Feminism in the Asia Pacific

Dominic Harvey-Taylor

PHOTO: From left: Prof. Margaret Jolly, Prof. Jane Golley, Myjolynne Kim, Claire McBride-Kelly and Dr Ruth Barraclough. (Photo by: Kai Clark)

Society and culture | Asia, East Asia, Pacific

15 August 2017

What is feminism? For many, the imagined idea of what feminism looks like is strongly associated with the more publicised feminist movements of the West. However, feminism is a global phenomenon encompassing a diverse range of ideals, campaigns and pathways towards women’s empowerment and greater equality between genders.

On Monday evening, 14 August 2017, the ANU College of Asia Pacific Student Society hosted a panel discussing how feminism has manifested itself within the Asia and Pacific region.

Professor Jane Golley, Deputy Director of the Australian Centre in the World at ANU, was the first speaker on the panel and began by examining gender inequality in China from an economic perspective.

One of the greatest issues faced by China is its massively skewed population ratio – 117 men to 100 women. This imbalance is due to a combination of a historical preference for male heirs, the recent technological advancement of ultrasound, allowing doctors to differentiate gender before birth, and the ‘squeeze’ effect of the one child policy.

Professor Golley’s research primarily focuses on the unequal opportunities faced by those in rural areas compared to urban, but her data supports that there is clearly inequality of opportunity between men and women as well. In terms of income, being male is associated with 0.51 per cent more income compared to women in the same age bracket.

The Chinese government has introduced some policy to deter discrimination towards women, however there is a long way to go to overcome the 3000 years of preference for men. Professor Golley concluded by asking what we would do if we were in the position of Xi Jinping, and offered the suggestion that the path to more equal income and freedom might come from a greater push for women’s education.

Following on from this, Professor Margaret Jolly, a historical anthropologist with a particular focus on gender and sexuality, discussed how feminism and feminisms in the Pacific are quite distinct from the brand of feminism found elsewhere.  Many Pacific island women don’t call themselves feminists due to the negative Western connotations. Instead, feminist movements are often interconnected with anti-colonial and anti-military movements, interceding strongly with religion amongst other factors.

Professor Jolly emphasised that in many Pacific islands, such as Vanuatu, the Church has often framed the feminist movements. When Christian conversion first came to the islands, there was a strong rhetoric of ‘salvation’ – saving women from lives of hard manual labour and male dominance. This process of ‘salvation’ has not been entirely successful as many women such hard labour is a source of pride and value. Women’s Christian groups in recent decades have served as focal point for empowerment movements.

Last year the inaugural Pacific Feminist Forum was held in Suva, indicating that the idea of ‘feminism’ is becoming more mainstream in the Pacific islands.

Professor Jolly concluded by asking some thought provoking questions about what Australia’s role is in promoting these feminist movements. Do we still have the maternalistic attitude of ‘saving our sisters’ in the Pacific? How does Australia foreign policy and development aid in empowering women? She argued that our approach gives too much importance to women representation in parliament, and doesn’t pay much attention to women occupying non-commodity economic roles, or the power of religious organisations.

The third speaker on the panel, Myjolynne Kim spoke of her feminist perspective as a woman from Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia. Chuuk is a matriarchal society. Women are the custodians of indigenous knowledge, they are the principal land owners and groups of high ranking women are responsible for electing the chief.

The 21st Century has brought on a weakening of the matriarchal system, issues of environmental change and greater militarisation of the Pacific. Colonialisation has given political power to the men, and so for Ms Kim, feminism means “regaining women’s leadership that is mandated to them from their ancestry” as well as the “maternal responsibility to take care of the land the surroundings.” She echoed the suggestion that greater education is the way forward, and argued that education about domestic violence and women’s rights starts at home.

Dr Ruth Barraclough concluded the panel discussion by highlighting the research that some of ANU’s top academics are doing relating to feminism. She made the point that, “we don’t have a school of feminism, but feminism is threaded throughout the university.”

Dr Barraclough discussed her own research interests in the feminism movement in Korea, in both the North and South. Her current research project is looking into the historical North Korean feminist elite. Women played a critical role in the North Korean revolution and when the DPRK initially formed, it introduced some of the most progressive laws at the time such as free divorce and greater representation of women in the first Cabinet.  This is a relatively untold feminist history, and there is are many questions to be answered of what has happened to these feminists under the contemporary regime.

Dr Barraclough finished, stating that “Feminism has a long genealogy, it doesn’t have hierarchies,” and most importantly, “Feminism is something where generations can inspire each other”.

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