learn to share the mic with women differently situated than ourselves.
In reading Pimwana, I’ve struggled with mapping: how feminism gets mapped in Thailand, how to map or not map Thai feminism against its Western counterpart. But I’m coming to understand the author’s position better now: when we talk about feminism in Thailand, we largely leave out class concerns, thereby ignoring the main intersectional identity of Thai womanhood: the low-income female. Moreover, structural—as opposed to legal—gender inequality has not been the principal battleground for Thai mainstream feminism. Thus, the term “feminist” as it is generally understood in Thailand does not cover the lion’s share of Pimwana’s work. It is no wonder then that she resists the label. As her translator, I’ve come to view her stance, her work and its local reception as a lesson in Thai feminism, with all the limitations of the term and its possibilities for expansion.