March 8 is always International Women’s Day (IWD). But what people don’t know is that IWD has radical roots, dating back to a 1909 Women’s Day organized by the Socialist Party of America. An annual “special Women’s Day” was designated in March by the International Socialist Woman’s Conference and was celebrated by socialist and communist countries around the world. The United Nations only began celebrating IWD in 1975.
On March 8 this year, the IWD celebrations in Chiang Mai are no less radical – helmed by veteran feminist and LGBTQ activists, they are a proud display of joy, intersectionality, and defiance.
“Our participants include marginalized women, female migrant labourers, LBQ-identifying people, hill-tribe women, people living with HIV, sex workers, and women with disabilities,” said Matcha Phorn-In, a long-time activist and founder of Sangsan Anakot Yawachon Development Project (Sangsan), which provides scholarships and mentorship to stateless youth in Mae Hong Son.
‘Rise, Strike, Equity’ is the theme of the Chiang Mai event, hosted by Sangsan, Young Pride Club, CSOs for Gender Equality and V-Day Thailand.
Although the event sometimes brings as many as 700 participants, the organizers – cautious of Covid-19 – limited participants to 300 this year while also asking their participants to wear masks and monitor their health.
Of the event’s various activities, including speeches and the Women Global Strike protest, perhaps the most joyous is the group dance performed as part of the One Billion Rising campaign to end gender-based violence.
Female migrant workers from across Thailand gathered in Chiang Mai for days before the event to practice, and it was an incredible sight: they cheer, salsa, clap their hands overhead, and embrace one another euphorically. They sing in unison, “We are rising!” and it is electric.
The jubilant solidarity of the dance – its fleeting energy – is born from a space that is supportive and, most importantly, safe.
Yet, by its very transience, it exposes the dangers and tragedies of a real-world in which Thai women and LGBTQ-identifying individuals continue to experience harm.
Key problems in Thailand
Gender-based violence is rampant in Thailand, supported by a culture of normalized sexism. Popular soap operas routinely show rape scenes. It was only in 2016 that the government promulgated a set of guidelines regarding gendered violence in soap operas, and in 2019 and 2020 women are still fighting to drive a broader cultural shift.
“We have normalized gender-based violence, sexual violence, rape like it’s something that can happen everywhere,” Matcha says.
At the same time, “We have no access to the judicial process.”
“There is no system in place for our protection – accurate rape statistics don’t exist.”
A UN study found that 90 per cent of rape cases in Thailand are not reported to the authorities. When victims go to the police, they are turned away, treated with insensitivity, and their reports are refused. The police systematically encourage settlement between victims and perpetrators, directly and indirectly blocking victims from the court process.
This is compounded by a lack of political representation. “Women have very little involvement in the political system at any level, from the local to the national level.” Matcha highlights, “So laws that do get passed do not reflect our voices and needs.”
When asked about the rising prominence of female Future Forward MP Pannika Wanich, who broke the news on the government’s 1MDB scandal, or persistent figures in Thai politics like Sudarat Keyuraphan, Matcha pointed to limited legislative outcomes.
“P. Chor [Pannika] is a role model in politics, but her presence hasn’t led to policies that are intended to solve the problems of gender-based inequality – lack of access to the justice system, lack of access to education. She shows all of us that women are incredibly talented, but it’s not easy for her to stand up there on her own.”
“What we have is representation, but we still don’t have a collective voice that reflects the realities of women.”
Of marginalized women in Thailand, Matcha points out that “women in the LGBTQ community are doubly oppressed.”
“In some families, if parents know that their daughters identify as LBT, they are forced to marry men, which is forcing them to be raped by men. Fathers rape their lesbian daughters. But there is not enough work to solve or understand this problem.”
Sirisak Chited, a queer human rights defender, spoke of their personal experience with stigma against the LGBTQ community.
“In high school, I nearly killed myself. I was suicidal because I was bullied every day. I’ve been shouted at, lining up in front of the flagpole with all the other students. A teacher pointed at me and called me a katoey, shouting, “Don’t act like this, you’re an embarrassment!” It was the talk of the school. And I couldn’t talk my to parents because they didn’t know I was gay.”
They eventually became a prominent LGBTQ activist, pioneering Chiang Mai’s first ‘gay’ pride parade in 2009.
“I organized pride back in 2008, but in 2009 decided to call it ‘gay’ pride – the moment we added the word, we experienced immediate social backlash.”
“We were accused of being yellow shirts by some. Others thought that a ‘gay’ parade meant showing boobs and butts and accused us of desecrating Thai culture. We compromised with these ‘cultural defenders.’ We would have a parade, but it would be within certain limits. We were then opposed by LGBT communities who saw our Chiang Mai pride as a pride parade that wasn’t truly free.”
Nearly 500 people came out in counter-protest, with signs that said “Gays get out! Katoey get out!”
“From 4 pm to 10 pm, they surrounded us. We meditated so there would not be outbursts of violence. We were exhausted. They demanded that we get on our knees and apologize to them, and not host the Chiang Mai gay pride parade for another 1,500 years. In the end, we stood our ground, but agreed to end the parade that evening.”
“In the past, I had been individually victimized. But in 2009, I saw that it was not just me but all of us – all LGBTQ people in that group – who were being deprived of human dignity. After that, I decided to become a human rights activist.”
There are strong legal and cultural barriers to LGBTQ acceptance. Gay marriage is not legalized in Thailand. In universities, there is a strict dress code in which queer students are not able to dress according to their chosen gender. The idea that Thailand is a queer paradise is, Sirisak says, a superficial “myth.”
As of this year, there is a civil partnership law in the making, currently endorsed by the Council of State. If it makes it through Cabinet and parliament, it has the potential to act as a radical signal. But hopes are muted for an unobstructed passage of the law, particularly within Sirisak and Matcha’s activist communities.
Gender oppression traverses class lines – this is particularly true of female migrant labourers. Systematic lack of access to education and economic opportunities has driven women along multiple paths of migration, including the road from Isaan to Pattaya, from the hill-tribes to the cities, from Myanmar to Chiang Mai and from Thailand to Taiwan, Korea, and Israel.
In these instances, Matcha speaks of a different kind of double oppression – one in which women are forced into specific kinds of work along this migration path.
Sex work is a prominent example, with Isaan women staffing bars and brothels in Pattaya and Chiang Mai. No laws exist to protect sex workers, while the government and Thai society continue to reap benefits in the form of sex tourism.
Military government and future
The crisis of gender, sexuality, and class are linked with the crisis of government.
“The military system is a system of male dominance and it reinforces a patriarchal society,” declares Matcha. “The moment they came to power, the budget has been redirected to weapons, submarines. Money that should go to education, health care, improving society – things that women can benefit from – have disappeared from the system.”
While the government may have turned away from gender issues, Matcha, Sirisak and a growing number of feminist and LGBTQ activists in Thailand continue to do the important work.
Matcha’s own work with stateless youth has seen her mentor young indigenous women who went on to graduate from university and return to their communities as teachers or NGO officers. Sirisak was recently at the National Human Rights Commission advocating for LGBTQ-identifying individuals to be able to donate blood.
Ultimately, however, private actions will never be permanent solutions for systematic problems.
In Sirisak’s words, “The state has to change its attitude to policymaking. We are not making extravagant demands – we are asking for basic, fundamental rights.”